May 02, 2006

El Alto, the Rebel City

MABB © ®

I am always talking about El Alto and the people who live there. I thought today I give you a bit of info about this city and its inhabitants. First, I found two places in the net where you can take a look at some images of El Alto, its people and its daily life. The first place is Amanda Martin's page from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. In this page you can read a small overview about El Alto. You can also see very interesting images. Additionally, for more images you can also visit Nick Cooperman's blog in Nick's got very interesting photos of El Alto. See an example below.

Second, I'd like to give you a few facts about El Alto. In the high plateau of El Altiplano, El Alto was inhabited since Inca times. Starting as a suburb of La Paz, El Alto was declared a city in 1985. According to the 2001 census, the city has 649.958 inhabitants. It has about 100 inhabitants per 10 sq. kilometers, and it is about 1.042 sq. Kilometers. In comparison, it is about 7 times bigger than Lichtenstein and 6 times bigger than Washington, DC. The altitudes of its neighborhoods range between 4.150 and 3.850 m.a.s.l. El Alto is the final destiny for many migrants from the country side. It is very usual in Bolivia that people migrate from the country side towards the city. Between 1976 and 1992 the city's growth rate was 12 % p.a., however, more recently between 1992 and 2001 the growth rate decreased drastically to 5 %. Around 74 % of the population identify themselves as Aymara, 6% are Quechua and 19% do not identify themselves with any indigenous culture. This last figure is interesting taking into account that the city is called the indigenous city.

As stated earlier, El Alto was just a neighborhood of La Paz. It grew to its present size, to a large extent, because of massive migration of miners from the mining towns around the Altiplano. The so called "re-localizados" or relocalized miners moved there to continue their livelyhoods. These people are called relocalized because during the privatization wave of the 90s the government said that the mine workers would be relocalized to other jobs, but rather many mining companies closed down its doors and let the miners go. Around 30,000 from these miners relocalized in El Alto.

To show a little bit of the daily life I will tell you about the water problem.

El Alto is organized in districts. It has 9 districts, which contain neighborhoods or as they call them, "villas". The 8th district, which is comprised of around 140 villas, is one of the poorest areas. Around 90 of them have water service and the remaining 50 have not. It has not drinking water service and no sewage system. For those of you who have been to Bolivia, the areas is located around the road to Oruro. This part of El Alto grows day by day. Litterally every day there are people settling on the perifery making it somewhat of an uncontrolled growth.

People there have to buy their drinking water. There is a water market developed by some entrepreneurial people, who sell barrels of water (don't know the size) for around Bolivianos 4 (about US$ 0.50) and in dry season the price can go up to Bs. 5 or 6. One of the leaders of that community, Victor Chura Huanca, estimates that a family needs at least 8 barrels of water a week to drink, cook and wash. Making the math that means at least Bs. 32 a week and Bs. 128 a month. The way it usually goes is either the women or the children stand in a line in the corner of the street and wait for the water car or the cistern car, as they know it. The first ones to get water are the priviledged because as the water hits the bottom of the barrel, it gets murkier and murkier. Some people have even found baby frogs in it.

However, paradoxically, in rainy season the water becomes a problem for district 8. In rainy season, the streets of this villa become small rivers. And if the rains are strong, the adobe walls of the houses start soaking in water and come down eventually. The roofs of the huts also suffer with the rains.

Frank IBC was nice enough to share his photos with us. Check them out, they are interesting photos.

Here are some of my photos of El Alto:

La Ceja and vicinity




Northern fringe, along road to Tiquina




From airport (looking east-northeast)




Southwest fringe (along road to Oruro – Illimani in background)