Women Savers Meet in Bolivia

by James Tayler

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI Secretariat

Part I — Bolivia: New Freedoms in the Home of the Bolivarian Dream

Though named after the liberator of much of South America, Simón Bolivar, many consider Bolivia to have achieved real freedom only with the election of Evo Morales as president in 2006. Morales, a former trade unionist, is the first leader of the continent’s poorest country to be of indigenous descent. Now in the throes of a pitched re-election campaign, the country is coming to terms with the promise and reality of the Morales era. Many poor people have flocked to the fast-growing cities in the western region of the country, the heartland of much of Bolivia’s indigenous culture. This region comprises much of Morales’ political base. The growth of service industries in cities, the persistent poverty of rural areas, and the decline of formerly strong industries, like mining, are proving to be powerful forces attracting many to move to urban areas in Bolivia.

Urbanization there has brought with it the attendant difficulties that affect most cities in the developing world: Vast, dense tracts of informal settlements, lack of access to proper infrastructure and development for the cities’ poorest inhabitants, and local and national government authorities that struggle to deliver solutions to the problems of urban poverty in ways that empower the citizenship and dignity of the ordinary poor people these politicians claim to represent.

Still, Morales’ election and first term has brought a measure of hope and optimism to urban dwellers. Rosemary Irusta is a leader of Habitat Para La Mujer, Maria Auxiliadora, a community in Cochabamba based around communal savings and ownership of all housing and infrastructure. She had a typical take on the change in perceptions that many poor people have towards the government, at least at its highest political levels. “We respect this government. It is good,” she said. “But we have problems at the local level.”

4 November — Cochabamba: informal land in the “Water Wars” battleground

From 3 November to 7 November, leaders of the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP) in South Africa and leaders of savings schemes in Brazil, visited three cities in Bolivia as part of an exchange arranged through Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI) alliance. Both FEDUP and the Brazilian savers are affiliated to SDI. The exchange visit was coordinated by Maria Eugenia Torrico, an academic and community organizer based in Cochabamba. She has been providing technical support to communities in both Cochabamba and the nearby mining town of Oruro that are mobilizing themselves to solve their own problems. The primary goal of the exchange, according to Torrico, was to see how the work already being done at the community level in Bolivia could fit into the grassroots-based, scalable methodologies of SDI affiliated federations throughout what has been called the Global South. In Chochabamba and Oruro, Torrico also brought a leader of a community in Oruro named Clotilde Lopez.

The visit began in Cochabamba, which Torrico described as the most developed city in the country, as well the most unequal. Half of the city’s residents live in informal dwellings, and only one fifth of the population has regular access to water. In 2000, Cochabamba was ground zero of what has been referred to as the “Water Wars.” The city has long struggled to provide proper water infrastructure for all its inhabitants. In 2000, based on a World Bank recommendation — some might say it was more an instruction rather than a recommendation — the Bolivian government moved to privatize the water supply. After violent protests, community leaders took over from a multinational company that had won the tender to run the city’s water supply. These leaders run the parastatal water company, SEMAPA, as a cooperative, but the water supply is still a big problem in the city. The poor can routinely pay up to ten times the price that the rich pay for water, as they are not connected to the formal water supply infrastructure.

The southern part of the city is entirely informal. And given the large numbers of people moving to Cochabamba — Torrico cited the growth of service jobs as a main factor for the city’s growth — the southern boundaries are encroaching northwards in the popular understanding of this border. Almost all of the land is privately-owned and much is designated for agriculture despite its evident lack of suitability for such purposes. Dust and rocks are omnipresent on the hilly landscape in this side of the city.


In the ninth district of Cochabamba, Irusta’s Comunidad Maria Auxiladora stands out amid the unfinished, relative mansions families receiving remittances from relatives who have emigrated are building in incremental fashion. One million people have emigrated since 2004, and remittances are a major part of the economic calculations made by many ordinary Bolivians. Remittances also have a strong effect on the social fabric of the country. On a public bus from Cochabamba to Oruro, I spoke with a man who complained bitterly about the “traitors” who go abroad to live as “slaves.” Torrico suggested to me that this is a not atypical view.

