19.5.12

TEST 27F: Observatorio Reconstrucción [OR] Conference

Until 2010, when Observatorio Reconstrucción (OR) University of Chile was established, there had been no national experience of a centralized academic space to collect, discuss and evaluate the reconstruction process. I have just attended a conference organised by OR. The conference, TEST27F, dealt with a wide range of aspects affecting people after a disaster, in this case Feb27, 2010 (the Chilean 8.8 earthquake).

The conference topics were varied and addressed issues such as policy development and implementation and discussed propositions, such as that by Prof Hugo Romero, who claimed that these types of disasters are not necessarily natural. He stated that the designed inequity of our cities (also in rural areas) determines who is going to be affected by these disasters. We are all familiar with Prof Romero’s position; however, he presented the evidence to support this. For instance,   an aerial image of Dichato (a zone completely devastated by the tsunami) showed that the northern well-to-do and well-designed neighbour town was not affected. A partly topographic issue, partly a design issue and mostly about who has the means to decide where and how to live.

Cecilia Delgado discussed the issue of historic value and heritage that while culturally important, in some cases may cause great disruption and delays to the reconstruction process. The question of at what expense for the affected communities can historical value be considered a legitimate criteria comes to mind, particularly when little heritage is left.

While discussing the reality of the reconstruction in the Region of Maule, the notion of the private sector leading “reconstruction” came loud and clear in the discussions and subtitle of this presentation: “little government and much market.” The role of the private market, promoting new investment and cleaning the urban image, while insufficient effort is placed on improving the planning of the cities, was discussed in the presentation by Sur Maule, the  findings have been put together in a recent publication entitled “Talca posterremoto: una ciudad en disputa. Modelo de reconstrucción, mercado inmobiliario y ciudadanía” (Talca post earthquake: a city in dispute. Reconstruction model, housing market and citizens).

The issue of looting was also addressed by Alberto Gurovich. The complexity of this situation is highlighted by the fact that many of the looters were not people in need, indeed some were middle class, educated and had more than the average income. This circumstance presents a challenge that goes beyond pure sociology. The presenter mentioned that they are now dealing with how to reinsert those looters into their community, where many now suffer from rejection and in some cases, self-imposed isolation. The situation also underlines the important role of local universities in their capacity to respond to the specific needs of local communities. For example, it was mentioned that the University of Concepción has implemented workshops to work with the situation of looters in the affected communities.

As a way of summary, here are some thoughts and ideas that stood out in my mind: social-natural disasters offer the opportunity to improve the people´s conditions rather to just ‘reconstruct’ or redesign the conditions for social disadvantage. It offers the opportunity to repair the social circumstances that made the disaster worse than it could have been. Reconstruction is not only about material infrastructure. The term reconstruction or resilience present its own problems—do we really want inequality to be resilient?

Overall, the discussion covered difficult issues in all their complexity. It was critical and was grounded in evidence and first-hand experience, which makes it exceedingly valuable.
OR presents an opportunity to generate knowledge by working and networking community, government, academia, professionals, students and NGOs , who are all important participants of the reconstruction process.

I am looking forward to the next step when summaries and wider perspectives of this generated knowledge can be shared, transferred, reflected upon and more importantly, inform change.

Find Prof. Hugo Romero´s article: Natural disasters and social vulnerability.

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