Society 31/01/2021

La Cañada Real, the largest irregular settlement in Europe that resists in the dark

A part of the neighbourhood has not had electricity for four months and the situation is a humanitarian emergency

Núria Rius Montaner
5 min
The neighbourhood of Cañada Real Galiana sector 5

MadridIt's almost lunchtime and soon Hind's five children will be home from school. "I will prepare their meals", she says, but she can't do it in decent conditions because she doesn't have electricity at home or, if she does, it's only at specific times. She is one of the neighbours of sector V of the Cañada Real, an irregular settlement located only 14 km from the epicentre of Madrid, considered one of the largest in Europe. To cook - she buys what she needs on a daily basis so it doesn't spoil - she uses a stove and a butane gas cylinder, the same one she uses to heat the house. "Even though it's dangerous, it's the only thing I have. Sometimes when the stove is on we get dizzy and we have neighbours who have been poisoned", she explains.

The situation that Hind is living is neither a one-time-thing, nor unique. For the last four months it is the one that the neighbours of the sectors V and VI of the Cañada Real have been living. This last sector, in fact, has not recovered its electricity at any time. The United Nations, which on other occasions has denounced the "humanitarian emergency" situation in the settlement, issued a communiqué on December 22 asking the Spanish government to "immediately restore electricity to the affected homes". There are 4,500 people, 1,800 of whom are under the age of 18, who are suffering from these conditions, which the storm Gloria and the cold snap in January have made worse: "I've been so cold I don't think I have a soul", Hind laments. The ravages of the storm are still felt in the neighbourhood. The roofs of some of the huts in sector VI have collapsed and have yet to be put up again.

Tamara with the gas stove, at her home

This mother has lived in La Cañada for twelve years and says that the winter has been "hell". She had to take her children to hospital. "They were not the only ones who got chilblains on their hands", she says. Although hygiene should be the most important thing in the midst of the coronaviru pandemic, a daily shower with hot water "is unthinkable", the neighbours denounce. "I heated a pot. That's how I bathed my son. Of course we get sick", Tamara, another lifelong neighbour in Sector V who also uses gas, says. "I assure you that without the [butane gas] stoves, some of our children would have died", she says.

Since the first power cut, the law firm CAES has filed two complaints through the neighbours against the Community of Madrid and the supplier, Naturgy. On the first, the court has already opened proceedings. The second was filed in January, after the death of a resident of Sector VI. "A 74-year-old man who was in good health, with no previous pathologies and who began to feel ill after a few weeks without electricity", the lawyer of CAES, Carlos Castillo, explains to the ARA. The complaint is for a crime of prevarication and also for denial of the duty to assist. "We are waiting for preliminary proceedings to be opened", he adds. The first complaint has been extended after the lawyers and the neighbours were aware of a "possible modification of the power of the electricity network" by Naturgy. The company denies that they have modified the system and ensures that everything comes from "irregular connections that overload the network", sources of the company explained to the ARA, which link it to marijuana plantations. Be that as it may, neither the administrators nor the company take responsability. The latter points out that it is necessary to locate the points that produce more electrical load, while the Community of Madrid asks the Delegation of the government to authorize the entry of the army and a shock plan. The specific "solutions" have been gas stoves and relocations that most residents have rejected. "Where will they relocate us? Somewhere far from here? I don't trust them. Let them give us electricity instead", Hind exclaims.

The lack of electricity supply is not the only problem. Not all of Sector VI is asphalted and in Sector V the road is not good either. "It's muddy. To go to school we always have to take two shoes and a rag to clean them before we go in", Hind explains. Added to the lack of decent conditions and infrastructure is the stigma. "You look for work and when they see on your ID card that you live in the Cañada Real they treat you differently. They look at you differently".

An ONG firefighter distributing milk in the neighbourhood of the Cañada Real in Madrid.

40 years later, the solution has not arrived

The Cañada Real began to be built in 1978. Today there are 16 km of settlement -that's why it involves three municipalities of Madrid- divided into six sectors where about 8,000 people live. Residents and social entities of the neighbourhood denounce that for years public administrations have been turning their backs on what has become a labyrinth of cables -especially in sector VI- to get electricity, a conglomerate of houses and shacks built with unstable materials and a nest of chronic poverty. "It has been a historical neglect", the rector of the church in Sector VI and member of the mediation team, Agustín Rodríguez, told ARA. However, everything changed in the 2000s, when the urban planning dossiers and the rubble began.

Agustín explains that the capital was growing, but that there was no problem with the Cañada "until Madrid began to grow to the east". "Suddenly the neighbourhood appeared as something that should not be there, and the first reaction was that everything had to go outside", he says. "I have no proof that it was a written plan, but the two things coincide over time and you ask yourself "Why now, why are they interested in La Cañada?"." In fact, at the moment there are up to three urban projects paralyzed that border the area: Berrocales, Ahijones and the Cañaveral. The idea of making the Cañada disappear was watered down, and the last attempt to find a solution was the Regional Pact for the Cañada signed by the administrations in 2017, which includes developing a strategy to relocate part of the population and "guarantee an adequate supply of electricity", a fact that is not fulfilled, Castillo denounces. Agustin believes it was a good pact, but the change of political color in the City Council in 2019, coupled with the pandemic, has paralyzed it. In addition, he believes that the intentions will not be fulfilled if things do not move further. "La Cañada has a problem that many other areas have where people live in exclusion and severe poverty, and that the world is not designed for them. It is a space that does not provide for the provision of housing and, therefore, does not have certificates of habitability and can not have meters, are we fools or what?" he exclaims, adding that "in the end the law ends up becoming a death trap". "The administrations have to be able to say: "I'm taking a gamble". What is at stake is a much higher value than compliance with the law, it's people's lives". The regularization of the settlement is one of the alternatives demanded by the people affected. So far, it has not arrived. La Cañada is still an unresolved issue.