Long Read | Life on the banks of the Rio Ozama

Hundreds of thousands of people living in impoverished settlements along one of the Dominican Republic’s most polluted rivers are struggling to survive.

The bright red number that government officials spray painted on Ramona Segundina Angoma’s makeshift home on the banks of the Rio Ozama signifies that at some point in the future, the 75-year-old will be evicted from the home she has lived in for nearly 30 years.

But for the about 300 000 people who live in settlements along the river in the Dominican Republic’s capital of Santo Domingo – where sewage and mounds of plastic and garbage are everyday fixtures, and residents have to evacuate when the river floods – evictions are not considered a negative.

“Getting evicted is like winning the lottery here,” Angoma says, owing largely to the government providing residents with financial compensation. “Getting this tag on my home is an opportunity. Look at the river, how it spills inside our homes,” she continues, gesturing to her two-room house constructed of cement and metal sheets.

3 January 2021: Ramona Segundina Angoma in front of her home with the number spray painted in red that means she will soon be evicted.

“Look at this on the streets,” she says, pointing to the black water running on the concrete ground and wincing in disgust. “My home is falling apart. I don’t want to live like this. I want to get the hell out of here.”

These settlements are home to Santo Domingo’s most impoverished residents, pushed to the polluted riverbanks as the city rapidly urbanises. The settlements are overcrowded and residents live in substandard and at times dangerous housing. 

As more people move in and families grow larger, thousands are forced to create additional land on which to build homes by extending the riverbanks with cement and soil. There is no sanitation system, leaving solid waste to drain directly into the Rio Ozama. There is also limited access to electricity and municipal services. 

Dumping ground 

Angoma has lived in this area since 1994, when she and her husband moved from their village to the city to find work. “We had nothing in the village, no land or property and no jobs, so we decided to come here to get a better life.” 

Her husband was offered a job as a construction worker and they were given materials to build a home near the river. “We couldn’t afford to live anywhere in the city, so we came to this land,” says Angoma.

All the land 60m from the river is considered government property, according to Patricia Gómez, a coordinator for housing and social justice organisation Ciudad Alternativa. 

Angoma and her family were some of the first to settle in this area. “It was much less crowded back then,” she says. “This whole area was vegetation, with avocado and plantain trees.” Now the homes are so compact that residents live on top of one another. 

3 January 2021: A build-up of rubbish in a settlement alongside the river, much of which travels down the Rio Ozama from neighbourhoods in Santo Domingo.

The Rio Ozama is the most important river in the country, according to Ezequiel Echevarria, a professor at the school of natural and exact sciences at Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. It flows for 148km and bisects Santo Domingo before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. During the colonial era, the capital began to develop from the port of Rio Ozama. 

Most Dominicans used to live in rural areas. But rapid urban expansion from the 1950s along with the growth in industry and urban construction in Santo Domingo prompted many to move to the city to find work. Its population is now more than 3.3 million. 

The government spearheaded commercial projects in the Ensanche Luperón area of the city in the late 1970s and 1980s, and forced marginalised individuals closer to the more vulnerable land near the river, says Gómez, who has worked with these communities for the past 15 years. 

“The government put a lot of capital into this area and constructed commercial buildings and housing for students studying in the city,” she says. “And all of this was constructed where poor and marginalised communities were already living and they were pushed towards the river. These families didn’t come to the riverbank because they wanted to. They had no other choice.” 

A way of life

The settlements are now squeezed into areas alongside the middle and lower Rio Ozama basin and straddle the centre of Santo Domingo. Angoma’s home is a short drive from the Colonial Zone, a Unesco World Heritage Site that attracts flocks of tourists. The city’s teleférico, or cable car system, transports passengers over the rusting corrugated roofs of the settlements, while every few minutes the metro rumbles over a bridge stretching above the ramshackle homes. 

Echevarria says the rain funnels much of the garbage on the streets of Santo Domingo into the Rio Ozama. It accumulates in the middle and lower river basin, along with the garbage and waste from the surrounding communities. 

“People throwing their trash into the river has always been the way of life here [in Santo Domingo] for at least the last 200 years,” he says. “But in the beginning of the city, the population was small enough that the river could handle it. However, when the city began to grow exponentially, the river couldn’t handle the contamination anymore. That’s when the problem got out of control.” 

3 January 2021: A street in the settlements on the banks of the Rio Ozama. 

For decades, it has also been the dumping ground for nearby factories. According to Echevarria, the concentration of toxic heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, in the water is high. In addition to human waste, abattoirs and pig and poultry farms operate with little to no regulation, contributing to the biological contamination of the river. 

