On the outskirts of the Colombian metropolis of Cali, the residents of an informal settlement have been fighting for years for recognition as a legal neighborhood. Thanks to the "Ciudad y Paz" project and a fearless university professor, their wish will soon become reality.
"Oh my God, it worked!" Francy Mina's first words as she picked up the phone in 2020 on that fateful day and listens. Years of hard work, community involvement, and bureaucratic hurdles lie behind her. Years in which she and her community fought for the official recognition of her place of residence, Brisas de las Palmas. Now, finally, they are making progress: At the other end of the line, university professor Ángela Franco-Calderón confirms the cooperation between Brisas de las Palmas, Universidad del Valle, and Cali City Council. It is the first time that the settlement and its inhabitants are being seen. A first step towards recognition, connection, and change. Francy Mina's emotions boil over.
Brisas de las Palmas. A part of the Colombian metropolis of Cali in the west of the country that blends seamlessly into the cityscape with its brick houses, colorful façades and lush vegetation. More than 900 people spread over roughly 200 residential plots live here. But appearances are deceptive: From an administrative perspective, Brisas de las Palmas does not belong to the metropolis of Cali.
"Brisas de las Palmas is officially not a neighborhood, but a so-called 'informal' (i.e., illegal) settlement", explains Francy Mina in a soft, singing voice. She is the chair of the community committee and a single mother of three. For years, she has campaigned for the recognition and legalization of her place of residence, as only legal incorporation would bring much-needed resources to the neighborhood that is otherwise disconnected from the city's supply system and infrastructure. Residents want the area to be adopted by the city and to receive the same services as residents in other neighborhoods. They want to raise their standard of living. They want an end to inequality.
The creation of “Brisas”, as it is called here, is linked to Colombia’s violent history. The civil war in the South American country lasted for more than 50 years, and even the 2016 peace agreement did not see an end to the violence everywhere. Since 1985, more than nine million people have fled rural areas and sought refuge in cities. A total of 200,000 refugees have settled in Cali alone. Francy Mina is one of them. In the 90s, she fled to the metropolis from her home village of Cauca, 60 kilometers outside of Buenos Aires, to get away from the FARC guerrillas, with no diploma, no prospects. When she learned of a new settlement in the western mountain area, she moved there. The settler families, many victims of war like Mina and many with indigenous or Afro-Colombian backgrounds, built bamboo huts and covered them with plastic sheets. This is where her new life began.
"If we don't do it, no one will."
At that time, Brisas de las Palmas was not a typical place to live. In the mountains of the 18th century municipality of Cali, there were banana plantations, corn fields, and grazing cows. The region was a so-called "ejido": technically in state hands, but operating autonomously without administrative regulations. For many years, the government did not claim ownership, but infrastructural aid was equally absent. Thanks to the initiative of people like Francy Mina, the community continued to develop under the motto "If we don't do it, no one will". With raffles, dances, and barbecues, the residents of Brisas raised money for their settlement. They took their fate into their own hands, hired a surveyor, created water and sewer systems, and paved the main road. They advocated for the laying of electricity, internet, and gas lines, as well as for connections to the public transport network. Today, the settlement also has a central park, which is the heart of social life. This is where people meet to talk, play soccer, and relax.
Much could be achieved by the residents of Brisas themselves, but not everything. They are dependent on the goodwill of the city government. After all, it is up to them to decide whether Brisas becomes an official neighborhood or continues to be treated as an illegal settlement. Their status as "ejido," an administrative grey area where the land is inhabited and farmed and the municipal government does not interfere further, is not desirable in the long run. Only when the land legally becomes the property of the residents can the settlement itself be legalized. Otherwise, the previous owners could demand eviction at any time and turn Brisas back into a banana plantation. The community's desire to rightfully own the land they inhabit has long found little resonance in the world of politics. The legalization of informal settlements is a difficult and lengthy process with nothing to gain for political actors, causing the community's efforts to not be seen as a priority. But then, things began to change.
Ciudad y Paz aims to create job and training opportunities for the people of Brisas de las Palmas, as well as to ensure peace. To do this, a differentiated Afro and indigenous, farmer-centred, and gendered approach is used. By 2026, Ciudad y Paz should be recognized as an example of urban reintegration, environmental protection, and the strengthening of the social fabric.