Irusta, along with her husband Margín, and a few other families, started Maria Auxiliadora in 1999 as a response to persistent domestic violence in their communities. They soon came to the conclusion that housing was a determining factor in the culture surrounding domestic violence. They began to buy land and form community associations around a traditional form of Bolivian communal savings called pasanaku. The leadership structure emphasizes gender as a key factor in community stability. Both the president and vice-president of the community must be women, and these positions must rotate. Eventually they started to build houses and also began to focus on servicing these stands. They secured an arrangement with local authorities by which the finance for these servicing projects was split equally between the community and the government.

Communal land ownership and leadership has been a mixed experience for the Maria Auxiliadora community. Because all of the land, houses, and infrastructure are under collective ownership of the community, they face particularly strong difficulties in securing credit for projects. Similarly, they have trouble accessing the benefits of government-run social programs. To get a government subsidy one also needs to secure a loan, which requires individually-owned assets. Though the national government is working on a new national housing policy, Maria Auxiliadora feels unrecognized in the deliberations. “Neither the central government nor the local government understands our proposal,” Irusta said. “So they just ignore us.” The regulations of the community include a ban on the sale of alcohol, and the transference of any property rights to women in the case of divorce. Every Sunday, the community works on a given project that they have prioritized and they hold a community assembly.

The community does not all live on the land that they have bought. Rosemary and Margín Bellot have still not moved to this area — they live in another informal house in the south side of Cochabamba. 248 families will eventually live on the plots of land purchased by the Maria Auxiliadora community, but they only move in a few at a time. In addition to community members themselves, two NGOs have also helped construct houses for the community.

As part of the exchange meeting, Nomvula Mahlangu of FEDUP emphasized the need for organizing daily savings collection schemes. Claudia Bento, a Brazilian saving scheme leader demonstrated how this is done in Brazil, and encouraged community members to take a look at the savings booklet developed with a support NGO called Interaçao. Community leaders seemed interested and excited by the possibilities of daily savings. After Ana Paula Barreto of Interaçao suggested that the community could start with an enumeration, Rosemary said that they had already conducted a census but had not yet processed their data.

Those from the community who attended the exchange meeting appeared excited when hearing about how SDI methodologies have worked in both Brazil and South Africa. Given the frustrations that the community has had in dealing with local authorities, Mahlangu’s description of the relationship that FEDUP has with the South African department of human settlements was particularly intriguing.


Elsewhere on the southern side of the city stands a 15-year-old government housing project called Calicanto. Of 600 houses developed by the government, only 300 are occupied. Half of these houses are occupied by renters. Torrico has been in touch with the secretary of gender in the community leadership structure concerning the possibility of conducting an enumeration. Though a government project, the houses are built on private land. The planning of the project appears to have been near non-existent. The only public space in the community is a cemetery.


A community called 20 de Octubre epitomized the boomtown atmosphere of Cochamba’s southern region when we visited on 4 November. At least five different houses were being built as we walked up the steep hill on which the settlement rests. While we waited for a meeting with a group of women who have been working to improve their community, I wandered off to examine some of the ongoing construction. I spoke with Francisco Aguada who was building a house with the help of two friends. They had been working for the two past weeks He hoped to be done by the middle of November to move in with three of his cousins. Almost houses in informal settlements in Bolivia are built with cheap brick material. Aguada said that the cost for 1200 bricks was about 1450 Bolivianos (US$200).

The women who live in 20 de Octubre complain bitterly about sexism in the community. When Mahlangu mentioned to them the possibility of visiting South Africa one day as part of a future exchange, the Bolivian women responded with surprise. For them, they said, it is a challenge to convince their husbands to allow them to meet as a group down the hill, let alone halfway across the world.

These women save and pursue small community improvement projects with the support of a small group of nuns. These include putting up lights and building roads. On the latter project, the community managed to convince local authorities to provide the necessary machinery. They have legal status as a community-based organization, and have committees on health and female empowerment. Jordana Przybyl, a nun supporting the community who also lives there, suggested that the rapid growth of 20 de Octubre has not allowed for the kind of social fabric that would allow for communal responsibility for infrastructure there. “The first thing for us here is for women to leave the kitchen,” she said. Given the need for women empowerment, Mahlangu suggested that an exchange with the Maria Auxiliadora community could help provide an alternative example to these women.

