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From the Field

Unlikely Inter-Class Cooperation in Urbanizing Rural Colombia

Sebastián F. Villamizar Santamaría examines a case of rural gentrification outside of Bogotá, Colombia, and shows how long-time peasants and former factory workers and upper-middle-class newcomers collaborate across class lines to manage fundamental resources, such as water, and pressure the state to provide necessary infrastructure and services.

“A new neighbor welcomes you; your neighbor, nature,” claims a billboard on the road between La Calera, a small town, and Bogotá, the Colombian capital. This new ad for a gated community targets upper-middle-class Bogotans and shows a native bird from this rural region (Figure 1). But the billboard ignores that there are old neighbors—peasants and former workers of an old cement factory who still live in La Calera.

Newcomers have been moving to La Calera since the early 1990s. They are upper-middle-class ex‑urbanites who have moved there seeking access to “nature” and “green” spaces, escaping the city’s ills such as crime, pollution, and noise. Some have built elaborate and expensive houses that have even been featured in the New York Times (Gregor 2019). In other countries in Latin America, this growing movement started in the 1970s and 1980s as people from the city moved to the countryside to reclaim a peasant lifestyle (Arias 2002) that some call “rururbanization” (Nates Cruz and Velásquez López 2019) or—given the salient class component of this movement—“rural gentrification” (Phillips 1993).

Figure 1. A billboard advertising a housing development in La Calera

© Sebastián F. Villamizar Santamaría, July 2016.

But these newcomers arrived in an area with poor infrastructure and services, including electrical grids and the sewerage system. Most of the roads are poorly maintained dirt roads. And in some places there is no cellular network, preventing people from communicating. Part of the reason for this low level of infrastructure is the fact that the state does not provide it. While, for example, by law people have the right to water, there are not enough aqueducts to bring water to every household because the state does not have the money or the political will to build them.

Long-timers, on the other hand, have had to deal with these conditions for much longer. Because of the absence of state-provided infrastructure, they resorted to self-management practices in different areas, such as community aqueducts in rural districts, which were built, and are managed and owned, by residents. Instead of appropriating these resources or building new infrastructure just for themselves—as has happened in other Latin American countries (Timo 2017)—newcomers join long-timers in the management of these aqueducts, and they even pursue legal measures together against the state for its lack of infrastructure provision.

Such inter-class actions are surprising in this context for several reasons. First, class divisions are very strong in Colombia, with highly segregated cities (Villamizar Santamaría 2015) and a high tolerance of inequality (Álvarez Rivadulla 2014), which prevents many interactions from occurring from the outset. Second, the 60-year-long civil war in the country was fought mostly in rural areas, in large part over conflicts surrounding land redistribution. Although La Calera was not a particular site of conflict, that narrative prevented city residents from moving to the countryside. And third, other similar rural gentrification processes in the region had resulted in disputes over resources.

This article is based on 18 months of research conducted for my PhD dissertation. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork, interviewed 45 residents (both long-timers and newcomers), analyzed city-council minutes dating from 2012 onward, and participated in several community meetings about infrastructure deficiency, large public-space developments, and rezoning plans. Here, I focus on the specific case of water, the infrastructure for which is the least developed in the area. I found that the two populations in La Calera united over a common goal—obtaining water—and a common enemy—the state. Both populations need water for consumption and some agricultural activities, yet they do not have it. What is more, the state built a massive reservoir that is inaccessible to residents. Because of these two conditions, newcomers and long-timers alike have joined in with different actions to fight the state and obtain benefits for both groups.

Population growth and landscape change

The gated community featured on the billboard mentioned above is just one of many new housing developments in La Calera. Located just under 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Bogotá, this town has received an influx of upper-middle-class newcomers from the capital that want to live “in nature,” as interviewees put ir. In less than 30 years, the population has almost doubled, from 17,852 in 1993 to 28,225 in 2017, with more than half of these residents living in its more rural districts. In fact, in 2005 (the last available census), 67% of Bogotá’s migrants to La Calera moved to these rural districts.

