Letters from Chile – Who Gets the New House?

Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a series. Be sure to catch Part I and Part II.

The chicken/egg argument comes into play here – as a community builds new homes, while the new homes build the community.

Miguel Louis Suazo looks forward to moving out of his shed
[Picture taken with ultra wide angle lens – room is much smaller than it appears]

The night of my arrival almost two weeks ago, I was invited to an El Manzano village meeting. Being dog tired, I wondered if I shouldn’t skip it so I could work more efficiently the next day, but, nevertheless, asked what would be on the table for discussion. It was being held to discuss who, amongst the many poor in the community, should receive the new earthquake-resistant, eco-friendly demonstration homes Grifen, Javiera and team were busy trying to secure funding for.

Initially these homes were intended to replace the two homes damaged in the quake, but one of these families, camped out with children in tents with the nights getting colder, needed to work quickly to put a roof over their own heads. Waiting for funding was not an option. With a lot of assistance from the El Manzano community, they managed to bring a replacement in from nine kilometres away on a truck (pink house pictured below).

This event was, Grifen described, the first time he observed the community really getting together to unselfishly support one family. It seems to have set a precedent for what, you will observe from the rest of this article, may well become a continuing trend.

Having one of the homes already replaced has really worked well in this instance, as many of the villagers here do not have a place they can call home. Some families are even split up from necessity – sons, daughters, husbands, wives, are billeted throughout the village where a corner can be found for them. Now there was the opportunity for this ‘extra’ home to find a good… er… home! Given this understanding, I wondered what the mood of the meeting would be, and how it would progress. I wondered how such a decision would/could be made. Who should get the new home?

Needless to say, I was going to the meeting!

The object was for the villagers to work together to build two low-cost, simple, sustainable and comfortable demonstration homes – which would then be showcased to local government as sensible examples of reconstruction for the recent earthquake, for future disasters, and, of course, for better housing technologies for all Chileans.

Representatives of the village families met together to discuss who should
get the new demonstration houses to be built

Grifen lead out in the meeting. Rather than dive right in and try to immediately ‘vote’ or otherwise find a suitable owner for the new ‘extra’ home, Grifen instead asked the representatives how this decision should be made. In other words, Grifen didn’t come with a pre-thought idea of how to go about this, but put it on the community to agree on a plan for their own process of elimination.

The community decided to make a grid on the board, that would be a matrix of the few simple parameters that all community residents fit within:

  1. People with land but no house
  2. People with land but a ‘crap’ house
  3. People with no land and a crap house
  4. People with no land and no house

They then started to write down where each family fitted within these categories. Some people had a ‘crap’ house to live in, but were living on land owned by their employer, so they didn’t want to put community effort and funding into land that wasn’t their own. They agreed that they should eliminate families within this part of the matrix.

People without land to build a house on were ruled out from necessity.

Finally it was decided that one older, single man should have the extra home – as he had land, but didn’t have a house. Funding was tight, but there should be enough for two small single resident homes. Up until now this particular individual had been living in a shed that was tacked on behind someone else’s house (see picture at top of this article, and the one below), and so really would benefit from having a place of his own:

61 year old Miguel sits outside his room
– a shed tacked on to the back of a house

It was great to see the community talking these things over, objectively, and coming to a compassionate resolution. And, yet again, as I did when covering Sarvodaya, I saw that the greatest need for community transition is community awakening. Blending people’s hopes, dreams and ambitions and merging them in constructive ways to align with current economic, political and environmental realities, is a dance that’s both challenging to enact and beautiful to watch. It cannot be hurried, it cannot be coerced.

Now we have the community of El Mazano starting to comprehend the implications of climate change and peak oil, and choosing to work together, to help one another, to work towards a united goal of building resilience and growing their community along healthier lines. The Eco Escuela El Manzano team are merely offering information, support and discussion facilitation. It’s up to the community to respond, and it appears beautiful green shoots of life are starting to spring forth from the seeds sown.

The new homes will be simple structures, just large enough for a single resident. They are being designed by two professional volunteer architects, who you’ll meet soon in this series, and will be built by all the able-bodied people in the community. I’m looking forward to seeing this come together, and hope you’ll follow along in this process!

As for Miguel. Well, he looked rather surprised, but very happy. On his way out the door at the close of the meeting, he took Grifen by the hand and simply said, "muchas gracias".

Continue on to read Part IV: The Adobe House and Potty Training




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