5 November — Oruro: Mobilizing for infrastructure, between the devil and the lord

The patron of the mines in Oruro is the devil. Given the traditional pre-eminence of mining as the raison d’être of the town, it is unsurprising that Oruro’s central traditional ritual carnival honors the devil. Though the decline of jobs in the mining industry due to automation has reduced the town’s population, those who remain have moved increasingly closer to the city. Urbanization is therefore a rapidly intensifying trend. It is here, Torrico’s hometown, that we encountered a strong set of women-led communities, already looking toward pursuing projects beyond the community level.


Clotilde Lopez’s community, known as Nuevos Horizontes, is made up of people who came from primarily rural areas about twenty years ago. Clotilde took over from a former president who had been considered ineffectual. She found out about a government program for upgrading poor communities. The national government contributed 70% and 30% came from municipal authorities. Each of the 144 families in the community now has its own toilet, as well as wash basins that are shared communally. The community, which had been saving, primarily based on the traditional pasanaku system, was able to contribute to building roads. This encouraged the government to service the site where this community resides. All the houses were built through individual savings as well, along with help from the Inter-American Development Bank.

The community of Taruma Juan Lechín, named after a hero of the mine workers, Nuevos Horizontes, and another community have worked together to build a community center inTaruma Juan Lechín that they all use. Most of the women present at the smaller Nuevos Horizontes meeting also attended the gathering at Taruma Juan Lechín. At a meeting of close to 100 people, punctuated by performances of traditional dance by community children, leaders shared their experiences and listened to those of the leaders from Brazil and South Africa. Here, community members had many questions about how SDI savings scheme function in practice.

Many examined the savings books from Brazil and South African. Though the South Africans required translation help, they were keen to share the insights. Sebastiana Camacho, age 72, has been living in Taruma Juan Lechín for the past seven years. “I want to learn their language to share with them,” she told me after the meeting. “Saving is very important. To save like this we will be able to achieve many things.


A third communityUrbanización de Aurora, is a prime example of the traditional practice of pasanaku. Similar to traditional savings schemes in many countries, such as stokvel in South Africa, this community saves weekly to spend on different priorities determined by the scheme in a given month. At the end of the year, all unspent funds revert to the donors. The group will give out small loans from the savings, and also participates in occasional exchanges with other pasanaku groups in the city.

Mahlangu told the members of the savings scheme in Urbanización de Aurora, called Grupo Femenino Virgen del Socavón, that the similarities with the traditional practice of stokvelsavings in South Africa was a promising base for more developed savings practices. “To me, this feels like South Africa, seeing what you are doing here, she said. The group appeared to have a keen understanding of savings, and engaged in a focused discussion about the technical aspects of savings as practiced by SDI-affiliated groups in both Brazil and South Africa.


The various community groups in Oruro that are led by women have begun organizing at the city level. Currently this seems to be more on the order of exchange rather than coordinating specific projects together. The Women Leaders of Oruro, as they are known, have gathered now for 12 years and include leaders from Nuevos Horizontes, Juan Lechín, andUrbanización de Aurora. Torrico has supported these exchange activities, and the group has registered and obtained legal status as a community-based organization. After meeting and dining with this group, the SDI visitors were treated to a performance of traditional Bolivian music performed by a talented group of young men who called themselves Grupo Sin Límites, the group without limits.

6 November — La Paz: New bureaucrats and a new agenda for housing reform

The exchange in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, was not with communities, but was aimed at learning — and perhaps influencing — ongoing developments in the country’s housing policy. Instead the SDI group first met with representatives from the Foro Permanente de la Vivienda (FOPEVI) — Permanent Forum on Housing — to learn about an enduring convergence of community-based leaders, NGOs, academics, policy-makers and other stakeholders to develop a new housing policy for the country. The forum began in 1996.

“When we started we could not have dreamed that we would have a kind of president like Evo Morales,” said Annelise Melendez, a professional supporting the work of FOPEVI. The forum was initiated during a time when there was no proper policy about housing in Bolivia, according to Melendez. Houses were generally constructed in a self-managed process with little attention from the government, particularly at the central level. A key breakthrough for the forum came when they won their fight for the inclusion of the right to housing in the new constitution passed at the beginning of 2009. Now, Melendez said, FOPEVI is focused on developing ways that the government can implement the kind of policies that can breathe life into this new right.

