Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Restoring National Heritage in Wake of Quake

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Mar 23 2010 (IPS) - The major earthquake that recently shook Chile – the fifth most powerful in the world since 1900 – and the subsequent tsunami not only destroyed thousands of homes, but wreaked havoc on historical monuments, museums, theatres, churches, parks and heritage zones.

“The country has to make an effort to save whatever is salvageable,” Magdalena Krebs, director of the National Centre for Conservation and Restoration, an agency that forms part of the government’s Office of Libraries, Archives and Museums (DIBAM), told IPS.

According to preliminary assessments, more than 100 historic monuments and 30 heritage zones were damaged, mainly in the central regions of O’Higgins, El Maule and Bío-Bío, between 80 and 500 km south of Santiago.

There are no estimates yet of the cost of reparations to cultural sites after the damages caused by the Feb. 27 quake, which measured 8.8 on the Richter scale and rocked six of Chile’s 15 regions, leaving a death toll of around 500. In addition, more than 100 people are missing, largely as a result of the tsunami triggered by the tremor.

The biggest concern among local officials today is the start of the southern hemisphere autumn and the arrival of the rains in the central and southern parts of this long, narrow South American country of 17 million people.

Authorities and experts involved in protecting the national heritage have asked the new right-wing President Sebastián Piñera to include the issue on the agenda of the recently created Office for National Reconstruction, under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning.

“We must evaluate the damage and then request emergency funds for protection and restoration, which could come from two sources: regional and city governments or the reassignation of budget funds that the Finance Ministry is carrying out,” said the executive secretary of the government’s Bicentennial Commission, Julio Dittborn.

Chile is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its independence this year. Although emancipation from Spain was not achieved until 1818, Sept. 18 is Independence Day because the formation of the first national government junta on that day in 1810 marked the start of the independence process.

“We want to make a coordinated effort among the different state agencies and institutions, while getting the private sector and international bodies involved, in order to salvage and restore as much as possible,” said Krebs.

National monuments hit hard by the earthquake include the church in the village of Guacarhue, in the O’Higgins region, the executive secretary of the government’s Council of National Monuments, Óscar Acuña, told IPS.

The church, which was built in 1779, was designed by the famous Italian architect Joaquin Toesca. Only some parts of the walls might be salvaged, Acuña said.

In the same situation is the Hacienda San José del Carmen de El Huique, an old manor house that was converted into a museum by the army in the same region.

Other heritage zones, like Chanco, Lolol and Cobquecura, in the regions of O’Higgins and El Maule, also sustained severe damage, as did the historical centre of cities like Rancagua, Talca, Curicó, Linares and Concepción. And in the capital, attempts are being made to restore the historic Yungay neighbourhood.

“We are talking about architecture that used clay, basically adobe,” and buildings that go back to before the days of anti-seismic building codes, Acuña said.

The official said the impact of the quake is “a call to search for techniques to do a better job in reinforcing churches,” which have been weakened nationwide because of the earthquake. One example is the San Francisco church in Santiago, which suffered some damage, even though it was recently restored.

In Santiago, the museums of modern art and natural history, the municipal theatre, the former national Congress building, and the main buildings at the University of Chile and the Catholic University, among others, all suffered splits, cracks or partial collapse.

Because of the temporary closure for repairs, the municipal theatre has had to reschedule and relocate events, like the Cavallería Rusticana opera, to other theatres.

One good piece of news is that the 93 million documents in the national archive remain intact, thanks to the strong vaults, DIBAM reported.

There is concern about the situation in the popular Radal Siete Tazas National Reserve located 130 km south of the capital, in the region of El Maule. The waterfalls or “tazas” dried up after the quake, although the latest monitoring indicates that the falls might return to their normal state.

On Mar. 15, the architects’ association, which has sent members around the country to assess the impact of the quake, issued an urgent call to those in charge of municipal works and construction projects to avoid the indiscriminate demolition of heritage sites.

“The earthquake has cause devastation to an extent never before seen in the history of Chile, with the exception of the (1960 quake in the southern city of ) Valdivia, where the damage was more concentrated,” the president of the architects’ association, Patricio Gross, told IPS.

“Uninhabitable does not necessarily mean it has to be demolished; such buildings are perfectly recoverable in many cases,” said the architect, who added that it is necessary to sit down and think calmly about how to rebuild cultural constructions that have well-defined identities.

He also called for strict respect for studies that indicate that some villages and towns cannot be rebuilt in the same spot, because of the risk of tidal waves.

Experts see the destruction as an opportunity to amend the law on national monuments, dating to 1970 and reformed in 2005, and the 1990 law on cultural donations that was amended in 2001, in order to create incentives for the private sector to get heavily involved in the reconstruction effort.

“At this moment, the most important thing is to protect the buildings from the change of season, from the rain. And in second place, to coordinate public and private resources to recuperate the national heritage and work with the community to raise awareness that this task is up to all of us,” said Acuña.

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