Map of Buenaventura
The city of Buenaventura is in the Colombian state (departamento) of Valle del Cauca; the population is 350,000, with a density of 150 inhabitants per square mile (52 inhabitants per square kilometer). Most of the urban area is located on Cascajal Island, at its western edge. Eighty-five percent of the population is of African descent and the rest are descendants of European settlers or indigenous tribes.
The capital of Valle del Cauca, Cali, is the nearest large city to Buenaventura. Most of the cargo that arrives at the port of Buenaventura is taken directly to Cali for distribution. The 77-mile trip usually takes more than four hours due to the mountainous terrain of the Andes.
Road from Cali to Buenaventura
With rail freight making up only one percent of the cargo shipped through Buenaventura’s port, more than one thousand trucks cross the Western Range of the Colombian Andes every day, transporting goods between Buenaventura and Cali. A major civil engineering project is currently underway to widen the road so that cargo can arrive and depart Buenaventura faster and more safely. Although the Colombian military routinely patrols the road, safety remains elusive. When the authors were in Buenaventura, researching this article, guerrilla forces confronted military units, killing and kidnapping innocent bystanders. Locals suggest that guerrillas sometimes mount attacks along the road in order to preoccupy security forces precisely when narco-traffickers plan to move shipments out from the coast.
Port of Buenaventura
Buenaventura's port is one of the largest in Colombia, responsible for handling two-thirds of Colombia’s coffee and a large percentage of sugar and petroleum exports. The port is managed by the Sociedad Portuaria Regional de Buenaventura SA, a private company owned by organizations from cities throughout Colombia. Critics complain that this corporate structure results in the transfer of profits from the port to commercial centers such as Bogota and Cali, bypassing the local economy; the port authority counters that the city of Buenaventura has a 15 percent stake in the company and receives revenue of US$5 million annually. The presence of the port is nearly ubiquitous. In some neighborhoods, the slow drift of container-laden ships forms a moving backdrop to the life of the city, a muted juxtaposition of the flow of global commerce just beyond Buenaventura's everyday urbanism of survival.
Port of Buenaventura: Infrastructure
Ship-to-shore mobile gantry cranes are part of the port's heavy infrastructure. A typical ship carries 30,000 tons of cargo, and the average turn-around time for unloading and loading is 16 hours per ship, depending on the type of cargo and size of vessel.
Port of Buenaventura: Colombian Coffee
Given its throughput, the port is the center of gravity for the local economy. Although 2,000 people work in the port every day, the majority are non-permanent hires (similar to day laborers). Many more jobs are created in the secondary commercial sectors which support port activity.
Interview with Emilse Sugey Camacho Mosquera, Secretary of Rural Economic Development, Buenaventura, conducted by Quilian Riano and Dk Osseo-Asare in Buneaventura's City Hall on September 8, 2009
QR+DO-A: How would you describe the relationship between the city of Buenaventura and its Port?
ESCM: The port does not communicate with City Hall. Buenaventura should be an important city — but the government and port do not want to distribute the port's profits for development. The port, generally, turns its back toward the city.
QR+DO-A: What about the new road that's being built from Cali to Buenaventura? Will it help the people in Buenaventura?
ESCM: The road is just to get the goods in and out faster and more efficiently. It won't really affect the daily life of Buenaventurans.
QR+DO-A: What economic potentials do you see in Buenaventura’s future?
ESCM: The real potential lies in attracting tourism. Domestic and international tourists come to visit the pristine beaches to our north, but do not come to the city. We need to find ways to make them want to stay in Buenaventura.
QR+DO-A: Why would a tourist want to stay here? What makes it interesting or unique?
ESCM: We are renowned in the country for our traditional music and gastronomy, especially the great seafood that comes from the surrounding sea. In the next few weeks, we are going to have a national gastronomical conference, located on our prettiest beaches. We also have some beautiful natural areas with unique flora and fauna.
QR+DO-A: What is the largest economic engine in Buenaventura?
ESCM: The port is the largest formal employer. However, 70 percent of the city’s economy runs informally, outside the taxation system. Remittances from abroad are about 10 percent of the local economy.
The city center is very dense, with many opportunities for small shops and businesses on the ground floors of buildings.
Buenaventura Center: Urban Corner
At the level of the street, formal and informal economies, and social practices and micro-architectures interact to create a complex urban environment.
