Rebuild or relocate? Venezuelan flood survivors and church helpers face growing dilemma

(Lutherans in Venezuela are helping survivors of last December's floods. LWR has sent $25,000 for food, water and reconstruction assistance to ACT-Venezuela, an inter-church aid coaltion that includes Lutherans and Presbyterians there. ACT-Venezuela press officer Paul Jeffrey filed this report on one choice survivors face.)
Matos, Venezuela -- 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, Pacheco was a victim of December flooding. The mud and stick walls of her simple home dissolved that day two months ago 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 there.

"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 flooded 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."

More than 100,000 people left homeless by the disaster are living in over 300 official shelters. Tens of thousands more are living with friends and relatives. Venezuela's popular president has championed the plan to turn homeless people into pioneers, but church leaders are skeptical.

"Although there are 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, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Venezuela and interim coordinator of ACT-Venezuela.

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.

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.