Cultural Landscape of the Vernacular Stilt Housing of Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta and of Medio Atrato
Permanent Delegation of Colombia to UNESCO
Departments of Antioquia, Chocó and Magdalena
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Housing in the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta
Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta is located in the northern part of the country, on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, between the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the Magdalena river. It was declared a Ramsar Site, as it is one of the ecosystems with main ecological significance in the country. It is made up by a group of marshes and a network of creeks and rivers; it is the largest lacustrine complex in Colombia, with an area of 4,280 Km2, from which 730 km2 are water surface.
The lacustrine towns of Bocas de Aracataca or Trojas de Cataca (township of the municipality of Pueblo Viejo), Buenavista and Nueva Venecia, also known as “El Morro” (the latter located on the jurisdiction of the municipality of Sitionuevo) were located on Cienaga de Pajaral marsh and the Cienaga Grande itself since the mid XIX century.
These fishermen neighborhoods have achieved a level of adaptation and integration to their environment by developing houses that are immersed in the aquatic medium, with the use of wood as the main construction material and the improvement of the stilt construction techniques, on which platforms and docks are built in order to support the houses and thus guarantee their stability and enduringness when facing the changes and movements of the water of the marsh. The main economic activity of the inhabiting communities is artisanal fishing. Fishing has been a determinant factor for houses to have living and working spaces, and has favored interaction between the inhabitants and the marsh by incorporating drying areas (Trojas), as well as fish farming and storage.
The product of this economic activity is traded in the nearby markets of Barranquilla, Soledad, Malambo, Sabanagrande, Santo Tomás and Palmar de Varela, in the Department of Atlántico, and Sitionuevo, Remolino and some others in the Department of Magdalena. The main means of communication amongst the different towns and markets is water, in canoes and motorboats.
The conditions of the marsh, including the presence of freshwater and salt water tributaries, as well as shallow surfaces, have made it a very rich ecosystem with abundant fish. Fish group themselves in big masses and resemble floating food islands during the subienda (time in which fish swim up river to spawn). Additionally the fact that the swamp is closed causes fish to have reduced mobility, which makes them bigger in size as compared to fish found in waters allowing for better mobility.
Houses have been conceived as isolated units in the three towns. Houses in Bocas de Aracataca are different in that they are supported by an area with more extensive ground surface; this means that archipelago – like house building has been facilitated, without necessarily utilizing wooden stilts as foundations, and this condition has made many of these housing solutions targets during the rainy season.
In Buenavista and Nueva Venecia, the totality of houses is supported by wooden stilts, and the houses are almost exclusively connected by canoes. There are connection bridges only amongst main public use buildings such as schools and churches.
Stilt communities have had to implement knowledge and techniques which have enabled them to develop a relationship with their environment, slowly adapting their traditional practices to the present demands and conditions. However, since these communities are part of a very fragile environmental context, they can be threatened by changes on the swamp’s ecosystem.
Thus, up to now, the inhabitants have been able to develop sustainable environmental management, with ownership on the space whereby stilts emerge as a settlement model and territorial representation. Thus, housing appears as both the support and scenery of culture, as it allows the continuity of traditions and lifestyles which have been passed on through generations, barter and communication systems, as well as the uses and management of the territory, resisting transformations akin to urban evolution.
The constructive development of the houses starts by choosing the place where the house will stand and driving of the mangrove wooden stilts into the ground, on top of which the wooden floors and walls will be supported. The general dimensions of the houses include one storey, with a gabled roof oriented depending on direction of the wind. The indoor outline follows a traditional distribution that includes a social living room / dining room area, a bedroom area, bathroom services as well as a kitchen with a stove.
A significant element in these houses is the possibility of constructing a patio by filling a fenced area with solid waste such as oyster shells, branches, mud and rubble, all brought in by boats and canoes: "Thus, with surprising constancy, by force of accumulating the most diverse waste and materials, a very humid terrain is achieved at last, after two or three years, which is more of a marsh that any other type of terrain, whose area is 20.50 or 80 sq. meters. According to the economic possibilities of the landowner, this word can be used here. After some more time, the long – awaited patio is obtained which, if not completely dry, has less humidity."
In general terms, it has been necessary to fill in areas in the three lacustrine towns to establish common use areas during the dry season when the water level is lower; places like soccer fields, and areas next to churches and schools, which normally take the place of main squares in traditional towns.
Stoves used to be located at the patios for fish smoking; nowadays, fish is not smoked but sun dried on the Troja, a uniform log surface on which the product is displayed. Therefore patios are now used for drying clothes, fixing canoes, storing water and for children to play.
The technical construction of these houses is very different from that mainland housing. They are not the result of a contract with construction workers or builders, but an event that gathers comrades, friends and family, strengthening friendship and kinship ties; it changes from a constructive event to a social gathering. In this regard, knowledge of the trade lies not only in the hands of masters; it is in everyone’s head, from children down to grandparents.