Buenaventura Center: Urban Fruit Stands
Buenaventura may not be an ideal city, but it has a dynamic street life.
Just outside Buenaventura’s port and city center, wooden shacks built on stilts make up informal communities suspended above the beach. These comunas seem to sprout almost overnight, constructed haphazardly by people displaced from rural villages by Colombia’s on-going civil war. The shacks are unsafe and are provided with no public services.
Official statistics list the comunas' population as 83 percent unemployed, while 63 percent of those with jobs earn less than US$250 per month. Residents explain that they make their living in the informal economy, especially fishing and associated industries. However, there are those in Buenaventura, as well as in Bogota and even in Washington, D.C., who view the comunas’ seaside location, informal construction, and lack of security as ideal conditions for drug-trafficking and other illicit activities.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3
Much like the ghettoes in the United States or favelas in Brazil — at least in common perception — the comunas are infamous for their violence. The reality is actually more complicated, but there are in fact criminal organizations in the comunas that seek to protect their business interests and to halt the spread of detailed, nuanced information. To be able to visit Comuna 3, we had to cooperate with a local youth organization. But even with an escort from the community, there were sections of the neighborhood that were, we were told, out of bounds because they lack even minimal police protection. Even in the "safer" sections of the comuna, we were constantly followed and closely watched by young men who were not part of our group — to the surprise of even our escorts.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Military Police Station
The section of Comuna 3 we visited was relatively safe, thanks to the security infrastructure built in the last few years. In the space of just a few blocks, one can find an army barracks, a military police station, and a reinforced position for the Colombian marines.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Construction
Most of what is now Comuna 3 was ocean a decade ago. As in the earlier slides, the older houses here were built on stilts in the water. Little by little the spaces between houses were filled with improvisational landfill — garbage and dirt— and then the same fillling-in processes were repeated for the house foundations. But many houses that appear to be built on and supported by land are actually still suspended above water — the stilts are just less obvious.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Materials
The houses vary a lot, since the inhabitants use whatever materials are available. Here we see two extremes. The house on the left is built with the most inexpensive materials around, while the house on the right is built using cast-in-place concrete with classical motifs.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Economy
Similar to the rest of Buenaventura, Comuna 3 has many small ground-floor shops. Some, like the one pictured above, sell prepaid credits for mobile phones.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Open Spaces
Life in the comuna happens out-of-doors, to a large degree. Open spaces are not formalized, but some left-over spaces have been turned into pocket parks and many houses have porches.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Wharves
The comunas usually end on informal wharves used by the local fishing industry. Because the same wharves are also used to smuggle drugs and contraband, they are intensely monitored by military personnel. Directly opposite the houses in the above image is a heavily fortified outpost for an anti-narcotics unit of the Colombian armed forces.
Buenaventura’s Comuna 3: Wharves
Moving the Comunas
There is currently a US$30 million plan to move most of the current inhabitants of Comunas 3 and 4 off Cascajal Island and almost seven miles inland. The project is managed from Cali by COMFANDI, a public agency charged with helping families in the state of Valle del Cauca. COMFANDI is collaborating on the project’s architecture and urban planning with the University of the Pacific, Buenaventura. COMFANDI is also working with USAID via the firm Agriculture and Rural Development, a subsidiary of Tetra-Tech, one of the largest U.S. government contractors. ARD and USAID have set up a program under the Spanish acronym MIDAS, which translates as More Investment for Alternative Sustainable Development. Previous efforts to relocate residents of the comunas failed because they ignored existing social networks and offered no replacements for lost fishing jobs. The new MIDAS-funded project includes a 3.5-mile water connection to the sea for fishing boats (the narrow waterway allows for improved counter-narcotic surveillance), and participants also receive new job training and are employed in the construction of their new communities.
From the left, civil engineer Albornoz Monyoma, architect Maria Cecilia Ramirez Garcia, and architect Maria Elena Lopez Tenorio are coordinating the project for COMFANDI.
Regional Planning of New Development
The new project aims to relocate over 15,000 people in 3,400 households. The master plan includes not only 25 townhouse communities, but also zoning for civic institutions such as a vocational school, a fishing wharf and collectively owned green spaces.