The middle and lower river basin, where the shack settlements are located, is “now said to be the most polluted area of the country”, says Echevarria. It was only in 2000 that the government established the environment and natural resources ministry to draw up policies and regulate environmental preservation and restoration.

“People started to see that there was actually a problem only in the last 30 years,” he adds. “Since then, we have made some changes. But this problem has been accumulating for 200 years.” 

Gómez says the rates of malaria and dengue fever are high in these settlements, along with respiratory illnesses. There was a cholera outbreak a few years ago, and there have been cases of elephantiasis. 

‘Can’t afford food’ 

Like her fellow residents, Angoma does not have time to worry about contamination and pollution. Her only concern is survival. Her husband became severely ill in 2004 after having a heart attack. He had supported her for most of her life, but overnight she became the main provider for her family. Angoma began selling ice cream and sweets. On a good day, she makes about 100 Dominican pesos (about R25). On bad days, she makes nothing. 

Her husband died in 2014, from another heart attack. Angoma now shares a single mattress with her 64-year-old daughter Glenis, to whom she gave birth when just 11 years old, and her 11-year-old great-grandson Edward, whose mother died from Covid-19 complications in February 2020. 

3 January 2021: Residents are forced to extend the riverbank to create new land on which to build homes as the population in the Rio Ozama settlements grows.

Glenis walks with the aid of a cane, leaving her unable to work. Angoma’s other daughter is 54 and also has health issues. Angoma is the main provider for her two daughters and great-grandson. “I thank God that I am still healthy and I can still move around,” she says. “Because if I was in a bad condition we all would have died from hunger by now.”

But Angoma’s meagre income is insufficient. “We can’t afford to buy food every day. Like right now, I am preparing to boil water.” She points to an iron pot balanced on charred firewood in a makeshift kitchen area made of metal sheets. “I’m boiling this water only because I have faith that someone will buy ice cream today and I can buy some food to cook.” 

Most of the Rio Ozama settlement residents work at trades such as sewing and tailoring clothes and repairing shoes, or creating ironing boards, pillows or anything else they can sell in the city, says Gómez. Many cook and sell food, sometimes borrowing from predatory lenders at high interest rates to buy ingredients. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. “They take out loans because they have no money and then they’re trapped paying back loans for the rest of their lives.” 

Bare boards

Community spokesperson Andres Ruíz has lived in the settlements for two decades. He says children collect discarded glass bottles and cans to sell to vendors for about RD$5 or RD$6. They spend the proceeds on food or gambling at the slot machines in the colmados, or convenience stores.

Crime and drug addiction, linked to poverty and the social crisis, are rampant, says Ruíz, and the lack of roads in and out of the settlements makes residents vulnerable during emergencies. “If someone gets into an accident, there’s really no way for the ambulance to enter most of this area,” says the 66-year-old. 

“The children here have nowhere to play. They have no opportunities to just have fun with each other and behave like kids.” Several years ago, the government installed a basketball court across the street from Ruíz’s home, which is built partly on extended riverbank. The project was meant to provide a positive space for the youth, but after just a few hours the metal linings of the basketball hoops were stolen, leaving the boards bare. 

Luis Vincente Romero, 46, is slow to emerge from his wood-and-tin home. “What’s wrong Luis? You don’t want her to take pictures of your mansion?” a woman shouts and laughs as she passes by.

3 January 2021: Rio Ozama settlement resident Luis Vincente Romero. 

Romero used to work as a security guard for a hotel in Punta Cana, the country’s top resort destination. But about 10 years ago he was attacked with “devil’s acid”, a substance containing cleaning and plumbing products often used for revenge attacks, gender-based violence or during robberies.

“They threw it directly into my eyes,” Romero says, to steal his motorbike. Now blind, Romero could no longer do his job and was forced to move into the settlement with his 80-year-old father, who has lived here for 20 years. 

Romero says the worst part of living along the Rio Ozama is the flooding, which has increased over the years because of rising sea levels and extreme weather caused by global warming. The water rises by up to 6m several times a year in the neighbourhoods along the river. 

Residents have to quickly put their belongings on their roofs or other high points and seek shelter with relatives or friends living on higher ground. Others crowd into the Catholic church in Los Minas Viejos, up the hill. 

Church refuge

Angoma has large cracks in her cement floors, caused by erosion from the frequent flooding. Each time it floods, she is one of dozens of people who squeeze into the church to escape the floodwater and rain. 

“We have to stay in the church because we don’t have anyone else to help us,” Angoma says. “We sleep on the floor and some people stay standing up because there’s not enough room for everyone. We usually stay at the church for about two or three days.” 

After the rain and floods subside, residents have to scrub the contamination and waste from their homes. “It’s easy to clean because we’ve had a lot of practice over the years. So I clean the house very quickly,” Romero says with a shrug.

