Survivors of Valparaiso firestorm march on Congress to demand decent housing and dignity

Read more about what EPES is doing in the recent EPES Update! To help support the work of EPES – including the recovery in Valparaiso – please give a gift through AHA!

Survivors of Valparaiso firestorm march on Congress to demand decent housing and dignity

By Lezak Shallat, Fundación EPES CHILE

Torrential rains turned the steep streets and ravines of Valparaíso into rivers, and makeshift emergency housing into sieves. On June 11, two months after the firestorm that consumed 3,000 homes and damaged 12,000 more in the Chilean city of Valparaiso, its blackened hills were not ringing with the sounds of hammers; instead, the angry chants of protestors banging pots and pans echoed from hill to hill as the scores of people battled the rain to march down to the gates of the National Congress to demand to decent housing.

Marco Olmedo is clothed in a plastic bag to keep off the rain. His house on Cerro El Litre burned to the ground, and everything in it. Fortunately, he wasn’t there. Unemployed, he had left four days earlier for Argentina to look for work. He saw his neighborhood engulfed in flames on TV news and rushed back to salvage what he could.  He’s living in the makeshift, emergency housing known as “media-aguas” — a one-room, wooden shack with no bathroom. His electricity was only restored today.

Lorena Monroy, President of the Cerro El Litre Neighborhood Council, charges the government with negligence. “It’s impossible that we still are lacking a rapid, definitive and dignified solution.”

“No more emergency shacks in Chile,” demands Mauricio Salazar, director of the Las Cañas Community Center where EPES in focusing its recovery efforts. “They don’t work. That’s our reality.” Salazar denounced “disorganization and rumor” from the authorities in charge of the rebuilding efforts.

“We are here to tell them that we are not going to let them forget about us until we have decent, dignified housing,” he promises, backed by cheers from the crowd. A scuffle with police followed as the protestors momentarily blocked the entrance into Congress, located at the foot of the city’s impoverished hillsides.

Hear Marco, Lorena and Mauricio in their own words.

Health educator Mónica Arancibia, facilitator of the participatory assessment process supported by ACT member Fundación Educación Popular en Salud (EPES), accompanied the marchers and attested to their demands. “In structured conversations, residents are prioritizing their individual and collective needs: weatherproofing the shelters, clean-ups of the communal toilets and showers, a place to wash clothes, garbage pick-up,” she enumerates.

Mónica also cites the contribution of “commitment, support and identity” that EPES is providing. “Like them, I’m a also pobladora (resident of a low-income sector launched in a land takeover on the outskirts of the city). I know what it is like to struggle.”

The EPES-facilitated assessment is shedding light on a host of problems that won’t disappear once the rains stop. “The procedures for assigning and building the emergency housing is sorely lacking in controls,” says Maria Eugenia Calvin, EPES Director of Planning and coordinator of the ACT initiative in Valparaiso. “Boards are missing, nails are missing, the shacks come without locks for the door. The families who are fixing up their homes need skilled builders to oversee the dwindling number of volunteers who have stayed on to help the homeless. But instead of hiring local workmen, the government is bringing in military people to carry out the repairs.”

The Summer 2014 EPES Update is here!

EPES Update June 2014 Cover

Read the June 2014 EPES Update (many of you will be receiving the Update in the mail this week – if you’d like to be on AHA’s Mailing List, please let us know by emailing AHABoard@gmail.com!)

Dear Friend,

As you look forward to summer vacation, it is fall in Chile and EPES’ plate is decidedly brimming over.

EPES’ 5th International Training Course on Popular Health proved that language and culture are not barriers when it comes to the yearning for change. The six women from Kenya and one from Uganda who traveled to Chile in January with the Hope Foundation for African Women (HFAW) acquired the tools for applying the EPES model for empowerment in health in their communities.

They also formed bonds of friendship with the Chilean health promoters who traveled the same road years ago. Ever since she participated in the first health education training school in 2010, HFAW director Dr. Grace Mose had dreamed of bringing the EPES methodology to Kenya.  As you will see in the inspiring photos of the first training sessions in Kenya, EPES has truly crossed an ocean and a continent.

