Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Grassroots Heritage Preservation Efforts Growing

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jan 19 2011 (IPS) - With the first National Congress on Heritage Neighbourhoods and Areas, community groups in Chile plan to draw attention to their struggle to defend the country’s vulnerable historic heritage.

“This initiative has emerged from the citizens, for the citizens, and it has the aim of strengthening and empowering the different community organisations that throughout Chile are working to defend and develop our cultural heritage,” Rosario Carvajal, president of the Our Heritage Foundation, told IPS:

The three-day congress kicks off Thursday with the “Fiesta del Roto Chileno”, one of the most important traditional street festivals in Chile, with typical dancing and singing as well as photography exhibits, literature readings and films, in the neighbourhood of Yungay in Santiago.

On Friday and Saturday, 90 lectures and presentations will be given on local and international initiatives to protect cultural heritage, in the Gabriela Mistral Museum of Education, the Santiago Library and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Participants from La Paz, Bolivia; Quito, Ecuador; Lima, Peru; and Córdoba and Buenos Aires in Argentina will take part.

For example, Ángel Ybarhuen, mayor of Cotahuasi in the southwestern Peruvian region of Arequipa, will give a speech on the defence and development of the heritage of that Andean district, while José Baca from Ecuador will give a presentation on workshop schools in Quito.

Lawmaker Felipe Harboe of the Chilean opposition Party for Democracy (PPD) will discuss the successes of and challenges faced by the Special Historical and Cultural Heritage Commission of the lower house of Congress.

The Our Heritage Foundation was created in 2008 as part of a grassroots effort to preserve the Yungay neighbourhood, which two years ago was declared a National Historic District (Zona Típica) of Chile.

“During that effort, we realised we were not the only group that was concerned about the issue, and we began creating a network,” she said.

In 2009, they set up the Chilean Association of Heritage Neighbourhoods and Areas, which is also headed by Carvajal and has organised seminars and gatherings around the country. The Association is now holding the first National Congress, which will promote a “Citizen’s Heritage Agenda”.

“Our greatest threat is the institutional vulnerability that exists today in the area of cultural and historical heritage,” said Carvajal.

She called for the creation of a Heritage Law, which should “bring visibility to our heritage in an integral manner, in its various dimensions — tangible, intangible, urban, rural and natural — and should establish close citizen participation,” she said.

Another urgent challenge is to “create a National Heritage Fund and different instruments for conservation, ranging from the recognition of traditional forms of construction, like adobe, to subsidies, soft credits, tax exemptions and others,” she added.

The legislation currently in effect is a 1970 law on National Monuments, “which does not address the heritage preservation needs of the 21st century,” according to Carvajal.

For example, it does not take into account “citizen participation, and it takes a ‘monument-oriented’ approach focused on buildings, on constructions, and not on living heritage, the surroundings and the people of a place,” she added.

The government’s National Monument Councils has declared 106 National Historic Districts throughout Chile, which are home to a combined total of 500,000 of the country’s 17 million people.

“The state formally declares a National Historic District, but it does not follow through with management or development of these protected areas,” she said. “That is where public policies, funds and subsidies are needed, to help preserve these structures.”

“We do not have soft credits, or specialised technical advice. We need a true cultural change, and public policies,” Carvajal argued.

Much of the discussion on the rundown state of some of the National Historic Districts has been led in the last few years by the Association.

The situation was aggravated by the 8.8-magnitude Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami which caused nearly 30 billion dollars in economic losses and damages in central and southern Chile and left nearly 500 people dead and thousands homeless.

In Carvajal’s view, in the wake of the catastrophe “there was much speculation, ignorance and crises caused by panic.

“Some historic districts completely disappeared, like the one in the town of Chanco, where we saw how the backhoe destroyed everything, without salvaging beams, adobe, window and door frames, tiles, doors or anything; without any specialised technical evaluation,” she said.

The town of Chanco in the central region of Maule was known for its 17th and 18th century colonial architecture, and was declared a National Historic District in 2000.

The town is currently a focus of the Housing Ministry’s Urban Renewal Programme.

During this week’s National Congress, three architects will give a presentation on “Recycling Heritage: The Potential for the Reuse and Recycling of Materials in the Reconstruction of Chanco”.

Other National Historic Districts that were severely affected by the earthquake — the fifth-strongest in the world since 1900 — are in the towns of Cobquecura, Curepto, Vichuquén and Villa Alegre.

Carvajal said it is time to move from evaluation to action.

The government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera has been receptive to the Association’s demands, she said, and the National Monument Council authorities themselves have called for reforming the law on monuments.

But no changes have yet been seen.

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