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From disaster to dialogue? Talking about risk and resilience with a community leader from Medellín

Self-built territories emerge from a group of people’s need for shelter and the institutional difficulties in responding to that need. In the Colombian context, a considerable number of urban settlements are built by internally displaced communities from the countryside in the search for safety in the cities as a result of armed conflict in Colombia (Aristizábal et al,2018; Pérez, 2017). These communities resorted to settling at the margins of major cities, and in the case of Medellín, these margins are found at the slopes of the city.

After much self-organised effort, the communities on the slopes of Medellín are defined by their determination to continue with their life project and remain in the territories they built by themselves. Thus, despite being exposed to geological and environmental hazards, these communities continue exploring ways of co-existing with the mountains and their natural elements and the urban fabric. They have successfully developed processes and practices to manage the risk scenarios within which they live (see picture 1 – a picture of community collective working session – a convite – to reduce flash flood risk in September 2020). One of the many examples of these extraordinary community-led risk management practices can be found in El Pacífico, in Medellín’s Comuna 8 (Rivera-Flórez et al, 2020).

A community convite to reduce flash flood risk in September 2020

A community convite to reduce flash flood risk in September 2020

However, despite the community’s risk management efforts the neighbourhood experienced a disaster on the 18th of September 2020. Due to extensive torrential rainfall, the water level of the La Rafita ravine, which runs from the top of the hill through the neighbourhood, increased significantly. Although there were no fatalities, the water level rise led to seven dwellings being damaged beyond repair and 44 families being advised to evacuate their homes as soon as possible. Map 1 shows the extent of the damage. The area within the red line in Map 2 comprises the structures which have been recommended for evacuation.

Map of housing impacts in the El Pacífico neighborhood, Medellin, September 18, 2020

Map 1: Housing impacts in the El Pacífico neighborhood, Medellin, September 18, 2020

  • Red dots: structure beyond repair
  • Orange dots: risk of future damage
  • Blue line: Ravine La Rafita
  • Blue area: La Rafita’s riverbed

Hazards identified by Medellín’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Agency (DAGRD):

  1. Rock fall
  2. Flash flood
  3. Landslides, and other events as a result of extreme hydrometeorological events
Map of homes with municipal recommendation for immediate evacuation at risk of torrential avenue in the El Pacífico Medellin neighborhood

Map 2: Map of homes with municipal recommendation for immediate evacuation at risk of torrential avenue in the El Pacífico Medellin neighborhood

(Maps co-produced by El Pacífico community members and the URBE Latam team on OpenStreetMap with assistance from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team – see previous blog for more)

Following the disaster, the URBE Latam team spoke to Dairo Urán, the president of the El Pacífico Community Action Board who has lived in the neighborhood since 2004. His efforts have been instrumental in responding to the current situation, and in building community resilience. In response to the worst disasters the community has experienced, he set up an inter-institutional working group (the Mesa de Atención y Recuperación) consisting of representatives from the community, local public institutions and academia. In our chat with Dairo, we discussed the disaster and its socio-spatial context and determinants, the community’s response and their intention to continue managing the risk so they can continue living in the neighbourhood they built.

In the interview, Dairo indicated that, historically, tensions between the community and the municipal government existed – and to some extent continue to exist. At the same time, in the context of the recent flash flood, and as a result of continued community mobilisation and processes of shared learning, a more equal dialogue has started to emerge. The tensions relate to a perception of being left behind twice – first, as a community of internally displaced persons in need of shelter, who constructed their neighbourhood and learned to live with local geo-hazards; second, as a result of the municipal risk assessment advising a large part of the community to relocate. Dairo suggested that, for the community, the municipality's credibility therefore is in question. In his view, the government "outsources" responsibility for providing housing and risk reduction to the community, and once a disaster happened, municipal agencies reactively recommend relocation without accounting for the communities' potentiality, capabilities and strengths in risk reduction and management, thus in the community's view justifying eviction. Considering that a significant part of the community have been advised to relocate, it could be argued that this process might even reduce the community's capacity for risk reduction due to the loss of historical memory acquired over the years.

It is not all that bleak though, rather to the contrary. Building on the process of shared learning from collaborations with universities, Dairo suggested that the community is able to talk on more equal terms with the municipality. A working group, consisting of community leaders, NGOs and URBE Latam team members has been created to engage with the municipality. Dairo hopes that this working group will enable a negotiated process of risk reduction and relocation, ultimately establishing a trusting working relationship between the community and the municipality.

Interview transcript: Dairo Urán, President of the El Pacífico Community Action Board

Interview from the 22nd of September 2020

  1. URBE Latam (UL): What happened in the neighborhood on September 18th?

Dairo Urán (DU): On 18 September we experienced an avalanche, which destroyed seven houses, and 44 houses were damaged. We have significant losses, but thankfully only of material nature. We are in the process of responding to this tragedy.

