Valparaiso in the Flames, Poverty and Inequality

Jorge Paredes
April 23, 2014

Valparaiso, one of the major shipping ports in Chile was struck by its worst fire in recent centuries on the weekend of 12th April 2104. The Columbans have been working in the port city since 1992. The area affected by the recent fire was once part of the Columban parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Many of the parishioners who lost their houses are known to the Columbans. The chapel on La Cruz Hill, where Columbans have ministered has been damaged. The Columbans presently work in a similar area in the city, similar to that which has been affected by the fire. They are developing new catholic communities of “Holy Family” and “Our Lady of the Pilgrim Way” in a densely populated area amid hills and ravines. They are committed to the conservation of the native Palm trees in the ravine, the cleaning up of rubbish dumps that are a health hazard and creation of community gardens. They have built an Education Centre for Ecology and Human Development to achieve these goals. They are committed to sustainable living for the people by using the natural resources to improve their quality of living. One of the major factors that fuel fires in these poor areas, apart from the irresponsible burning of wood, is the large quantity of rubbish that is dumped on a regular basis into the ravines by the inhabitants themselves.

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The atmosphere in Valparaiso is incredulous. The devastation by the advance of the flames left us stunned. Official reports have confirmed that eight hills and ravines have been affected with 956 hectares consumed by fire, 15 people dead, mostly elderly, more than 2,900 houses destroyed and 12,500 homeless.

Valparaiso breathes sadness and inequality.

With the hills still smouldering, newspaper and TV reporters pouring into the city, media have given attention to the other Valparaiso, hidden from the world of tourism and commerce. A well known journalist from one of Chile’s principal television channels during an interview asked a resident affected by the fire why she lived in the most dangerous and fire prone hill of the port city.  She looked at him with a the gaze of a woman who had lived there for years and said, “it is that the poor do not choose where to live.”

Don Augusto, like many residents of Ramaditas Hill, went on Sunday last to La Cruz Hill to help his nephew who had lost everything when the fires initially raved through the ravines and hills. Within hours, his wife called him to say that the fire was breaking out in the ravine where they lived and was approaching the house. Twice in previous years, had the forest fires come close to their home, but this time it was different, “I went up to help a nephew in La Cruz Hill, without knowing the same would happen to me. The fire took everything, I was left with nothing just what I was wearing”, said the man in his 50s as he looked with a bleak gaze on the debris.

Running back to the ravine where he lived, he met his wife and son at the bottom of the hill escaping from the fames. He managed to get to his house and tired with the water supplied by the fire fighters, to stop the advance of the flames to the neighbours houses. But all was in vain. Raising the tone of his voice he told the news reporter, “in one short moment, there was only one exit point of escape left through the ravine in spite of the work of fire-fighters, who douched the houses and everything with water to fight back the flames”. Histories, memories and dreams were all left behind as he escaped through the ravine and got back in shock to his wife.

The Bosque Alleyway is on the edge of Ramaditas Hill, and forms part of a series of hills and ravines that tower over the port city of Valparaiso. There, one encounters a maze of housing twined together with mixed forest that goes up and down and around hills and ravines where the smell of smouldering wood and poverty are fused together.  It was here that Augusto lived. Like many others, he had no option. The population of Valparaiso has grown in recent years, displacing the poor to the periphery to the hills and ravines above the city.  Many of these people occupy the land illegally and have built their precarious dwelling on it. Living there is a permanent risk and they know it. However, for them, it is their best option to live in the regional capital that offers better job prospects.

The most recent cold data on Valparaiso shows the precariousness of the region. According to a 2012 study from the Cooperativa Territorio Sur, 22% of the population live below the poverty line, the poorest 10% earn only one hundred and fifty thousand pesos (US. $275) a month and the richest 10% of the inhabitants receive, on average, more than four million pesos (US. $7,275) a month. The commune has only 0.52 m2 of green area per inhabitant while maintaining the World Health Organization recommends 9 m2 per capita.

Now and again Augusto peeks over the edge of the hill and looks down the creek and ravine where he lived with his wife, his 15 year old son who suffers from Down syndrome, and his extended family of 16 brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and in-laws. Where there were once houses, now there is a desolate scorched land mast that marks the end of a family history that remains carved into the crevices of the cindered ravine. Augusto has decided to let go and not build in this place, but to rebuild in another place that will give security and assurance to his wife and son.

However, his extended family will want to go back and rebuild in the same place. They will continue to live among the woods praying that another fire will not threaten their homes. They seem to have no choice; they cannot afford “to choose where to live.” Augusto meanwhile is living in the house of his son’s godmother. He knows he cannot go back to live in the ravine, but where he doesn’t yet know. Meanwhile he is accompanying the many young people who are voluntarily doing the clean –up of the rubble of what was his home. He says, “ it is the most I can do to return the thanks for all the help I have received during these days”