Dateline ACT Venezuela 2/00: Controversy brews around relocation plans for Venezuelan flood victims

By Paul Jeffrey
Matos, Venezuela, 21, 2000

Irene Pacheco is tired of mud, but wants to remain in her flood-ravaged home. Like the other 200 people living in this small village 100 kilometers east of Caracas in Venezuela's eastern state of Miranda, Pacheco was a victim of December flooding. The mud and stick walls of her simple home dissolved when a nearby river rose higher than anyone in the community remembers.

After the water went down, Pacheco dug the mud out of her house and repaired one room where she and her son could live. Some of her neighbors left and took refuge in the nearby town of El Guapo, but Pacheco wants to stay. "My home and my life are here. Why would I want to live anywhere else?" she asked. "I'm not convinced by those who want me to move."

More than a month after December floods and mudslides that killed as many as 50,000 Venezuelans, a debate is brewing here about what will happen to the tens of thousands of people left homeless by the tragedy. An ambitious government plan to relocate them in the interior of the country is fraught with difficulties, according to church workers here.

"We're helping people to rebuild where they are and encouraging them not accept any government relocation program, because in 500 years in Latin America such programs have never worked anywhere," declared Bernard Hinz, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Venezuela.

"Relocation programs are just ways to make poor people even more marginalized."

Hinz wants to help the families in Matos remain where they are. He first arrived in the community on December 22, when he heard that the remote village was not receiving any assistance in the wake of the flooding. He used his four-wheel drive vehicle to ford engorged streams and deliver food, medicine, clothing, and water to the village. He's also taken gas stoves and dry mattresses to Matos and four nearby villages, where another 800 people live.

"The guy was unstoppable," said Cano Grande resident Simon Mejia, who said Hinz also helped villagers take out several hundred kilograms of cacao that was in danger of rotting from the rain.

"Before the disaster, the people here were the poorest of the poor," said Hinz during a visit to Matos, "and we're committed to accompanying them until they can get a new roof over their head and begin to improve the quality of their life."

Hinz said support for the assistance his church has provided has come mostly from wealthy German business executives in Venezuela, though he's counting on future funding from the Lutheran Church in Germany and other members of Action by Churches Together (ACT), a Geneva-based international network of churches working in disaster situations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Venezuela is one of five church organizations here that compose the newly formed ACT-Venezuela.

Residents of Matos are descended from African slaves. They live off their harvest of cassava and fruit trees, as well as fish they pull from the rivers that flow through their jungle home. Most families grow a bit of cacao that they sell for cash. Some village men get occasional jobs on nearby plantations or as construction assistants in Miranda's cities.

Hinz has talked with families here about constructing new homes on top of two-meter high stilts, a method commonly employed throughout the Caribbean which would allow them to withstand the minor floods that come every year. Hinz has also met several times with the governor of Miranda, Enrique Mendoza, trying to persuade the regional government not to push Matos residents into relocation in other parts of the country.

The idea of relocating Venezuelans from the crowded capital and heavily populated coastal areas into the country's relatively underpopulated interior is a wish of social engineers that has been around for years. With large sections of Caracas and nearby coastal states devastated by last month's tragedy, the government of President Hugo Chavez has dusted off the relocation scheme and championed it as a way to solve the needs of affected families.

More than 114,000 people left homeless by the disaster are living in 326 official shelters around the country. Tens of thousands more, government officials admit they have no exact idea how many, are living with friends and relatives.

So Chavez has urged the homeless to become pioneers. The president, immensely popular with Venezuela's poor, shows up at crowded shelters and promises potential immigrants new homes, fields, schools, and job opportunities. He then asks for volunteers, and people who want to move to the interior climb onto waiting trucks and are whisked off to their new homes.

Yet the program doesn't work, church relief officials here argue.

"Although there's a good number of people who are willing to be relocated, if they don't get decent homes, schools, and reasonable employment, something to give them stability in their new environment, then they'll soon be back," said Loida Valera, a Caracas pediatric endocrinologist and moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela, a member of ACT-Venezuela. Until a director of the local ACT coalition is named, Valera has been named the group's interim coordinator.

"While public opinion hasn't yet turned against the government's relocation plans, they're still in a very incipient phase and must quickly be converted into concrete and real projects," said Jose Virtuoso, a Jesuit analyst and neighborhood activist in the capital. Virtuoso said the government has been too sensitive to criticism of the plan, and "needs to be more sensitive to the viability of what it wants to do."

Many of those being asked to go to the countryside are people who migrated to the capital and coastal areas in past decades, looking for economic opportunity. They came to Caracas, many to work in the city's informal economy and build houses on steep hillside slopes. Others went to Vargas, the state hardest hit by December's disaster, where they got jobs in the fishing or tourist industry and built houses on the flood plains of steep coastal rivers.

"While it's a good idea to thin out Caracas and Vargas, which have grown too crowded, after years of living here people have become mentally urbanized, they've adapted to a different lifestyle, and it's going to be hard to get them to enjoy living back in the countryside," Valera said.

"Move back to the interior? The idea just doesn't enter into my mind. lived in the interior before, where I worked hard and couldn't survive. That's why I moved to the city," said Xiomara Maldonado, a Caracas resident who lost her ramshackle home along the Catuche River. Today Maldonado lives with 32 other homeless families in a temporary shelter, a half-constructed neighborhood cultural center which the families seized two days after the river overflowed. The building sits on the neighborhood's main plaza.

According to Oswaldo Ablan, director of rental housing in the government's ministry of infrastructure, preliminary studies indicate the disaster destroyed 30,000 houses and damaged another 60,000. He said the country had a housing deficit of 1.5 million units before the storm.

The government needs money to build new houses, and is considering borrowing at least one billion dollars from international financial organizations.

Valera claimed the government's initial housing plans are too costly, however. She said construction of new housing is one area where church-related organizations could work in partnership with the government during the reconstruction period. "And I suspect we can do it cheaper," said Valera, who will soon meet with representatives of the U.S.-based Habitat for Humanity International to discuss possibilities for housing projects in Venezuela.

In addition to the Presbyterians and Lutherans, other members of ACT-Venezuela include Ecumenical Action, the Venezuelan Pentecostal Evangelical Union, and the Popular Education Center.

Paul Jeffrey is visiting Venezuela as the ACT-Church World Service Press Officer.