In 2020, Francy Mina came into contact with professor Ángela Franco-Calderón, and efforts to legalise Brisas took a big step forward. Franco-Calderón is a professor of urban planning at the Universidad del Valle in Cali. For two decades, she has dedicated herself to the issue of inequality in Colombian cities. She conducts research on informal settlements such as Brisas de las Palmas and understands the importance of collaboration between city governments and residents to affect long-term change. "I was impressed by Francy and her group," she says, "but I knew they couldn't handle all the problems on their own."
Many of these problems are directly linked to the informal status of the settlement. Brisas is neglected by the state. The people who live here do not have easy access to health care or educational facilities. In addition to deficiencies in infrastructure and supplies, Brisas also suffers from a lack of public funding and institutional support. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this marginal position became particularly evident and also intensified. Women, children, young people, and the elderly suffered most from this scarcity.
Professor Ángela Franco-Calderón has sought solutions to the complex problems of the informal settlement. Cooperation between the Cali city government and the community committee of Brisas seemed to her to be just as indispensable as the commitment of all residents. To truly understand the reality of a population neglected and marginalized by the state living without clear prospects for the future or a sense of security, meant collectively analyzing profound social aspects such as inequality and discrimination. And that is exactly what she has done: In specially designed workshop formats, Professor Franco-Calderón and her team brought together, for the first time, parties from the city administration, the local university, and the residents of Brisas. Here, they discussed not only the desire for integration, but also the infrastructural weaknesses of the settlement and its social difficulties. Possible solutions were raised and discussed, and it was a first step towards equal citizen participation.
Gender, age, education level, skin color, or possession of a legal place of residence - these are all factors that can significantly influence life realities. Depending on their prerequisites, each individual encounters more or fewer opportunities in society. If discrimination categories overlap (i.e., if a person is simultaneously disadvantaged in several areas in society), this is referred to as intersectional discrimination.
Based on the results of the discussions, Professor Franco-Calderón developed an intersectional approach that included the different categories of discrimination people were facing in Brisas and made participation possible for all groups. Even though the population of Brisas shared the same place of residence, they were affected differently by - often multiple - forms of discrimination. In her intersectional approach, Professor Franco-Calderón took this into account, met people where they were, and thereby enabled dialogue and participation.
In 2020, the scholar came across the Robert Bosch Stiftung's Reducing Inequalities Through Intersectional Practice grant program, through which the foundation aimed to fund people and organizations that took an intersectional approach to reducing inequality in their work. With the help of project funding, it was not only possible to address inequalities within the settlement community, but also to use project funds to prepare architectural plans with the aim of expanding the local infrastructure.
Professor Franco-Calderón and her university team started with public meetings and workshops. Francy Mina mediated between this group and Brisa residents. Together, they reflected on the history of the settlement, shared memories, anecdotes, and pictures. The meetings strengthened identity and cohesion.
In parallel, the researchers initiated a survey on quality of life, housing conditions, and social ties. They organized focus groups, workshops, and neighborhood tours. The result was a "map" of Brisas in all its diversity.
In addition to the demographic makeup of the neighborhood, the map was also able to reveal hazards and vulnerabilities: It showed how unpredictable and unsafe life was in Brisas, especially for women, children, older people, and the queer community.
Thanks to the report, the administrative process has been significantly accelerated. This latter included an intersectional mapping that showed necessary transportation routes, facilities, public spaces, and environmental management, while also identifying conflict flashpoints. The thorough research also suggested that Brisas met the necessary criteria to obtain legal status as a Cali neighborhood.
"The driving force was the citizens. That embodies true democracy."
The project "Ciudad y Paz" finally aroused the interest of the Cali mayor's office. Martha Hernández, Secretary of Social Housing and Urban Space, made the project a focus project during her tenure and worked closely with Professor Franco-Calderón. With their support, Brisas was officially named a pilot project for the legalization of informal settlements. "It took several terms of office, pooled information, knowledge, and processes - that's what was needed," explains Martha Hernández. She emphasizes futher: "The driving force was the citizens, who wanted to take action instead of waiting for the state. That embodies true democracy."
Today, the legalization of Brisas de las Palmas is close to completion. The residential plots of its population have been officially mapped. However, one crucial approval is still missing for Brisas to be officially integrated into the urban fabric of Cali. Professor Franco-Calderón is also encouraged by the precedent to develop this method in other settlements: "We are already in communication with three neighboring settlements and feel the growing synergy. We are working together to strengthen their voices, and they now have the knowledge needed to take action."
Francy Mina has witnessed the change that "Ciudad y Paz" has initiated for Brisas. Soon, she could hold a title deed in her hands and say with pride: "This land is mine." Francy awaits anxiously for this moment.