The distance between houses, besides being part of its urban configuration, is a resource that promotes health to the extent that all waste from households is discharged directly into the seawater. If houses were arranged in a continuous manner, a health problem of great dimensions would arise. Without being symmetrically arranged, houses establish river flow areas between one another, analogous to roads of any mainland town. These houses are similarly arranged by sectors or neighborhoods, almost always resulting from family associations.
The strategic location of these villages has turned the population into targets of illegal groups seeking to control the territory, with massacres such as that of November the 22nd, 2000. This event remains in the memory of settlers due to its cruelty and depravity, as a profound scar which marked and transformed their lives and those of their families, with the loss of life and displacement into other towns. Displacement has caused abandonment of some of the houses, as well as lack of interest in continuing to live in the villages.
Housing in Medio Atrato
This type of housing can be seen in the municipalities of Quibdó, Medio Atrato, Bojayá Murindó and Vigia del Fuerte. It is the result of the superimposition of a system of space occupation by people of African descent on the previous Indian settlement system, in a territory mainly populated by ethnic groups exploited and oppressed by the Spanish presence.
Narrations by indigenous people in the area tell that African descendants learned the production and construction techniques of the houses of the former, as they were most appropriate to the environmental conditions of the tropical rainforest. Said housing solutions are practically identical to those built a hundred years ago.
In order to better understand the origin of the settlement system, it is necessary to understand that it was primarily influenced by an economy linked to mining and, subsequently, the farming system developed in the region in the twentieth century.
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries there is rudimentary mining activity in Chocó, which is controlled by the Spanish colonial regime from the mid-seventeenth century. This activity entered into crisis in the nineteenth century when slavery was abolished. The conquest of this territory was not easy, and it was not achieved by the Spanish colonizing expeditions but by small civilian mixed groups of Creoles, mestizos and mulattos coming from cities like Pasto, Popayán, Cali, Buga, Cartago, and in general of the West Cordillera. This is therefore a land of settlers, at least initially. The sparse population in the region was located in low-density cores on the areas where mining - the source of income at the time- was taking place. None of these townships was upgraded to "Villa" or "City", being at most classified as "Town", and predominantly in the "Real de Minas" (Royal mining) category, many of which disappeared shortly after their creation.
Some time later there came a phase of land settlement and an independent mining mainly driven by Cimarrones, libertos (freed slaves) and manumisos (freedmen) who peacefully ended up covering primarily the banks of the main tributaries of the region, beginning in the late eighteenth century, reaching a peak in the early twentieth century and remaining valid to this day. The spontaneous land settlement also generated numerous agricultural enclaves deeper into the jungle, there appearing plantations of maize, sugarcane, coconut, rice, cassava and plantains. The stage of self - sufficiency is reached, subsequently achieving surpluses which could be traded and leading to the emergence of collection centers.
The river populated areas are exposed to continuous rains typical of a super-wet tropical climate like the jungles of Chocó; there can be found over 150 of them in the study area. In general, more than 400 river villages can be identified in the country's Pacific region with a population reaching 300,000 people.
The transformation of the pattern commonly used in the plot planted in the middle of the forest is transformed into scattered cultivations and linear villages. These are generally rural populations with no more than two thousand persons, not exceeding five thousand, or settlements which house between 10 and 100 families.
Collective and rotational use of land for farming is predominant, as well as water resources and forests. Lack of title to property is also common; property is acquired through inheritance, donation or usufruct. A similar situation occurs with the lots where houses are built (which have use value but no economic value); these lots are given free of charge, or at a very low price, to those who want to build their house there, with a predominance of blood relationships, friendship or cronyism (as well as in agricultural and collective fishing farming economic activities). Only seldom is a house bought or sold, and the usual practice upon the abandonment of a house is to assign it or to lend it to a relative, and even more rarely is the house rented; such a situation occurs in cases of arrival of outsiders to the villages.
The evolution of farm typology is characterized by the passage from the initial scattered productive lands to rural neighborhoods, township nuclei and finally urban centers, thus generating various types of lots on which production areas are ever smaller, whilst residential areas increase and are subdivided amongst family members. Three types of properties can be identified: Firstly, cultivated rural lots, and / or intended for animal husbandry, with areas between 300 and 800 m2. Secondly, lots with ample back patios and generous front sides, whereupon houses are built with an area ranging between 150 m2and 800 m2. In third place there are lots with areas between 100 and 150 m2 with a small backyard. Family size varies between five and seven people who occupy lots with an average area between 100 and 200 m, thus allowing the existence of small - scale and self - sufficiency agricultural activities.
The rhythm of daily activities is marked by the river's behavior. When the river covers the earth, there appear rafts and multipurpose barges which are moored near homes. This barges consist of planks resting on balsa logs, to which enclosure walls and covers can be added, and may be intended for such varied activities as deposits, pens for pigs and chickens and communal activity and socialization areas (laundry and dishes, beauty salon, fishing, etc.), maintenance and care thereof is the responsibility of all villagers. The only possibility of movement amongst the houses is by means of trestles. When the soil is dry, the boats are moored away from the houses. The stilts whereupon houses stand can be seen and the soccer fields can be used, so that different applications are given to the private and collective space, in accordance with the fluctuation of water.