Newcomers are attracted to the town’s “nature.” Mrs. Gómez, who arrived in 2011 as part of the latest and largest migration wave, said that she moved there because of “the open space” where her 13-year-old son could play and where she could have dogs, cats, chickens, and other animals (interview, June 2019). Like her, most of the newcomers I interviewed said they moved to have access to cleaner air, tranquility, and to avoid city noise.

Because of this movement, the architectural landscape in La Calera has also changed. Newcomers build in the “modern” style, as Caleruno construction workers call it: their houses are constructed of cement and brick in cubic shapes, and have high ceilings, a fireplace, and large windows so as to appreciate the view. The “peasant”-style houses, on the other hand, are made of adobe, have lower ceilings, and are fitted with small windows to keep the warmth inside.

This architectural difference speaks not only to aesthetics and priorities, but also reflects the mixing of two different populations (Figure 2). Again, according to 2005 census data, 23.7% of those aged 18 or over living in rural districts of La Calera had a level of education that did not extend beyond completing elementary school, while 18.2% had attained at least a college degree. This combination of groups is very uncommon in Latin America, where spatial segregation is mostly drawn along class lines and people from different social classes hardly interact, except in the context of service transactions such as housekeeping.

Figure 2. A newcomer’s house using a peasant house as a building cornerstone

© Sebastián F. Villamizar Santamaría, January 2017.

Early aqueducts and state response

Rosa, a long-timer, recalled that growing up in the 1960s in La Calera meant that she had to take buckets to a creek or a watershed and bring them back home (interview, January 2020). Peasants had to time their crops to coincide with the rainy season, and they also took their cattle to those creeks to quench their thirst. It was not until the late 1970s that some residents came together and took steps to build the first community aqueducts. Camilo, a long-timer who participated in those processes and currently works in one of them, recalled that it was the neighbors who put in the labor, or, if they couldn’t work, “some collaborated with money” (interview, December 2019).

Around the same time, the state carried out two major interventions. On the one hand, it created the national agency for the environment (called INDERENA, [1] but which has since delegated responsibility for water resources to regional bodies known as CARs [2]). Aqueducts used creeks and other underground sources before, but now they had to apply for water-use licenses from the relevant state agency. On the other hand, the state started buying plots of land around páramo areas (a specific type of ecosystem that plays a key role in the water cycle), which resulted in the creation of the San Rafael Reservoir. This body of water has the capacity to hold 71 million cubic meters of water (or more than 2.5 billion cubic feet) and is about 371 hectares (916 acres) in area. It is located in La Calera, but owned by the Bogotan Aqueduct Company (Empresa de Acueducto de Bogotá, or EAB [3]), a public entity. It sources about 70% of the capital’s water, but Calerunos do not have access to it because EAB did not provide pipes or network connections to the town, despite its proximity. In the words of a community leader at a meeting with EAB, “we are the only place in the world that is in front of a dam and doesn’t have any water.”

Inter-class actions

Even with a stronger state presence through the CAR and the reservoir, both newcomers and long-timers still need water for their daily consumption. More people living in the area means more pressure on the existing infrastructure networks. Despite being located mostly in the water-rich páramo, La Calera had only 79/8% aqueduct coverage and 49.9% sewerage coverage by 2005 (Bogotá had 98.5% and 97.9% coverage rates respectively).

This lack of state provision for a fundamental service such as water paved the way for inter-class actions from both groups, namely participating in self-management, and suing the state authorities. On the one hand, newcomers needed long-timers’ experience with community aqueducts in order to extend these water-supply networks to their newly built homes. At the same time, long-timers needed the money from these new connections to build and maintain the aqueduct networks and pay for staff salaries. Newcomer Andrés exemplifies this when he says that he got involved in the board of one these aqueducts because “if I didn’t do it, no one would take care of it” (interview, January 2020). He is aware that this work and inter-class collaboration “is very complicated,” but he also said that he would rather have a service that works for everyone than providing just for himself and his family. Some community aqueducts’ boards include people from both groups, who assist in different ways. In the case of Camilo’s aqueduct, a civil-engineer newcomer offered to conduct a study of water quality and efficiency free of charge.