The forum held a two-year series of meetings to develop a draft policy for the government to adopt. These are documented meticulously as an appendix to the draft policy that FOPEVI published with a wide dissemination strategy. This included paying for the placement of an abridged version in major newspapers. FOPEVI has also developed a Bolivian housing index to keep track of major indicators related to housing issues. For many of the involved CBOs, the key is to develop ways to empower women when it comes to housing. “Even with or without Evo Morales, women — and especially poor women — will face great difficulties. That is why we want a women’s movement,” said Paulina Laredo Vargas, one of the community leaders involved in the development of the FOPEVI draft housing policy.


Though the final public meeting of the exchange took place in the office of the vice-minister of housing, the vice-minister was not present. Instead, Alberto Calla Garcia, the director general of housing in the national government, chaired the meeting. Calla Garcia had previously been an academic architect who had worked closely with Torrico and others through FOPEVI. Now that the right to housing has been passed, he said, the real work has begun. He emphasized his interest in continuing a participatory process of policy development and implementation that would include consultation through FOPEVI, NGOs and academic institutions. The important thing, he said, is that policies must come from the bottom upwards.

The key aspects of the housing policy, now in its technical and implementation phases, were what he described as: sovereignty, land, economy and jobs, technical assistance, technology, and research. He noted that an issue will be contending with the role of market forces in housing, and is looking at the possibility of developing a government land bank and creative sources for housing finance. Though the country faces an official housing backlog of 300,000 units, he described the current outlook as “favorable”: “We have cooperation from the people. This policy came from the people and not the government. We are also in a time of change. Peaceful change,” he said, referring to the perceived quiet revolution of the Morales presidency. “There is a political will to fulfill this policy … It is the character of our country. We have a long history of very strong social movements.”

He also referred to “international synergy” on the development of housing policy. He participated in an international workshop on housing policy the week prior to our visit and has a relationship with Cid Blanco of the Brazilian government. He was clearly interested and at least somewhat aware already of SDI’s work. He kept his attentive staff in the meeting beyond 5 pm, when the rest of the government office building had begun closing down. He was keen to exchange contact details and defer incoming calls as the meeting progressed and leaders from Brazilian and South African federations shared their experiences, particularly regarding partnerships with governments in the respective countries.


Later that evening, as the delegates from Brazil and South Africa prepared to depart for Brazil, Torrico asked that everyone join in for a feedback session on the exchange. Barreto said she was impressed by the good networks that already appear to exist within communities, particularly in Oruro, and between communities and government. According to Torrico, the meeting with Calla Garcia and his staff in the department of housing was fruitful in that it opened up space for Torrico to submit additional proposals for the housing policy currently under development. This room, she said, could allow for the development of regular working group meetings between various stakeholders and the national government around housing policy and its implementation. All agreed that documentation of these engagements, as well as engagements within and between communities would be a key aspect of promoting the development of SDI-type methodologies in Bolivia.

When Kwanele Sibanda, from the support NGO called Community Organization Resource Centre in South Africa, suggested that Torrico could consider registering as a legal NGO in order to obtain additional funds that might not otherwise be available for her work, she responded that she needs to clarify this issue on two levels. Sibanda said that the communities, particularly the more developed savings and self-help schemes in Oruro could serve as an initial board to manage such an NGO. Most importantly for her is the need for such a move to emanate from the priorities determined by the communities that she is supporting. She has been working on a voluntary basis, and described her own trepidation about approaching communities as a full-fledged NGO. Furthermore, she wants to discuss this issue further with SDI, as both sides evaluate the progress of the work ongoing in Bolivia.

Torrico said that though she was currently unsure which groups most needed her support from a constructive standpoint, this visit had allowed her to decide which groups she would avoid. This is particularly the case for the community of Maria Auxiliadora, which has a questionable leadership structure and development plan. In terms of encouraging savings schemes more along the lines of the SDI methodology, she intends to focus on developing the roles of treasurers in the communities in which she works. In terms of her support role, she said that she most wants to help facilitate exchanges between communities at the city and national level, as well as initiating enumerations within given communities.