Coordinates: 10°46'4.30"N, 74°22'12.48"W (village of Bocas de Aracataca, municipality of Pueblo Viejo, Magdalena), 10°50'29.59"N, 74°30'32.72"W (municipality of Buenavista, a town of Sitio Nuevo, Magdalena), 10°49'44.70"N, 74°34'28.61"W (village of Nueva Venecia municipality of Sitio Nuevo, Magdalena), 5°41'28.43"N, 76°39'29.99"W (municipality of Quibdo, Chocó), 5°59'58.60"N, 76°46'59.29"W (municipality of Medio Atrato, Chocó), 6°33'29.56"N, 76°53'41.05"W (municipality of Bojayá, Chocó), 6°35'38.77"N, 76°53'28.89"W (municipality of Vigia del Fuerte, Antioquia), 6°47'59.94"N, 76°47'59.61"W (municipality of Murindó, Antioquia).
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The cultural landscape shaped by the existing lacustrine populations in Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta is a representative example of adaptation and coexistence in a lacustrine environment, which has allowed the permanence and continuity of traditions and knowledge about fishing, as well as the emergence of construction techniques and production systems defined by environmental conditions and resources.
In the case of the housing associations in Medio Atrato, this cultural landscape is the result of adaptation of human groups (mainly formed by African descendants) who settled this area in the middle of the tropical rainforest of the Pacific since the seventeenth century in its natural environment. These groups adapt the rhythm of their day – by – day activities to fluctuations in water levels both from rainfall and the river itself, with linear settlement patterns of houses on stilts along the Atrato river. The Atrato river is the heart of the area and is the ultimate means of communication amongst villages, since it drives the economy and travelers going daily between Quibdó city (located near the headwaters of the river) and the Gulf of Urabá (located in the Caribbean Sea) over a length of approximately 750 kilometers. This cultural landscape is alive and constantly under construction, along the Atrato and its tributaries there appear buildings and new homogeneous housing clusters on a daily basis, while responding to environmental variables which have remained constant in the region and which constitute the cultural border between the jungle and the river.
The close relationship of these communities with their natural environment makes them heavily reliant on conservation thereof, which has brought about a symbiotic bond to the balance between environmental conditions and production and daily routines. Said bond is currently threatened by environmental changes due to global warming and conflicts of a public and social kind that these regions of the country live; for this reason it is imminently necessary to acknowledge the values present in these communities, as well as their conditions and characteristics with the possibility of promoting or searching for tools to allow them to maintain their current lifestyle.
Criterion (iv): The implementation and construction of these stilt villages is an example of the dominion of environmental conditions, resulting from adaptation over more than two centuries by human groups, who have generated their own building systems and efficient optimization of resources and transformation of the landscape, creating a building tradition marked by the use of wood as the main material and a system of docks and stilts for support and water insulation. The materiality of such housing has changed over time but has adapted to the introduction of new materials, thereby maintaining the traditional building technique.
Criterion (v): These settlements represent a traditional occupation which has configured a symbiotic relationship between the aquatic media and its inhabitants, following a particular lifestyle governed by the natural conditions and the everyday activities of its inhabitants.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Despite the security problems which have affected the zones wherein it is possible to observe these types of housing (and that have generated displacement of some of its inhabitants) and the appearance of new building materials that have slowly replaced traditional ones in some cases, passage of time has shown that this type of construction is the most efficient way of adapting to the aquatic ecosystems in which these groups are settled, as construction materials are provided and subsequently reabsorbed when deteriorated, without affecting the environmental balance.
Whilst specific zones of the Colombian territory are indicated as exemplary of this type of housing, this way of coexisting with the aquatic medium is commonly extended to vast zones of the pacific, as is the case of the constructions along the Atrato riverbanks.
As regards housing in lacustrine ecosystems, evidence has been made manifest in recent years of the necessity to protect both the Cienaga (marsh) and the traditional way of living of its inhabitants, throughout a series of projects which seek to decontaminate the body of water, recover currently deteriorated constructions, and attracting visitors to the zone as a way of destigmatizing it as a violence – stricken zone.
Comparison with other similar properties
So far there have been no similar examples in the list of World Heritage List. However, it has been possible to identify two examples that can serve as a reference for this case:
1. The stilt houses of Chiloe in Chile, which are associated with a set of notable churches declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The city of Castro is the capital of the homonymous municipality, on the Big Island of Chiloé archipelago, located 1200 kilometers south of Santiago de Chile. It's the beautiful Los Lagos Region.
Typical stilts houses line the steep and rugged coastline in the region. The stilt -shaped buildings are not just limited to homes, but also restaurants and hotels. The stilt houses of Chiloé are also world famous for being one of the few cases of this type of constructions so large and over the sea.
2. Santa Rosa de Agua. Maracaibo, Venezuela
This set stilts appears with news of being declared by UNESCO as a world architectural heritage in 1992. However, as it doesn´t appear in the World Heritage List, it has been difficult to verify the veracity of this declaration.
Santa Rosa de Agua is a similar example of adaptation developed in the Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta, with construction techniques and own housing schemes resulting from local conditions.