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Fire in Valparaiso: It’s no coincidence that the poor were the worst affected

By ucfumio, on 24 April 2014

Valparaiso Fires. Image: Reuters

Valparaiso Fires. Image: Reuters

A few days ago, Chile’s port city of Valparaiso witnessed one of the worst fires of their history. It began in a forest close to one of the hilltop communities, and was spread by a lethal combination of strong winds, flammable housing materials and the particular topography of the city (consisting of hills and valleys).  It has been declared a disaster zone and according to the authorities 2,900 homes have been destroyed and 11,000 people have been evacuated.

Immediately, eyes were drawn to the hills of the city – not to the touristic colourful houses that saw declared Valparaiso as heritage site by UNESCO on 2003 – but towards the grey invisible houses further up, those of the thousands families that live in informal settlements. Until recently, the high proportion of informal settlements in the city was unknown; Valparaiso has the second highest informal population of any city in the country [1]. This phenomenon has been named the ‘silent land invasion’ [2] due to its scarce visibility and relative low level of confrontation with political authority. Furthermore and unlike many other parts of the country, the inhabitants would like to stay put. This mainly relates to an opposition to the current housing policy that encourages relocation because of a history of land appropriation and informal building of houses in the hills.

Location of Valparaiso and the informal settlements

Location of Valparaiso and the informal settlements

Zone of the fire showing the informal settlements affected (in red) by Ivan Poduje

Zone of the fire showing the informal settlements affected (in red) by Ivan Poduje

In the last few days, the main debate in the press has been about who was responsible for the fire (something that incidentally, has been a common problem in the history of the city). Emergency experts have pointed to the informal settlements; located in so-called ‘dangerous places’, blocking and polluting the hills and whose structural materials encouraged the spread of the fire. On a similar note, numerous articles and opinions have been written on how authorities have permitted irresponsible city planning , allowing ‘anyone’ to build ‘wherever’ they want to. Following the discussions, it seems hard to think that,given a viable alternative, someone would choose to live in a place with difficult mobility, scarce water and sewage, and high exposure to environmental risk.

In a system where the poor are omitted from the decision making process and access to social rights are regulated largely by market values, it is evident that their ability to choose is constrained by a lack of economic resources and social exclusion. Furthermore, recent research on risk and vulnerability (both physical and social) state that natural disasters do not have an equal impact on the population, but affecting who are more vulnerable to a greater degree – a vulnerability that in turn is exacerbated by socio-economic conditions. This is evidenced by the high environmental risk in informal settlements in Chile; at least 2 out 3 are located in lands that present risk [3]. In the case of Valparaiso, they are located in areas with steep gradients, which are exposed to potential hazards such as landslides, floods and fire. Thus, the ‘option’ to live in the hills is double-sided in terms of vulnerability; on the one hand it allows to access jobs and services provided by the city,  but on the other it constitues severe physical risk.

The aftermath of the fire. Image: 24 Horas

The aftermath of the fire. Image: 24 Horas

In summary, the fires of Valparaiso show – once more – why it is not a coincidence that the people most affected by the fire are always the same.  Hopefully, this will allow us to reflect upon the real choices that the urban poor have in terms of places to live and access to opportunities. This can therefore be better taken into account in the reconstruction proccess and not used as an excuse to segregate them even more. When a television interviewer asked one resident why she lived in the hills, her response was simple, ‘The poor can’t choose where we live’.

[1] Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, 2013, Social Map of Informal Settlements.Serie VII Política Habitacional y Planificación: Santiago.

[2] Vildósola (2011) Revistra Kutral UVM: Viña del Mar.

[3] Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, 2013, Social Map of Informal Settlements.Serie VII Política Habitacional y Planificación: Santiago.

View a video by Skyfilms, showing the areas affected by the fire

 

Ignacia Ossul – Ignacia.ossul.11@ucl.ac.uk

PhD candidate DPU

Former Director at TECHO in Valparaiso

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