Letters from Chile – Shaken Awake

The February 27 Chile earthquake moved cities, destroyed buildings and cost lives, but, for one small community, it also shifted priorities….

What’s left of a small house in the El Manzano village, Bio Bio region, Chile
All photos © copyright Craig Mackintosh

Señora Nadia makes the best of the situation

I awoke suddenly this morning at 6:03am. Despite being jet-lagged, my deep sleep quickly gave way to alarm as I felt the bed sway violently and heard the walls creak. I groped around in the darkness for some clothes, whilst wondering, drowsily, in the style that’s typical of my weird sense of humour, how many people die whilst delaying their exit in this way – just so they can look half-decent as they watch their world collapse around them?

The 5.9 magnitude quake, centred only 58 kms to the south-west and 35 kms deep, was the largest aftershock people have experienced here at El Manzano since the big February shocker. But, thankfully, it started to subside before I even made it to the front door. I met Javiera Carrión, the hostess of the house, just as the swaying stopped. After reassurance from her that it was safe to do so, I made my way back to the comfort of my pillow, and then lay there, imagining what the much larger quake of less than two months ago would have felt like. I remembered Grifen’s description of the 3am chaos – the house shaken so hard that the floor ended up being covered in everything that belonged on the walls and shelves and in the fridge, etc.

A partially destroyed house in El Manzano – all the main structural beams
shifted and broke away from their below-ground segments

The February 27 quake had a significant impact on the El Manzano community, but, strangely enough, that impact has mostly been positive.

Let me explain.

Over the last two years, in the lead-up to the February earthquake, Grifen Hope, his wife Javiera Carrión, his brother-in-law Jorge Carrión and his wife Carolina Heidke, along with other family members and volunteers, had been working with the local community, trying to develop ‘a culture of meeting’ – a culture of discussion, planning, collaboration and support. The community here is made up of poor families and individuals – many making just a subsistence living from seasonal agricultural work – yet, despite the poverty, the western cultural disease of ‘every man for himself’ is still strong here, and, with an uncertain future ahead, Grifen and family knew this needed to be addressed if the community were to survive.

Following the Transition Town planning process, that seeks to raise community awareness and subsequently facilitate discussion on issues such as peak oil and climate change, and how these will effect food supplies and other necessities, the family sought to inspire the community with what they could achieve, if they only wanted to. Although generally appreciating the concern, many of Grifen and Javiera’s ideas were shrugged off. Community members just didn’t feel the need to listen. With their low-carbon existence and their tiny ecological footprint, it didn’t seem that these warnings should apply to them. They weren’t causing the problems, so why should they need to do anything?

But, then came the quake….

Grifen Hope stands by what’s left of the Carrión family’s irrigation channel,
destroyed just days before a new power-generating turbine was to be installed

Although only a few buildings in the small community were damaged or destroyed, other aspects hit them. People couldn’t buy food – the closest markets were quickly looted and empty and fuel was rationed. The entire country was without power for several days, and the El Manzano community for ten. Since all the water here arrives to taps via small electric pumps, no power also translated to no water. The well-intentioned but somewhat annoying family now became a lifeline – as people lined up to use their well’s hand pump, one of the items the family had encouraged community members to obtain over the last two years.

The post-quake meeting saw the entire village come along

Seizing the moment, Grifen, Javiera and family quickly organised a community planning meeting. Instead of a handful of attendees, now everyone from the village – all 82 of them – met at the village school to discuss the situation. The turnout was without precedent. The meeting resulted in organised bartering of food and other items to help everyone get through the difficult time. The Carrión family gave lots of food from their organic farm, while those that had smaller surpluses in specific areas shared theirs. The village families soon discovered that, between them all, they had sufficient food and water and didn’t need to look elsewhere. They were thus able to avoid the chaos and dangers reported from larger centres nearby, where looting was rife.

As well as creating problems with physical needs, the earth’s violent upheaval left many in the village with clear signs of trauma. Slight aftershocks would send women and children into shrieks of fear. The community action and cooperation really helped here also, as people came to realise they were not alone and that people in the community cared for them. The realisation they were part of a larger cohesive whole noticeably helped the mental healing process.

Ultimately, the earthquake resulted in the village placing greater value on the invisible structures within their immediate community, and the necessity, and opportunity, of strengthening them and building additional resilience into their lives. Where people had until now been keen to find a way out of this small village, the natural disaster has, it seems, shifted their priorities and made them look towards each other, and their own respective ability to contribute, to create a better life for themselves – right here, right now. Like I was this morning, but in a more meaningful way, this community may well have been shaken awake.

Postscript/Video: Meet Doris. Prior to the quake, before the little El Manzano community decided it was pertinent to seriously consider things they could do to build resiliency into their village, Doris was already paying attention. She took the advice of the Eco Escuela El Manzano team and got herself a hand pump, so if the lights went out, it didn’t have to mean she and her family would be without water as well. Hence her describing the fact that the community had TWO hand pumps to supply water after the quake hit.

Now the whole village wants to get a hand pump. Imagine that.

Continue on to read Part II: Visiting Dichato – the Town That Was

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Grifen stands on a pile of adobe bricks retrieved from destroyed buildings
in the neighbouring town of Cabrero – which he’ll use in constructing new
houses. What can’t be used will simply be broken down and composted