On the other hand, and aside from some newcomers’ self-interest, residents brought a public-interest lawsuit against the state company EAB and La Calera’s mayor’s office. This process is a legal resource for citizens who claim that a public or private entity violates a group right. In this case, it was the right to water that was harming residents around the San Rafael Reservoir. Although it started with a newcomer who filed the suit, it was quickly picked up by the community board—comprising long-timers and newcomers alike—who started showing up to the hearings, signing the minutes, and spreading the word about this case. The lawsuit put pressure on the state and resulted in the creation of a public–private partnership to build an inter–rural district aqueduct—a project that ran out of money and whose future is still uncertain.

A common need and a common enemy

The public-interest lawsuit, despite being supported by members of both groups, ultimately fell flat. Although the judges decided in favor of the community, residents of La Calera still do not have a decent water-supply service from the state. Instead, they rely on the existing community aqueduct networks to supply this need.

That the two groups of residents have come together to solve the water problem can be attributed to three elements. First, long-timers are landowners, which grants them more rights—both legal and symbolic—in communal decisions, as opposed to renters in other gentrifying areas. Second, newcomers and long-timers have similar needs (e.g. aqueducts) and the same “enemy” (the state) that fails to respond to their claims. And finally, newcomers and long-timers are both interested in maintaining and improving the area, and that means working together with their neighbors.

Despite tensions over certain practices regarding the use of natural resources, and after 30 years of newcomers arriving in La Calera—10 years since the largest wave—residents have resorted to these inter-class actions to respond to large, structural issues like infrastructure. The question remains, however, of how long these actions will last. The enduring character of these interactions creates an interesting case study of unusual effects of rural gentrification in Latin America.

La Calera, elsewhere

Like La Calera, other urbanizing rural areas have mushroomed both in Colombia and other countries in the Global South. Llanogrande near Medellín, Venice near Buenos Aires, Tepoztlán near Mexico City, and other small towns near cities in the region exhibit similar features of high inequality combined with a lack of state provision of services needed for everyday life. That in La Calera, located in a country with a long history of civil war and deep class divisions, there are instances in which residents from both groups come together to deal with a common goal against the state is an unusual outcome. This case challenges assumptions of class conflict in gentrifying areas, especially in contexts characterized by inequality. What united long-timers and newcomers in La Calera was an unresponsive state that has not guaranteed their rights. We need to understand these new spatial forms better if we wish to create more sustainable and inclusive residential spaces in Latin America and other parts of the Global South.


  • Álvarez Rivadulla, María José. 2014. “Tolerancia a la desigualdad en América Latina: una exploración en Montevideo y Bogotá”, Revista Ensambles, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 99–119.
  • Arias, Patricia. 2002. “Hacia el espacio rural urbano; una revisión de la relación entre el campo y la ciudad en la antropología social mexicana”, Estudios Demográficos y Urbanos, vol. 17, no. 2, p. 363.
  • Gregor, Alison. 2019. “House Hunting in... Colombia”, The New York Times, 16 January.
  • Nates Cruz, Beatriz and Velásquez López, Paula Andrea. 2019. “Gentrificación rururbana. Estudios territoriales en La Florida (Manizales–Villamaría) y Cerritos (Pereira) Colombia”, Territorios, no. 41, p. 143.
  • Phillips, Martin. 1993. “Rural gentrification and the process of class colonisation”, Journal of Rural Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 123–140.
  • Timo, Pétalla Brandão. 2017. “Garrote y Venice. Desarrollo, hábitat digno y derechos humanos en la Argentina”, in C. Rodríguez Garavito (ed.), Por un medio ambiente sano que promueva los derechos humanos en el Sur Global, Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI Editores.
  • Villamizar Santamaría, Sebastián Felipe. 2015. “Desigualdades sociales, ¿inequidades espaciales?: Segregación sociorracial y acceso a bienes públicos en Bogotá, 2005–2011”, Revista Colombiana de Sociología, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 67–92.

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To cite this article:

Sebastián F. Villamizar Santamaría, “Unlikely Inter-Class Cooperation in Urbanizing Rural Colombia”, Metropolitics, 25 February 2020. URL :

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