From garbage dump to garden in the sky

It would be difficult to find a more iconic story of transformation, in Medellín or anywhere in the world, than the neighborhood known as Moravia. It would be even harder to find people as warm, welcoming, and open-hearted as the ones I met there when I first came to the city in early 2016.

The Story: How a garbage dump became a garden

The four square kilometers of northeast-central Medellín now known as Moravia was, until the 1960’s, a sparsely inhabited, fertile area near the Río Medellín.  Early in that decade, migration from the Pacific coast (El Chocó) and rural areas of northwestern Colombia (Antioquia) increased dramatically as people fled sectarian violence that had convulsed the nation for 20 years. Squatters became settlers, extended families put down roots, and the population began to explode.

Just as humans started to claim the area of Moravia, the city of Medellín began to dispose of its garbage there. Medical waste from the region’s principal medical school mixed with industrial waste from the meat packing company Xenu and the prosperous textile industry, and the household garbage of nearly 800,000 inhabitants of the city. Soon there was a hill, then a mountain, of refuse. The ponds, streams, and fields were quickly replaced with blowing ash and plastic – and worse – but the humans were far from discouraged. The ever-flowing parade of dump trucks from the city brought items to recycle, resell, and feed hungry children. 

By 1970, an estimated 40,000 people lived on or around the towering, smoldering cumulus that was never meant to house or feed people, let alone create a community with churches, gardens, a marching band and its own Boy Scout troop.

The city did its best to discourage the Moravitas, as they called themselves, from staying there. There were frequent efforts to reubicar – relocate – the population, sometimes through methods resonant with Gaza Strip relocations. Residents were offered apartments in high-rise buildings, but the apartments were 45 square meters of cement block, sometimes located hours away by bus from jobs, loved ones, and social networks. Although the apartments themselves were free, they were bare concrete: no furniture, no utility connections, no locks on the doors. There might be no elevators in buildings as much as 9 stories high. There were bills to pay for the first time: water, gas, electricity, all of which were “free” in Moravia.

When Moravitas refused to move, they sometimes woke up at night to find fires raging through their streets, destroying homes made of salvaged wood, turning to ash everything in a 10 square block area and giving residents no choice but to relocate.

March, 2007: Photos courtesy Noticias Teleantioquia

In 1984 the municipal government closed the dump for good. By then, Moravia was a densely populated working-class neighborhood, one of the most violent and drug-ridden in the city.  After Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, an overall regeneration of hope for a more peaceful future swept through Medellín.  In Moravia, vigorous community government re-emerged from traditional structures in place since the 1960’s and the city government compromised, in some ways, with the residents still in place. Schools were formalized, city services were extended into the neighborhood, and the question of how to decontaminate the mountain of decomposing garbage (“El Morro”) began to take shape. A group of environmental engineers from Barcelona partnered with Colombian civil engineers and soil scientists to create a space that was beautiful, as well as livable. Beginning in 2004, an urban transformation initiative funded by the city government under mayor Sergio Fajardo utilized soil purification techniques to create a community garden, now visible from major highways and the Metro and regarded as one of the most spectacular sights in Medellín. The garden and nurseries created as part of that initiative now provide well-paid employment for several dozen people, most of them single mothers. Orchids and bromeliads cultivated in the hothouse are prized and sold throughout the city.