Cananea: The Production and Self-Management of a Neighbourhood


1.-History, background and context

At the beginning of 1983 a group of housing applicants were organized by the housing promotion section of the Valley of Mexico Urban Popular Movement (CONAMUP) and in 1984, low-income members from several neighbourhoods in Mexico City (Federal District) defined seven areas of social struggle. All the members were seeking an adequate and dignified place to live.

After one year of struggle the group found a site that is located in the western part of the Iztapalapa municipality called El Molino, which was owned by the National Popular Housing Fund, FONHAPO. In 1985 the group was legally constituted in the Settlers, Renters and Housing Applicants Union (UCISV-Libertad A. C.). This group organized the savings of its members for the down payment on the site and the struggle began to obtain a loan from FONHAPO to finance the construction of 1,085 houses by self-build methods.
The UCISV-Libertad A.C. were obliged to install a water treatment plant in order to obtain the loan for construction of the first housing phase and they chose to work with an alternative technology group called Alternative Technology Group S. C., and on their recommendation chose an organic waste water treatment system (SIDRO) for installation on the site. The non-government organization Housing and Urban Studies Centre A. C. (CENVI) supported the project and undertook a study of the land structure and developed the urban, planning and architectural projects as well as supervising the first phase of the progressive housing program. The construction of a brick-making unit and a building materials storage area were financed by the Dutch Agency for International Cooperation (NOVIB). These not only supported the construction process but also reduced the cost of building materials.

The first phase of the housing program finished in 1987 when 452 houses were handed over to their new owners and a year later in 1988 another 387 homes had been completed. Finally 248 houses were completed in the third stage that ended in 1999. As the housing construction came to an end new struggles began in order to improve the neighbourhood, provide urban and other services and to plan the utilization of the space for green areas, sports facilities and recreation.

2.- Objectives, strategies and scope:


  • Organize 1,087 low-income families to resolve their housing need through self-building processes.
  • Promote an organized movement and create new forms of struggle.
  • Construct a self-managing organization with a democratic structure and a democratic working method.
  • Contribute to the strengthening the economy of the group and promote solidarity with the poor.

Strategic criteria:

  • Self-management is determined and strengthened through social education, information and encouraging participation in all aspects of the project, and forming commissions of the member to attend to specific issues.
  • Pressurizing and negotiating with the authorities and public organizations, elaborating proposals, seeking financial resources, applying for permissions and managing all other elements that were necessary for the project.
  • Ensuring that the social organization was in control of the process and that it had the technical support that was essential for house construction to take place.
  • To construct provisional modules to house families whose homes were lost in the 1985 earthquake and others that didnt have the resources to pay rent.

The participating and benefiting population
1,087 families benefited directly from the housing program as well as thousands of inhabitants who live in the surrounding area who benefited by the installation of urban services that arrived due to the El Molino project.

The El Molino site and the surrounding neighbourhoods and villages.

Innovative aspects:
The main innovations are related to the socio-organizational and technical aspects of the project. The relationship between social management, the production of habitat, environmental improvement and strengthening the local economy are particularly important.

3.- Actors that have been involved in the project and their role in its development

  • The organized community: coordination and the integration of the elements of the process; contributing with work and savings and taking the responsibility to that licences were obtained and that official registrations were in order. The organized community also administers the project resources.
  • Housing and Urban Studies Centre A. C. (CENVI): responsible for the urban and technical design, the technical direction of the project, building supervision and the administration of the housing construction loan.
  • National Popular Housing Fund (FONHAPO): a public low-cost housing fund that granted the loan for acquiring the land, the elaboration of studies and projects, the first phase of the progressive housing project, and part of the infrastructure and urbanization works.
  • Dutch International Cooperation Agency (NOVIB): financed the brick-making unit and the building materials storage unit.
  • Iztapalapa Municipality: granted licences and permissions after considerable persistence by the organized community.
  • The central government has proved itself to be intolerant and inaccessible.

4.- Program components (brief description of the relation between them)

The habitat part of the project includes the following: land preparation, progressive housing construction (measuring 54 m2 in the first stage with the possibility of extension in the future), urbanization works, alternative waste water treatment, spaces designated for recreation, culture, education and production.

In the social part of the project there was a high degree of participation, organization and autonomy. The community controlled the entire process and took decisions from the start of the project. The community administered the external resources, the housing construction loan and the different types of internal financial resources. The negotiation with the different parties involved in the project and the definition of action plans were also organized in the community.

