Campamentos: The Other Face of Chile

Today I did some volunteer work with an organization called Desafío (Challange). I like to give back and help whenever I can so I decided I would present myself as an able body. I was assigned to a team of about 12 people to help out in Peñaflor.

Peñaflor is a campamento, a small slum or shanty town. The residents of these small communities do not own the land they are living on, and they lack one or more basic services such as electricity, drinking water, and sewage treatment. All the same, the people in this terrible situation tend to bond together to form a community to make decisions and share resources.

A campamento much like Piñaflor

I was amazed as we pulled off the highway and into Peñaflor. Until now I had not seen this level of poverty in Chile, it was like we had suddenly turned into a third world country. The houses were constructed from found materials: I saw houses with walls and roofs made of pallets, leftover plywood, sheets of corrugated metal, tarps lashed to chain link fences. None of the windows had panes of glass, they were open to the breezes or covered with makeshift curtains. There was one paved road that ran along the border of the collection of homes, the rest of the ground was bare earth still muddy from the rains. Trash was everywhere, litter and debris heaped against houses or else flattened into the earth from passing feet. Some old railroad tracks cut the campamento in half, with more trash in little piled between the rails.

Upon arrival we split into groups; some people began to help prepare a hot lunch for the community members, others began to fold and sort donated clothes and supplies for distribution. I went with a group to hand out bags of charcoal to the families and sweets to the children. We went door to door with one of the full time volunteers from Desafío, not only offering charcoal but also a listening ear to the problems and needs of the community. I talked to one single mother as her little girl peeked shyly around the hem of her skirt as she told me with pride how much she had sacrificed to make the best of the situation and to give her daughter as many opportunities as possible for a better life. An elderly señora expressed her frustration that the community was not polled for the recent census. Her adult son told us about his constant and fruitless search for work in the city and in the surrounding towns.

I had an excellent conversation with a six year old little girl, who was sharp as a tack and full of optimism about her future. “You have to study first,” she told me seriously, her hands on her hips, “Study and study and study and study so you can get a good job and make money. Then you can have a house and maybe a car. And then if you want to you can get married and have kids. But before any of that stuff you have to study hard.” She wants to be some kind of doctor, maybe a veterinarian or pediatrician if her horse riding and fashion careers don’t work out. She also wants to learn another language, maybe English or French. Lack of education has always been an issue in the campamentos, 30% of heads of households in campamentos never completed elementary school. This little girl has the fortune of a good nearby public school, but I can’t help but worry about her trying to do her homework in a house where electricity is unstable at best and the wind whistles through the walls.

We invited everyone to share a hot lunch of hot dogs and rice with us, and a great deal of community members attended. This was for me the most powerful part of the experience. As we talked and listened to one another, the more it became clear to me that these people were just that: people making the best of a terrible situation, not statistics or numbers. Too many times people fall into the false idea that poor people are in some way intellectually deficient or lazy. But as I got to know the community members of Piñaflor I could see quite clearly quite the opposite.  They were very smart, smart enough to survive on next to nothing and find ways to solve their problems with very little support. They were hardworking, constantly searching for work or else working at whatever employment they could find while trying to raise their children in order to enable them to leave this cycle of poverty.

One of my university professors once made the following analogy: imagine a race with two runners with the same physical prowess, speed and pace. Now imagine if you started one runner twenty meters further back  with no shoes and placed hurdles in his path. Which runner is going to win the race? Imagine if the spectators all shook their heads and muttered among themselves about how the disadvantaged runner clearly didn’t train enough, or didn’t try hard enough, or shouldn’t have been allowed to compete at all. ¿Cachaí? (Get it?)

There are 657 campamientos like Piñaflor that have been identified throughout the country, with 83, 862 Chilean people living in third world conditions and extreme poverty. Besides the obvious discomfort and unsanitary nature of these living conditions, 70% of families live in imminent physical danger from floods or landslides. Many organizations like Desafío are working to build relationships with these communities, to discover what they need to raise them out of their impoverished situation. I hope that through outreach and education, we can not only better the situation of the community members, but also better the attitude of the general public towards those living in poverty so we can all move forward and improve as a society and a species.

I didn’t take a ton of pictures, I didn’t want to invade these people’s private lives and make them feel uncomfortable but here are the ones I did take.