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Storms destroy their homes at times, forcing residents to rebuild from scratch. The Dominican government has rehoused about 7 000 people from the Rio Ozama settlements because of the threat of rising sea levels and an increase in extreme weather patterns.

Gómez says some houses are destroyed by landslides in the surrounding hills that periodically crush the dilapidated homes. Residents have been killed by the weight of dirt and rocks, she adds. 

Floods and storms

Jorge Luis Jimenez never gets used to the smell of raw sewage. “It stinks here all the time,” says the 30-year-old. He met his wife Xiomara Tejada Acosta in 2012 and they have lived in their two-room structure for about nine years. 

“There was no space anywhere else so this is why we built above the river,” says Jimenez, sitting on a wooden bench in their small common room as Acosta, 25, mops up the river water that has spilled on to the floor. Each time a boat goes past, which occurs every few minutes or so, the wakes push water inside their home. A discarded fan in the water between their home and their neighbour’s works as a garbage filter.

Jimenez used to work in construction, he says, and each night he would return to their current location and place stones, chunks of cement and soil into the river to create land for his home. It took him five years to build the foundation. 

Jimenez and Acosta live with their six-year-old daughter Ada and eight-year-old son Julian. A chihuahua yelps and scampers around their cramped space. His name is Benji and Jimenez bought the dog for Ada three years ago. “My daughter wanted him and I just couldn’t say no to her.” He flashes a loving grin at his daughter playing a game on a cellphone in the next room. A puddle of river water has already appeared once again on the floor. 

3 January 2021: Ada, Jorge Luis Jimenez and Xiomara Tejada Acosta’s six-year-old daughter, plays a video game on a bed as river water collects on the floor of their home when a boat passes by.

Storms have razed their home several times, most recently during Hurricane Laura in 2020. “We had to rush and take everything out. A lot of our belongings were destroyed,” Acosta says, choking back tears. 

The family has to seek shelter with Acosta’s mother, who lives higher up on the hill, during floods and storms. “It makes me feel anxious all the time,” she says. “But my mom tells me not to worry about material things. She says that I’m alive and I should be grateful and thank God that I’m alive.” 

It took Jimenez 15 days to rebuild their home after the hurricane and he took out a loan of RD$15 000 for the construction materials. He still owes the full amount. Acosta does not work and Jimenez makes only around RD$300 a day as a motoconcho, or motorbike driver. 

“If someone could take us out of Rio Ozama, we would jump at the chance,” says Acosta. “We want a better life. We just want the basic things in life and for our children to be safe. But we can’t find that here.”

Eviction compensation

The government has evacuated the families who live closest to the river over the past two decades, says Gómez. This involves evictions with financial compensation or resettlement to apartment units established to provide more secure housing. 

Organisations and activists have advocated for more compensation for these families since 2016. While the amount varies, Gómez says they are usually able to secure around RD$250 000 for each household and RD$50 000 for each additional member of the household. For those living hand-to-mouth, this money can be life-changing. 

Government officials came to Angoma’s home in September 2020, conducting a census of those needing to be evacuated. “They knocked on the door and counted everyone inside and spray painted this number on my home,” she says. “The government officials just told me at some point I will have to leave.” But Angoma doesn’t know when she will be evicted or how much compensation she will receive. 

“I heard that maybe we will get around RD$5 000,” she says. “Whatever they will give me I’ll be fine with because I can’t keep living like this. I’m really looking forward to the day the government comes to evict us.” 

Relocation efforts have been unsuccessful in the past because the government has resettled families in remote areas, removing them from their connection to the city, says Gómez. “So they will eventually return to the place they were evicted from, because that’s the place they know and the place they’re able to make money to survive.” 

3 January 2021: Jorge Luis Jimenez and his wife Xiomara Tejada Acosta. 

But more recent relocation efforts have maintained residents’ access to the city, she says, under pressure from activists. This includes connecting residents to public transport and providing social housing at low rental payments that eventually lead to ownership. 

These initiatives and strategies are included in a draft bill making its way through the Dominican Congress, aimed at promoting the creation of social housing to help eliminate the housing deficit in the city and assisting in relocating those living in the settlements. The bill also advocates for the creation of housing cooperatives in which residents would contribute to a collective fund dedicated to supporting local economic opportunities. 

“People from Rio Ozama are survivors,” says Gómez. “Even though they live in precarious conditions, they’re willing to struggle so they can have a better life in the city. Some of them find their way out of the slums, but most of them get stuck here and trapped in a cycle of poverty.

“All these people want is a better life, and they are willing to work hard for it. But they need just a little bit of support to get there.”

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