On April 12th, a fierce fire devastated low-income neighborhoods of the hilly port city of Valparaíso, reducing 3,000 houses to ashes and leaving 12,000 people homeless. On Cerro Las Cañas—the area hardest hit by the blaze—a community center, run by an EPES Popular Health Training course graduate, is one of few buildings left standing, and has become the hub of emergency response activity.  Within days, EPES staff was on the scene and determined that the situation called for the post-disaster program pioneered in Concepción in response to the earthquake four years ago. EPES pledged to help improve 300 emergency houses (the government is issuing the same leaky wood-frame dwellings it gave people in Concepción) and set in motion the Comfort for Kids psychosocial program to enable children to overcome trauma, while empowering women as leaders with the capacity to advocate for their rights.

A year after Chile became a smoke-free nation (March 1, 2013), the Inter American Heart Foundation  awarded the Chile Libre de Tabaco (Tobacco Free Chile) coalition, spearheaded by EPES, for its exemplary work organizing the lobbying efforts that won passage of the landmark tobacco law. EPES health promoters are keeping track of tobacco law compliance, and at least in Concepción, they were heartened to find 75% compliance. The law represents a major breakthrough for public health of future generations in this country where 40% are smokers.

We hope you enjoy reading details about these and other activities in the enclosed UpdateWe are so grateful for your continuing support which is an investment in real, concrete change in the lives of so many people and communities.

With Peace and Hope,

Christina Mills, MD FRCPC

President, Action for Health in the Americas

 

To give to EPES, donate online or send your tax-deductible contribution to:

Action for Health in the Americas

c/o Prince of Peace Lutheran Church

4 Northcrest Drive

Clifton Park, NY 12065-2744

Make checks payable to “Action for Health in the Americas”

One Month After the Devastating Fires in Valparaiso

One Month After the Devastating Fires in Valparaiso: Community Organizations Play a Leading Role in Recovery

Note from AHA: Mauricio, director of the community center mentioned below, was a participant in EPES’ 3rd International Training Course on Popular Education and Health. You can read more about EPES’ response and recovery plans via the ACT Alliance.

By Isabel Diaz, EPES

One month after the giant fire ravaged the hills of Valparaiso, the residents who were left homeless continue their precarious existence, living on their former property in tents or shacks of corrugated tin and boards rescued from the fire.  The first emergency dwellings have already confirmed their absolute lack of waterproofing.  As the winter cold and rains set in, the now bare hillsides, lacking any vegetation to contain the soil, also face threat of landslides. In addition, the lack of running water, poor nutrition, and cold weather heighten the susceptibility to illness.

People who live in land occupations in the ravines are even more vulnerable. These communities live in constant fear of being evicted from the place or not receive the same benefits as those who have deeds to their properties.

In the aftermath of the fire that destroyed 2,900 houses, caused 15 fatalities and left 12,500 people homeless, thousands of volunteers and community organizations from throughout the country responded to the emergency. Volunteers were fundamental for clearing a great amount of debris from the houses destroyed by the fire. Volunteers organized solidarity drives to collect food, clothing, personal hygiene items and other basic, urgently needed supplies. Today, few of the 15,000 volunteers who worked in the initial weeks after the fire are to be seen.  Yet the families still need support to prepare the ground for installing the emergency dwellings. Trucks do not go up the hills, so the pre-fab wooden panels for the emergency housing units must be brought up in any way people can.

The community of people who lost their homes complains that government officials are absent on the damaged hillside neighborhoods and have not solved the most pressing problems. Moreover, there is no information regarding how to apply for the promised emergency assistance funds. This situation reveals an operational failure of the municipal and central government response to the disaster.

In light of this state of affairs, community organization will be fundamental in fighting for their urgent demands.

The EPES Foundation responded to the emergency by initiating work in coordination with the Las Cañas Community Center, which serves as an aid distribution site, community dining hall that serves 300 lunches each day, place for holding meetings and for organizing efforts.

Common to many neighbors is a sense of powerlessness because they say the fire and the deaths could have been prevented. The deadly fire of this past April 12 is not the first to ravage the area. In February 2013 fire destroyed 105 houses, affecting 1200 people. Last year experts issued reports warning that the district was at risk to a major fire. Government officials simply ignored these warnings.

This week Cerro Las Cañas neighbors held a candlelight ceremony to remember the people who died, reflect about what they have lived through and think about the future. They envision a participatory reconstruction process that restores dignity to their lives and community.