The sprawling metropolis of Bogotá is situated high-up in the Andean mountains of Colombia. Just outside the capital, on its southern margins, is the informal settlement of San Germán. Here, around 270 families, who made their way to Bogotá in search of a new life since their displacement from elsewhere in the country, have found themselves in a makeshift neighborhood bordering a national park called Entre Nubes (in English, ‘between the clouds’). Describing it as a “microcosm” of her country’s complicated story, as well as its “hopes and hardships”, Ana Vallejo’s portrait of San Germán follows the lives of some of its inhabitants: victims of Colombia’s armed conflict, ex-guerrilla members, single mothers, indigenous and afro communities and economically-displaced families.
Last year, Colombia had the highest number of internally-displaced people in the world according to the UN. Like many of Colombia’s informal settlements, San Germán’s community is made from society’s most vulnerable: people who have been affected by the country’s half-a-century-long civil war, facing violence and persecution from both sides. A vast number of these people have fled to the city in search of safety and stability, only to be failed by the government, who are struggling to provide enough housing for their displaced citizens. The result has been a mushrooming of settlements on the fringes of Bogotá that exist outside of the law, leaving them lacking in basic services and exposed to local drug traffickers and illegal land pirates.
Built entirely by its residents, San Germán’s infrastructure poses threats to the ecosystem of the national park it borders while also making the community vulnerable to landslides. Neglected by the authorities and misrepresented by the media, the future of San Germán is precarious and the land it exists in is hotly contested. “Living in an ‘invasion’ neighborhood implies living in a marginal Bogotá. In this Bogotá, land is constantly disputed, the police don’t arrive and violence is often first choice in conflict resolution,” Vallejo explains. “Here, alliances are fragile and can be bought with money or fear. Nevertheless, people here are resilient and determined to stand tall.”
Composed of portraits of the people and places that make up San Germán, Entre Nubes places a human face on the wider issue of Colombia’s housing shortage, and the endemic cycle of issues that it engenders. A search for self-determination, legal status and the proper support and resources to build sustainable infrastructure that reduces the negative environmental impact on its surroundings are possible paths to protect the future of the community. “Many neighborhoods in south of Bogotá were initially self-established until their eventual legalization,” says Vallejo. “San Germán is a living testament of this, and its residents strive for more dignified conditions under precarious circumstances.”