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URUGUAY: White Concrete Block Replaces Mud, Wattle and Thatch

Dino Cappelli

PUEBLO BARCELÓ, Uruguay, Nov 8 2009 (IPS) - “If it weren’t for the Mevir housing project, this would be a ghost town,” says the local shopkeeper who supplies the basic needs of the families living in this remote hamlet in the middle of nowhere in the South American country of Uruguay.

San Gabriel Mevir rural housing complex in the province of Florida. Credit: Dino Cappelli

San Gabriel Mevir rural housing complex in the province of Florida. Credit: Dino Cappelli

“Thanks to these housing units, the town exists; they have given it new life,” Wilder Barreiro, whose shop is like an old-time general store, selling everything from groceries to farm implements, comments to IPS.

Just 200 people live in Pueblo Barceló, in the central province of Florida, half of them in the neat white concrete block houses built by the state Movement for the Eradication of Inadequate Rural Housing (Mevir), which have mushroomed around the countryside throughout Uruguay, a small country of 3.3 million people wedged between Argentina and Brazil.

Under the Mevir system, the entire family must help build the houses, in tasks suited to their sex and age. They work set schedules, learning jobs ranging from bricklaying to administration, and at the end of the project they have a new or refurbished house or barn of their own, which they pay off in affordable monthly installments.

“When they can’t meet the work requirement, they pay a third person to work on their behalf,” Roberto Ojeda explains to IPS.

He knows what he’s talking about: he not only lives in a Mevir house, but he is now working as foreman on a Mevir work site, since he was hired by the programme.

The Mevir self-help and mutual aid scheme, which emerged in the late 1960s, fell into limbo during the 1973-1985 military dictatorship. But it picked up steam again after the return to democracy, and has played a key role in the disappearance of the clusters of simple mud-and-wattle thatched-roof shacks that used to be ubiquitous in the countryside, especially on the outskirts of large wealthy farms and estates.

From 1965 to 1990, a total of 4,096 housing units were built, compared to 4,474 between 1990 and 1995, 5,303 from 1995 to 2000, 4,034 between 2000 and 2005, and 4,045 to be built in the 2005-2010 period, including 1,310 still under construction.

Besides the construction of new housing, Mevir also helps low-income rural families repair homes and refurbish or build farm buildings and access roads, while providing them with public utilities, community services and technical training and assistance.

The beneficiaries are rural workers employed on large ranches or dairy farms, or small farming families. The monthly payments they make are usually less than 500 pesos (24 dollars).

In Uruguay, a country of rolling plains and low hills, 93 percent of the population is urban, according to United Nations statistics.

Tumbledown mud-and-wattle houses, surrounded by trees, still dot the countryside. Many were abandoned when their inhabitants moved to the cities to swell the ranks of the poor in urban slums.

But more recently, they have been abandoned as families move into modern new Mevir houses with electricity, running water and plumbing, instead of the wells and outhouses they used in their old dwellings.

Not everyone has access

Through Mevir, Hugo Lapizaga, a long-time resident of Polanco del Yí, not far from Pueblo Barceló, was able to repair his house in 2000 and, in a second stage of work, has just refurbished his milking barn.

But he expresses his concern about families who do not have access to such assistance, because their homes or barns are more than 30 kilometres away from the nearest Mevir housing project underway at the time.

“We understand that the programme has become more flexible with respect to distances. In 2000, when my house was refurbished, the limit was 15 km; now that distance has been extended to 30 km. But I still wonder about the people who live 40, 60 or more km away, and who need a new housing unit, farm or repairs,” says Lapizaga.

He adds that he has seen “many people go away unhappy after Mevir told them it couldn’t help because they lived too far away.”

Lapizaga was addressing journalists and local residents in an auditorium where the president of Mevir, architect Francisco Beltrame, was speaking in Puntas de Maciel in central Uruguay, around 30 km from several homes under construction as part of the self-help plan.

“I talked to one of the people who went away sad that day, who lives in the area of Molles de Timote (also in Florida) – a place far from the hand of God and in need of a hand from Mevir. There are many people in that area who are thinking of leaving the countryside, which is a pity,” says Lapizaga, describing the labour and housing problems faced by many poor rural families.

“I talked to a fence worker, whose wife is a school cook. They live, logically, just a few kilometres from the school. I think the distance question should be reconsidered, and the programme should take a look around that area because these people deserve help; they don’t want to leave the countryside, but they need repairs to their homes or barns, and I think we all have the same right,” he says.

In response, Beltrame says that in Mevir, “the same questions are faced every day: where to provide assistance first, how to organise a plan, what criteria should be used in setting priorities, should we focus on quality or quantity?

“Should we continue supporting people’s needs in farming towns or in completely rural areas, should we give people a chance to stay, in order to fully and efficiently engage in production on their farms, or resolve a housing problem, which is only a partial response?” he adds.

“The institution has a history, a way of doing things, and you try to introduce some changes with respect to what direction to move in. Every day, the question is which needs should be addressed first,” says Beltrame.

He explains to IPS that a further expansion of the distance requirement is being considered.

But he underlines that it is “extremely expensive to transport workers and materials 40 kilometres, and we must rationalise the use of our resources because they are not unlimited; they are scarce.”

Changing the face of the countryside

Over the years, Mevir, a public body that is run by the Movement for the Eradication of Inadequate Rural Housing Honorary Commission, has expanded its original focus and become an engine of local development throughout rural Uruguay.

Whereas in the past, it helped local residents build housing projects on the outskirts of larger towns, since 2005 it has been mainly geared towards individual farms or housing complexes in more remote rural areas.

“Mevir has changed the face of rural villages and towns; in fact, it has helped many survive,” says Andrés Arocena, a former governor of Florida.

Mevir housing units have multiplied in rural villages and towns, he points out. “One example is Sarandí Grande (in Florida), where there are three complexes with more than 80 units housing over 400 people in a town of 6,000.”

But some families are still waiting for a solution, which seems to be miles – or over 30 kilometres – away.

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