  1. UL: How are you responding to the situation?

DU: We have been preparing thanks to the contributions of projects such as URBE Latam, and other organizations that have helped us to prepare for these moments. This is the first time that we had to experience a disaster in real life. Today we are living through it and this kind of preparation of how to deal with the municipal government has been very important. As a result, we are organised although in the eyes of the administration we always live at risk, and the collaborations with this kind of projects have provided with the ability of community risk management.

  1. UL: How have projects such as URBE Latam, social organizations, universities, and other partners contributed to the community’s ability to respond to the current situation?

DU: The knowledge that we have acquired due to these collaborations has been invaluable.. And when it comes to these organisations that support us in a selfless way, day by day, late at night, on holidays and Sundays, they might be doing other things, but they are dedicated to community work with the knowledge they have. When the municipal administration arrives with its engineers and geologists, they begin to speak in terms we as a community do not have the understand, but those organisations and institutions are like our lawyers, and support us with the knowledge they have.

  1. UL: How do you plan to deal with this situation in future?

DU: As a community we already asked for the municipal risk reduction and management agency (DAGRD) to provide us with detailed diagnosis of what is happening further up on the hill. While it is true that we live next to a ravine, we do are aware of the risk, but this is extraordinary. There is something that is happening up on the hill and we want the administration as such, in this case the DAGRD, to identify it. They say it was the cause of a normal downpour but we don't see it that way. We have the experience of these downpours, even when they are intensive when it's hard, nothing happened, so now it is obvious that something different is going on.

  1. UL: Why is it important to keep fighting for the neighbourhood despite this risk scenario?

DU: There is a lot of part of the neighborhood worth continuing to work for. If you don't continue, then who knows what the administration will say to get them out for whatever reason. I want to keep fighting for the neighborhood for two things…there are two fights: for those who have to leave and those who stay. To enable who stay to enable them to continue living here, and those of us who are going to move into social housing through ISVIMED (Medellín’s Institute for the municipal social housing program), to enable us deal with all these processes. That's why it's important to have the support of these organizations, for us to acquire knowledge about housing issues and various related laws.

  1. UL: How can university institutions assist with community empowerment?

DU: They're already doing it. Thanks to that when the municipal administration arrives at these meetings with us and thinks that we are not prepared for the meeting, they are surprised. They are surprised because they say, "Ah, these are no longer the communities we dealt with before and who we manipulated." This does not happen anymore, because we now talk with a sense of belonging, with empowerment, sure of what we are talking about, and that is thanks to the support of the universities and organizations. Thanks to them the administration sees us in a very different way, and we demonstrated last week when we said "let's set up a negotiating table", now there is a dialogue, coordination, and all that is thanks to the training we have received. Of course, we are not professionals, but they do provide us with knowledge that prepares us for negotiations. Also when the administration speaks to us in technical terms, we have the right people who can respond "I’m sorry but that is not so".

  1. UL: From the authorities' point of view, you live in an area of high risk, an argument that is often used to justify an eviction. In addition to the community risk management school as an important strategy, how would you say that the community has developed ways to not only to recover and manage risk, but also to grow and prosper?

DU: They always tell us that we are in a high-risk area, so we cannot invest because it is a public hazard, but we have proven otherwise. We have managed to establish ourselves in the territory by ourselves, through convites for risk reduction. While it is true there are some parts of the neighbourhood that are at risk, a big question remains: What does the administration do to avoid the risk? It's their duty. Reduce the risk in these ravines and see what happens. The government waits for something to happen in order to act. This is one of the biggest problems we have, but we're opposing ourselves to this tendency. The idea is to stay in the territory, but what's the solution? The negotiating table. It sounds drastic, but unfortunately it is necessary with the city government, due to its lack of credibility with the communities. One of the city administration’s biggest tasks is to create trust with communities.

Blog written in October 2020, by URBE Latam research team members: Professor Edna M. Rodriguez-Gaviria, Luis A. Rivera-Flórez and Philipp Ulbrich.


Aristizábal Botero, C. A., Cárdenas Avendaño, Oscar M., & Rengifo González, C. J. (2018). Displacement, trajectories and urban population. The case of Comuna 3 Manrique, Medellin, 1970-2010. Political Studies, (53), 126-147.

Pérez Fonseca, A. L. (2018). The disputed peripheries. Popular urban population processes in Medellin. Political Studies, (53), 148-170.

Rivera-Flórez, L. A., et al. (2020). "Community risk management. Space and environmental justice." Territorial Urban Log, 30 (III): 205-218.