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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
July 2005

"What's good about adobe"

A recent earthquake destroyed several Altiplano towns, damaging not just our historical and architectural patrimony, but also the communities' identities, way of life and source of income. We spoke with an expert on adobe maintenance.

By Rosario Mena

After getting her degree as a Civil-Chemical Engineer, Monica Bahamondes applied for a UNESCO project related to the conservation of moais at Easter Island. She got the position and was sent to Venice to specialize in restoration. Since then, patrimony over stone and adobe has been her life. Besides her work with moais, she's done some wonderful work in the recovery of adobe churches in Chile's fourth region. She's a firm defender of this way of building. For her, it's not just possible, but inevitable, to rebuild in adobe those damaged constructions.

—Is it just a lack of will for people not to do this rebuilding?
—This is something that concerns the whole country. We have some organizations for the people that have been damaged, but not for the patrimony. We are not prepared for that. So I've received all these calls from people -students, professionals—offering themselves as volunteers. And there they are, waiting. There's no way to coordinate them.

—Is it always like that?

—You'll see the biggest of paradoxes. For example, after the Arequipa earthquake we flew to Peru to help. But now, we can not help in our own country.

But there seems to be some improvement.
—Yes, like the Education minister coming here. Or having news crews here. That was something we didn't get before.

—Is it such a good idea to keep on building in adobe, considering there is no guarantee for its sustenance over earthquakes?
—I do believe it is really important to keep on using the adobe. All these people have lived all their lives in adobe houses, and that's because of something. First of all, it's free; so we'll keep on having it, like it or not. Then, the adobe has this big capacity for thermal isolation, which is basic in a geography such as ours, with all these extreme temperatures. We can get some benefit solutions for now, but they shouldn't be permanent, because that would damage the identity as well as the life quality of these people.

—But almost nobody today builds with adobe anymore.
—It's something you can still see, all over the world. In Chile, authorities deny the use of the adobe. But there are two million people living in adobe houses, and they will keep on doing it. What's important is to teach them how to build, maintain and reinforce it, so the risks are minimal. Concerning the churches, stone and mud is too bad a system.

—Do you believe it is justified to bring people from abroad to work on these issues?
—No, just the opposite. After the earthquake in Iran, of which the epicenter was the city of Bam, all built in adobe and a World Heritage spot, the UNESCO reunited in Paris twenty professionals from all over the world. Eduardo Muñoz and I went there from Chile. So we do have people that are well prepared. Few but they are enough.

—What's the most valuable thing that has been lost in this earthquake?
—We don't have a cadastre yet, but the church of San Lorenzo de Tarapaca is very important. Not just for how old it is or for its historical and architectural value, but most of all because it gathers thousands of pilgrims each year in one of the North's biggest religious holidays. So it has a huge value for those devoted to San Lorenzo. That is the issue here. Maybe this doesn't seem too important looking at it from Santiago, but for the community it has a fundamental meaning in terms of identity and belonging. There you find people that are isolated, but that find its sense of community in activities such as this.

—And you also have tourism.

—Right. People here have found a new source of income by the way of tourism.The tourists get to this towns to see this small constructions... what they'll find now will be just emergency wooden houses. So there is an important economic loss of something that was just starting to gain pace.

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