Phase I Masterplan
The first phase consists of 1,000 houses. The MIDAS program provides job training for 800 individuals who will live in the new homes. The central road runs along a ridge with adjacent buildings for community programming and houses stepping down the topography on either side.
The University of the Pacific team designed and built a prototype of two units of attached housing, so that the community could experience them and offer feedback. (In the words of the architects, they built "a full-scale model.") The design team sought to avoid the "messiness" of self-built accretion that often occurs as residents add wings or floors to basic housing — ironically, this same kind of "messiness" often intrigues architects and urbanists who study informal communities. The concept calls for the house to serve as a constructed "envelope" within which inhabitants can cheaply remodel their individual interiors. The houses are made from affordable materials and use passive cooling techniques as well as rainwater collection.
House Prototype: Construction
The house has a structural frame of cast-in-place concrete. Windows are simple openings with wood-slat shutters; some of the shutters are fixed, others are operable, typically on eccentric vertical pin hinges. Roofs are constructed of metal sheets laid on cross beams; at mid point there is a single timber truss. This approach allows inhabitants to control daylight, and encourages continuous passive ventilation (both cross ventilation and vertically, from the stack effect), thus precluding the need for more expensive glass windows.
House Prototype: Ground Floor
After visiting and discussing the model houses, the community reached consensus that people preferred a waterproof facade treatment that provided greater privacy and security. The final design replaces the wood slat construction with brick infill and conventional wood-framed glass windows. The resulting aesthetic compromise demonstrates a commitment to participatory design as part of the planning process, while maintaining certain fundamentals of the design concept: the airy interior and partial upstairs floor anticipate future expansion within the building envelope.
House Prototype: Ground Floor
House Prototype: Upper Level
Railings at the edges of the upstairs floor are designed to give way to new rooms, as over time residents expand the above-grade floor areas.
House Prototype: Upper Level
Thoughts on the Future Growth of Buenaventura
Buenaventura is now at a pivotal moment. The City Hall and Chamber of Commerce already have plans to build a malecon, or beach-front esplanade, once people relocate from the land currently occupied by the comunas. Officials hope this new public space will encourage more hotel construction, strengthening the local tourism industry and associated tax revenue. Currently Buenaventura has only a couple of hotels, and most tourists bypass the city completely, heading instead to nearby ecological preserves. The relocated households will be compensated with new and better housing and services. Authorities also hope that an engineered waterfront will make Buenaventura’s shores easier to police, reducing drug trafficking and related violent crime.
This sort of effort to formalize the city appears to be a win-win scenario — until one considers that the relocated community will be geographically remote from existing infrastructure and city center jobs. The proposed relocation distances citizens not only from familiar settings but also from the employment opportunities and commercial networks that support their traditions and ways of living. Commercial fishing will prove more difficult and more expensive, given that the new wharves will be located almost 4 miles from the ocean. The move inland will also mean a loss of individuality: the new single-family, suburban-style houses will all look identical from the exterior. Despite the good intentions on the part of the architects and bureaucrats who designed the project, there is the real and troubling possibility that the new development will become an economic ghetto, a community on the periphery of the periphery, and consequently all too easy to ignore.
Yet the comunas cannot remain as they are now, endangered by inadequate infrastructure and criminal activity. Perhaps some solutions to Buenaventura’s troubles might be found in another infamous Colombian city: Medellin. There city officials decided that razing the comunas and moving citizens into shiny new ghettos was not the answer. Instead they deployed what you might call urban acupuncture, strategically upgrading slums and adding infrastructure. In one case the city commissioned Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti to design a new library and community center for the comunas high up on the hills surrounding Medellin. The area around the library was transformed into a plaza, allowing the city to outfit nearby homes with public utility lines. The library was even linked to the larger public transportation system with the use of a cable cart that takes residents of the comuna to the city-wide metro system. Collectively these operations resulted in a dramatic improvement of what had been some of the most dangerous comunas in the country. Today tourists are not only flocking back to Medellin but also to its comunas, thus strengthening the city’s economy.
Buenaventura is now in search of paradigms for weaving together the socioeconomic threads of its urban fabric. Current plans threaten to further divide the city's geographies and demographics. Alternatively, Buenaventura could learn from the innovations of Colombian cities that have eased the troubles of their comunas not by relocating them but by tactically re-stitching them back into the city fabric using the tools of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design.