Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Chile earthquake triggers memories

The news that a major earthquake of magnitude 7.7 has hit Chile triggered memories of a visit I had there in 1996, as part of a Rotary Group Study Exchange.

My group of four other people and I had visited several of the places mentioned by the media, including Calama, Antofagasta, Santiago, and even the Chuquicamata copper mine, the largest open pit copper mine in the world.

We visited several other places, and I recall people talking about past earthquakes. At one farmyard near Vina del Mar, the owner of the house showed me several places where the house had huge patched cracks down the exterior of the house. He shrugged as he explained that whenever the house shook from an earthquake, they patched the walls, and continued on. It was considered a part of life.

In the area close to today’s earthquake, it’s a barren landscape. The world’s driest desert, the Atacama desert, is near the area. Rain falls in some areas there once every 400 years or so; grass and trees are almost nonexistent in yards, and many people there have never enjoyed the fresh scent of rain. High up in the mountains and among the sleeping volcanoes, glistens sand dunes that shift and grow, instead of snow and glaciers.

So why do people live there? In places like Calama, the majority of the people have ties to the large copper mine, which produces more than five percent of the total world copper production. Antofagasta is an important port city that also has a lot of connections to the mines in the northern part of Chile.

Statistics are still being gathered about how many people died in today’s earthquake, but I’ve always been wary about numbers in these cases.

In one of the Chilean cities we visited, one of the Rotarians took a few of our group higher up the hills looking over his city. He explained the poorer you are, usually the higher you lived up in the hills.

Cautiously he drove us to one place in particular. He stopped the car along the shoulder of the road, and turned towards us, gesturing to his left and right. He wanted us to see here was clearly a dividing line between the middle class residents and the very poorest of the city’s inhabitants.

On the left, there were dusty, dirt roads; homes were made of whatever people could find — sheets of tin, plywood, cardboard. Some didn’t have roofs since it rained so seldom there. Most of the homes had no utilities.

Meanwhile, on the right side of the road was the beginning of the middle class and even upper class neighborhoods. Paved roads, better structured homes, vehicles, better-dressed people: it was like night and day on the two sides of the street.

On the right side there was another thing that stood out: A high wall ran for quite a distance. A dividing line.

As our host explained, the wall had a purpose even more sinister than to divide the classes. The wall was also supposed to separate the two classes when disasters hit.

Rain came very seldom in that area, but when it came there usually were flash floods of tumbling mud that swept from the mountains and quickly hit the first people in its path: the poor people.

During one particularly bad flood, the mess of the slums and its trapped inhabitants were pushed into the nicer neighborhoods and caused an even greater toll of life and property damage.

The people in the city decided the wall would serve as a barricade, to protect the richer people from floods hitting them. Rather than try to protect the slums from the mud and rushing water, the wall was built to stop future muddy floods of poor people and their meager possessions from slamming into the nicer homes.

If that wasn’t enough to make a person question priorities in society, there was another fact that was even more sobering.

We were told that when the disaster had hit and swept the slums into the other neighborhoods, the government statistics that were given to the outside world did not count the poor people. Only the richer people, those to the right of where the wall now stood, were considered worth counting. So, untold numbers of poor people died but no one was certain how many — and the world never heard about them.

Surely within the last decade things have changed. Surely life is more treasured there now and even the poor are counted in those official, horrible statistics about tragedies.

But deep down inside, I realize that even if the propaganda wall has been dismantled, the physical wall probably still stands there — and unfortunately, it probably isn’t the only city building such walls to separate the unwanted in society.

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