The community was the main element in the formation of the project policies and the housing self-construction, they mobilized their own resources and worked collectively in the preparation of the land, the participated in urbanization works and to establish the recreational areas. The community organized the applications to the relevant authorities for schools, a church, markets, sports facilities, a cultural centre, a library, a popular kitchen and a nursery.

With the entire focus of the project on the community thousands of families have a decent home today and have communal kitchens, child development centres that are controlled by the mothers, health centres and the training of alternative health workers.

The project promotes open education at primary and secondary level for workers. A community library has been established with an area reserved for work with children, youth and adults. In addition to library reference, help is available for homework. The community has cultural areas for dance, community cultural traditions, workshops for silk-screen, reed and basket weaving, chocolate making, seed art, and on the prevention of AIDS and addictions, self-esteem, defence of the rights of children and the young, etc. An ecological park has been set up and green areas rescued in El Molino and the adjoining neighbourhoods, as well as sports fields and childrens play areas. Workshops have been promoted to recycle plastic, make objects from paper mache and to make vases from glass, among others.

5.- Principal instruments

The organization is legally constituted as a civil association and is internally divided into sections that are made up of smaller territorial units. Each section holds a monthly meeting where the commissions on organization, finances, technical issues, culture and the press, ecology, honour and justice, women, supplies and health inform the members of their activities which are discussed and decisions are taken on how to proceed.

The decisions are taken by consensus or by vote according to the issue and this gives agility and legitimacy to the process. The Assemblies give continuity to the processes and the accounts are analysed and community is responsible for each activity. The issues and decisions are taken to the General Assembly and to the Zone, Regional and National Boards of the Emiliano Zapata Popular Union, UPREZ.

6.-Achievements and principal lessons

The construction of the 1,087 houses included the basic house frame, that is to say that it did not include any installations or finishes. The only infrastructure was the closed organic waste recycling system SIDRO, that made fertilizer for the land, and eventually this was abandoned due to technical problems in its operation.

The project was a new experience for the women; it was a personal triumph for each one, as women had equal status to the men. The women participated in all the project tasks including moving earth so that construction could take place, using picks and shovels and machinery, etc. Previously these were tasks undertaken exclusively by men and the women realized that they could do it as well. Many of the women who participated were single mothers.

The older women who were unable to participate with the heavy physical work looked after the children in a nursery, as their mothers were involved in the building process. The nursery service still operates with the women child minders who have been trained to give a better service and it has been extended to include working mothers.

The friendship and solidarity that have come out of collective work will not be forgotten and continue to unit the community and stimulate it to solve new problems in the same way. Today, many members of the community have formed close and committed relations of compadres, others have become partners, and sometimes their children marry each other and form new families. The community has grown and another organizational base has been formed with the new generation of Cananea settlers called, UCISV Libertad, A.C. Rio Blanco.

The project has had an impact on other experiences and has considerable potential for promoting changes in public policy.

Despite confronting many obstacles the project is widely considered as successful:

  • The organization of the settlers and their struggle has meant that the first stage of the progressive housing in Cananea registers the lowest cost in the Valley of Mexico.
  • The long processes to obtain licences and municipal permissions and the intentional obstructions that were put in the path of the project by government functionaries for political reasons obliged the organization to mobilize and exercise pressures to achieve its aims.
  • The community had to defend the land to prevent it being taken by other people or groups as it took three years for the land title to be settled definitively.
  • The many obstacles that the Cananea community has faced have strengthened its organization and have kept it alive and are the basis for taking new initiatives and developing new projects.

The innovative Cananea experience has had a major urban impact in terms of the social production of habitat, environmental sustainability and the economic strengthening of low-income groups. An extensive zone is now densely populated and the Cananea community works together with neighbouring groups that have developed similar projects such as the United Workers Central (CUT) and the Francisco Villa Popular Front (FPFV).

7.-Key words:

Mexico; Iztapalapa; El Molino; self-management; housing; neighbourhoods; environmental protection; urban struggle; economy; savings; participative process; womens role; social management; solidarity; autonomy.

8.- Sources

Based on several documents of the civil organization UCISV-Libertad, A. C.

9.- Contacts

Alicia Torres Haro
Unidad Habitacional Cananea, Seccin 9, Manzana 4, Lote 10
CP 09969 Iztapalapa, Mxico D.F., Mxico
Tel: (52-55) 58637463 (044) 21313633