Friday, June 9, 2023

Spanish frost strikes bare conditions in one of Europe’s largest slums

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About 14 km from Madrid is one of the largest slums in Europe, where up to 3,000 people have endured this week the coldest temperatures since World War II without heat or light.

Residents of Sector Six of the illegal settlement known as La Cañada Real Galiana have been without power since early October – around 100 days.

In a week when conditions have plunged below minus 13 degrees centigrade – the lowest in the region since 1945 – their situation is difficult.

“Being in our homes is like being on the street. . . I don’t dare look at the temperature, but when my feet are frozen, I know it’s very cold, ”said Sara Benayad, a 26-year-old of Moroccan origin who has lived in the neighborhood since the age of. 10 years. no heat, the water froze and the refrigerator had not worked for four months.

She and her husband have been unable to work at a local waste recycling facility for weeks, and their two-year-old was briefly hospitalized with respiratory problems. “I can’t go to work thinking about my child freezing at home,” she says. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of winter. . . This is what we are going through, in Europe, in the 21st century, in the heart of Spain.

Cañada Real is an unfinished business for 21st-century Spain, a problem for decades authorities have been unable to resolve – or even define. For many it is a place synonymous with drug trafficking and addiction, Madrid’s narcotics supermarket, where dealers and drug addicts coexist on squalid streets lined with shacks in Sector Six that the police fear they will trample on.

For others, it is a testament to social injustice and the enormous shortcomings of the economic model and the welfare state in Spain.

The problems came to a head with the three-month power outage in Area Six this winter, which the regional government and electricity supplier attributed to massive and growing demand for illicit indoor marijuana plantations, but which residents see it as an attempt to force them apart.

“The usage is so huge that they don’t even want to pay the bills,” Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of the regional government in Madrid, said last month. “They agree to park their Porsches there, but not to pay their bills, which causes these blackouts.

Volunteers distribute food packages in Sector 6 of La Cañada Real Galiana © Jaime Alekos / AFP / Getty

But locals like Ms. Benayad say they can’t get electricity contracts. “We want to pay for electricity,” she said. “But they won’t even put a yard.” For many, the problem lies in the unresolved status of Cañada Real – a land without property rights where much of the paperwork of daily life is simply impossible.

The 14 km long territory south-east of Madrid is a former cattle ranch – which has made it public land, even though its original purpose has faded into history.

As the Spanish economy modernized from the 1960s, economic migrants from the poor countryside of Andalusia and Extremadura crowded into the region, building homes on land they had no title to – just as slums were expanding in areas like Latin America and Turkey at the same time.

Cañada Real accelerated its growth after Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s, becoming what it is today – an area where settlements range from comfortable houses, some of whose owners have managed to regularize their status , to misery and misery elsewhere. Until October, the buzz of electricity echoed across the land, sparked off by the illicit connections that residents have made over the years.

Overall, according to official data – widely considered to be underestimated – some 7,300 people live in Cañada Real. There are around 3,000 in Sector Six, the poorest and most populous area, where many residents are of Moroccan, Roma or Romanian origin. Typically, one in three residents is a child – Sector Six is ​​home to 1,200 children.

Even before the electricity dispute, industry conditions sparked an international uproar. Philip Alston, then United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, wrote a year ago of his “shock.” . . insofar as the governments concerned seem to have abandoned the people who live there ”.

He added: “In Cañada Real, I met people living without a clinic, without an employment center, without a school or even without legal electricity, on an unpaved road, directly adjacent to the incinerators, in an area deemed dangerous for human health. “

But now, more than three months after the blackout, things are even worse. December 22, nine human rights rapporteurs called on the government to immediately restore electricity. “The children. . . are in serious pain and their health is threatened. ”

Butane cans and heaters were distributed in the area, but some locals refused them, saying electricity was what was needed © Jaime Alekos / AFP / Getty

Lidia Ortega, a family doctor in the area, says there have been more than 40 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of wood, gas or gasoline stoves as alternative heat sources and that the cold puts newborns in danger. And then there is the pandemic. “Blackouts make social distancing impossible,” she said. “People need to come together around the few heat sources that exist.”

Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s radical left-wing deputy prime minister, demanded that Naturgy, the region’s public utility, restore electricity as quickly as possible.

But the energy group says it has had to deal with a huge number of illegal and often very dangerous electrical connections. In all of sector six, and adjacent sector five, he said, there are only four legitimate contract holders – for 1,500 households that consume the equivalent of 10,000 households.

The company says the demand in Sector Six is ​​so high that automatic circuit breakers are tripped every time the power is turned back on.

Raúl Suárez, head of Naturgy’s electricity distribution division, argues that calls for an increase in the district’s power supply cannot be safely met due to the improvised power connections. “The risk of fires and electrocution could lead to an even more serious tragedy,” he said, adding that the power cuts are a symptom of “root causes” that date back decades.

Critics of Naturgy say it could do more to cut off marijuana plantations while restoring power to families, but the group maintains it needs prior clearances for such actions.

This week, she and the regional government sought to distribute around 200 cans of butane and heaters in the area, but in response, residents threw barricades and threw stones.

“We have decided to refuse these heaters, even if we need them, because what we want is electricity for our homes,” said Ms. Benayad. “If they think it’s not a good place to live, take us somewhere else, but leaving us and our families unprotected and without electricity is just not the solution.

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