This article was originally published on February 9, 2011.
Proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” doesn’t make it so. As Chile approaches the one-year anniversary of the February 27, 2010, earthquake, many government officials are gearing up to celebrate post-earthquake reconstruction. Following the rescue of “Los 33” miners, Chile earned a new international image as a technological, problem-solving powerhouse. Contrary to last year’s initial coverage of the 8.8 earthquake, which praised Chile’s infrastructural readiness, thousands of displaced families still eke out a precarious existence in government-built sheds. Comparisons to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are apt—temporary solutions have given way to more permanent neglect a year after the natural disaster.
For thousands of Chilean families this February 27th marks a somber reality. One only needs to head to an aldea, or earthquake resettlement community, to understand that all has not been solved. Aldea Bulnes sits atop a steep hill overlooking Curanilahue, a city of 33,000 located two hours south of Concepción in Arauco, Chile’s poorest province. Landlocked Curanilahue escaped the coastal destruction of the tsunami, yet when the dust settled, shifting soils had left hundreds of homes uninhabitable. The mural covered walls marking the entrance to Aldea Bulnes read: “For a home with dignity, stand up those who struggle.”
This hot summer day finds shirtless Octavio working outside his mediagua, Chile’s version of a FEMA trailer. This prefabricated emergency shelter measures 3m x 6m, about the size of small carport. Inside he points to the thin walls and Styrofoam insulation that came with the house. Last July, in the middle of Chile’s winter, rainwater flooded the mediagua, soaking the four mattresses on the floor where his family of seven slept. He asked local authorities for materials to weather proof his home and fix the leaking roof. The municipality’s response: a blanket. Although only designed for up to five people, Octavio has long given up on promises for another mediagua to be delivered. Instead he has begun constructing an additional room as time and materials permit. The walls of the addition are built out of centimeter-thin pine planks, cast off by the nearby lumber company. He laughs at the inadequacy of the construction materials: “This isn’t going to last the winter, it will be soaked through with the first rain, but it was all I could find. The government should have given me some plywood at the very least. But instead their doors are closed for those of us living here.”
Around the corner, Octavio’s neighbor Ana María shares her mediagua with her three children, Charlin, Jaime, and Julieta. In the cramped living quarters, clothes hang inside to dry, creating a damp climate in the rainy months. Last winter, two-year-old Julieta came down with bronchial pneumonia. “I can’t afford for them to get sick this winter,” says Ana María who makes just under $300 a month. “I can provide clothes and food for my kids, but I can’t build a house all on my own. I’m not asking for handouts, I just want a home for my family. Is it so incredible that as humans we want to live with dignity?”.
Even the camp’s name generates dissonance. The government officially designated them “aldeas” or villages. But Ana María disagrees, “If this were a village don’t you think it would be a little more decent?” Octavio shakes his head, “No, what we ourselves are building here is a campamento.” Literally a camp, but campamento is generally reserved for Chile’s urban shantytowns. The term has a deeper significance in Chilean social history when large-scale rural to urban migration in the twentieth century produced a ring of misery around Santiago and other cities. In the face of inadequate housing, residents claimed their own space in the city and built their homes “Why are they called campamentos in Santiago?” Octavio asks, “Because the people don’t live with dignity.”
Chile’s elusive quest for first-world status has generated aggressive poverty reduction programs and eradication of shantytowns in recent years. However, the results of a Chilean government survey found that in post-earthquake Chile, half-a-million more Chileans are living in poverty compared to 2009. This is disheartening news for leaders set on projecting an image of modernity, but devastating for those like Octavio and Ana María who suddenly found themselves without homes or resources. Octavio adds, “it’s shameful the way we are living now. I lost everything in the earthquake. I had nothing and now all I have this poorly-built mediagua.”
Unified response one year later
“We’ve got to stand together,” explains Cristián, the president of Aldea Bulnes and participant in provincial meetings with leaders from other aldeas. “The national government says it is the municipality’s responsibility, the municipality says it’s the government’s. And here we are stuck in the middle with nothing getting resolved.” In response, local leaders from aldeas throughout Arauco province started meeting to exchange experiences and discuss solutions to practical problems. Cristián points out that compared to other aldeas, the nineteen families in Aldea Bulnes are fortunate to have running water near their homes. Yet the government-built bathrooms, one for every three families, are beginning to leak sewage onto the ground below. The standing water creates a breeding ground for insects and disease in the hot summer and concern that winter rains will flood the drainage ditches, transforming the camp into mud mixed with sewage.
“Last year, they took all the leaders from aldeas to Santiago,” explains Cristián. “They told us that we would be a part of the reconstruction process. We would be the ones to select the lands where we want to live, and we would select our new houses.” Contrary to promises of participation, the government recently purchased lands on the outskirts of Curanilahue without consulting anyone. Many residents in Aldea Bulnes believe that the proposed area, even further from town and from major urban centers like Concepción, would put them far away from jobs, schools, and other services. The frustration is palpable: “How are we supposed to trust our leaders if all we’ve heard the past year has been nothing but lies?”
With coordination between aldeas now a reality, residents are coming together to demand their voices be respected in the reconstruction process. Cristián expresses optimism that this dynamic grassroots organizing response will produce results. “The only way to have strength is to unite people together so that our demands are heard.”
“If you listen to the news or the government, everything is great. Well, I’m here to say, it’s not great. It’s not the reality they show on TV,” chimes in Octavio. “The solution is for all the people from the campamentos to unite and go to the central plaza. We will pound on the doors of the government until they listen to us. We will do what Chileans do best—demand our rights by shouting for them.”
A mural painted by the children in the aldea and their summer school teachers reads, “With the strength of the children, we will create dignity.” Ana María wonders aloud, “What kind of a future are we giving our children here?”