What Happened to the City of the Eternal Spring?

By Yoana Fernanda Nieto Valdivieso

Medellin is a city I used to know. I lived in the city for 14 years and there I became an adult, finished two degrees and found my first job as a researcher. In its bars, I learned to love tango music and dance salsa until sunrise. There I met some of my closest girlfriends, found and lost love, and recognised myself as a feminist. The neighbourhoods and streets of the city told me about the cartel wars, the war between the local combos (gangs), the violence of the paramilitaries and the complicated ties between the different armed actors of the Colombian socio-political conflict and the city’s local gangs, politicians and its citizens. Because some of the best and worse memories of my youth are linked to Medellin, its streets and its landscapes, Medellin is part of my life story.

When we travelled to Medellin as part of our field visit to Colombia, I knew that I was going to encounter a different city. Currently Medellin is part of the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. This is an initiative aimed at ‘helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century’.[1] Furthermore, the positive change of the city has been documented in the national and international press, and if you run a quick search in the internet, you will find plenty of social media and travellers’ blogs portraying Medellin as a vibrant, energetic city, full of adventures and beauty. These searches will also tell you about Medellin’s ‘good news’, such as the fallen murder rates, the cable car system connecting poor neighbourhoods with the rest of the city as part of a wider strategy of social integration,[2] the redevelopment of the Botanical Gardens and the Planetarium. You might also have heard about local reconciliation initiatives such as El Cielo Restaurant, where former members of the army, guerrillas and paramilitaries work together.

The Medellin I went back to, during our recent field visit to Colombia, did not entirely fit the profile sketched above. The city felt to me at least 6 degrees hotter than the Medellin I used to walk through. As one of the taxi drivers said in what seems a common joke ‘this is no longer the city of the eternal spring but the city of the eternal summer’. Every single street was a clogged artery where cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians forced their way through. It was as if the city itself were suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – COPD. This is a condition that affects the flow of air into the lungs and has increased in the city, due to the high levels of pollution in the air.

I do not know if I can describe Medellin as a resilient city. I have been away for too long and have lost the feeling of it. Besides, that is not the point I want to address here. What I want to address is the link between the longstanding socio-political violence affecting the country and the environmental precariousness I experienced in Medellin. During the time we spent talking with different people living and working in the city, it became evident to me that the number of inhabitants in Medellin has increased and continues to increase as a result of the internal movement of people escaping the conflict. Between 2002 and 2007, different reports point out that Medellin was the city that received the most internally displaced people in Colombia.[3] This is a trend which, according to some of the people we spoke to, continues today.

In our hotel, signs reading #DONOTALLOW child sexual exploitation were carefully displayed in different points of the building and the rooms. They became a constant reminder of denouncements made by organizations such as Corpades,[4] according to whom sexual tourism and human trafficking in the city are on the rise. A journalistic piece published in November 2017 states that the principal ‘buyers’ are overseas tourists from the United States of America, Europe and Asia, who for 15,000 US dollars can purchase an ‘all-inclusive package’: drugs, sexual encounters with children, adolescents, women or men (or all of the aforementioned) and protection, among others.[5]

For me, these are just two brief examples of the link between the socio-political violence experienced in Colombia (and Medellin) and the destruction of the environment experienced in the city. This destruction encompasses not only the pollution of Colombia’s air and landscape, the poisoning of its inhabitants and communities with respiratory diseases and the constant noise, but also the levels of sexual and gender-based violence and the commercialization of children’s and women’s/men’s bodies.

In a conversation sustained between the research team and a local feminist scholar and activist, an alternative viewpoint emerged on women’s practices of resistance and strategies to face the hardships endured. Sara Fernandez explained to us how eco-feminist discussions about the link between oppression and ecological destruction inform the everyday practices of women survivors (of the armed conflict and of gender-based violence). As a result, in the case of these women their strategies to face the consequences and affectations that the armed conflict has left on their bodies-territories are linked to the care of precious resources such as water, air and free-seeds. These women understand that the destruction of air, land, water, fauna and flora by multinational corporations and the armed conflict is linked not only to the different oppressions experienced by those who inhabit devastated places and landscapes, but also to the oppression and the multiple types of violence they have experienced and continue to experience as women.

[1] http://www.100resilientcities.org/about-us/#section-2 (Accessed 05/03/2018).

[2] Brodzinky, S (2014) ‘From Murder capital to model city: Is Medellin miracle show or substance?’, The Guardian, 17 April, Available at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/apr/17/medellin-murder-capital-to-model-city-miracle-un-world-urban-forum (accessed 5/03/2018)

[3] Una Mirada a la población desplazada en ocho ciudades de Colombia: respuesta institucional local, condiciones de vida y recomendaciones para su atención. http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/liaison_offices/wfp173298.pdf (accessed 12/03/2018); Botero, N (2002) ‘Los desplazados en la ciudad’, SEMANA, 19 February, Available at http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/los-desplazados-ciudad/49376-3 (Accesed12/03/2018); Rendón, 2016, Colombia seria el país con más desplazados internos en el mundo. El Colombiano, 14 Junio , Available at http://www.elcolombiano.com/colombia/colombia-seria-el-pais-con-mas-desplazados-internos-del-mundo-EN4384262 (accessed 12/03/2018).

[4] Corporación para la Paz y Desarrollo Social

[5] La W Radio, 2017, ‘Denuncian “Rumba dura” como nuevo paquete de turismo sexual ofrecido en Medellín’, 07 November, Available at http://www.wradio.com.co/noticias/regionales/denuncian-rumba-dura-como-nuevo-paquete-de-turismo-sexual-ofrecido-en-medellin/20171107/nota/3630561.aspx (accessed 12/03/2017)