The work taking place in Bolivia goes beyond isolated traditional savings schemes. In Oruro, a strong group of women has joined together to begin working at the city level. There, the women were particularly interested in the kinds of experiences the delegates from Brazil and South Africa could related about working in such a way. Networks already exist to partner with different stakeholders, including at least some senior government officials. The goal will be to figure out ways for linked communities to develop concrete, actionable priorities, mobilize around their own resources, and leverage additional support for these priorities from the greater network of housing stakeholders. It is a story that is ongoing throughout the SDI network. In Bolivia, there is great promise for communities to take the lead, at scalable levels, in a unique political moment.

Part II — Brazil: Samba and Savings

Though the primary focus of the exchange in early November was to support and learn from the Bolivian process, the South Africans spent another full day in two different settlements near Sao Paulo. A large meeting in Osasco brought together a number of neighboring communities. The meeting took place in a brand new community center that has not even been officially opened. The center is part of a large government housing development that was leveraged through saving schemes in the settlement. The development will house 600 families in double storey units, and 242 of these families are active savers.

The government attention to the settlement was not always forthcoming, said Alex Sandro Moraes Da Silva, a leader in the Osasco community. “It’s not because our president flew over our city and said, ‘Oh, let’s work in that community.’” Rather, the community was able to get the city government to commit matching funds for community savings to begin funding the development. Later, the authorities ratcheted up their investment further. The multi-storey design was initiated by the municipality. “There was an architect design,” said Ana Claudia Rossbach, director of Interaçao. “It was discussed with [the community], but it was a professional design.”

In his speech to the assembled, community member Gillson Santos referred often to actions initiated by the NGO. “The proposal that the NGO came with was for us to organize around savings and enumeration,” he said. Though clearly proud of the achievements of his community in Osasco, he referred often to NGO-driven mobilization strategies, even if they ultimately centered on community participation and leadership.

Moraes Da Silva implicitly addressed this point in his remarks. “We have to learn how to say what we want and not just let government decide for us,” he said. He cautioned that once community members were in a house their work did not end. This has already been an issue. Once the community realized that they did not need to use their savings to build the actual houses — the government had agreed to subsidize the construction and services on a given site — it decided to use savings to finish the walls and extend the houses. Mahlangu shared the South African experience of working with government through what is called the People’s Housing Process, as a means of comparing the work going on in the two countries.

Though not all communities in attendance had savings schemes, much of the meeting was used to discuss problems that they have within the savings schemes. Two women treasurers from a savings scheme in the community of Jardim Aliança told of being defrauded by the one male treasurer in their scheme. Savings scheme leaders also promoted the use of Interaçao-branded savings scheme booklets. The common logo, they argued identifies groups in the states of Sao Paulo and Penambuco as being part of the same drive towards federation at the national level.


The day ended with an unplanned visit to Vila Real. The delegates from South Africa already knew a couple community members as both Inés Ferreira and Claudia Bento, who traveled to Bolivia, live there. The invitation was so unusual that it seemed to surprise the staff of Interaçao. Nevertheless, the otherwise-exhausted South African delegates accepted the invitation with great enthusiasm.

The community in Vila Real is highly organized. Savings schemes there began in 2005, and community members have managed to use their own savings to convince the government to expand a mooted project for development of roads and other infastructure. They are also using savings to build and upgrade their houses. Eli Santana, a treasurer for a savings scheme in Vila Real, said that the strategy goes beyond housing. “We are not just a savings group. We are working with all of the problems in the community. And that allows us to bring these problems to the municipality,” she said. The savers in Vila Real have gone a number of exchanges to other places in both states of Sao Paulo and Penambuco and are one of the key groups pushing towards federation at the national level.


The visit to Vila Real was undoubtedly a highlight in the personal experience of the trip for everyone. The South African delegates remarked that they wished the visit had been planned so that we could have stayed with the community that night, generally a highly instructive aspect of SDI exchange. Visits to the many pagode (a style of samba music) bars, races through the streets, chats with community members, a feast of traditional Brazilian food, and sharing of dances and songs between the South Africans and Brazilians capped off the final night of the exchange.