Alternative Reconstruction

Along the course of the Maule River, any relationship between hu- man life and the larger ecological field was absent. There were no visible settlements, or camps; hillsides were scarred by plantations. It caused me to feel anger and suffering towards the professionalization of landscape as a discipline more closely related to industrialization than to the plants, animals, and human cultures—the life sustaining forces of the natural world. Also, to the respect accorded to other life forms and worldviews. I found myself foraging through plantations to find the plants that resist, the patches that remain, the crevices of tradition before extinction. The most I hope to accomplish with this account still scratches the surface of what environmental justice means as we take stock of the abuses of the past and grapple with the adaptation required to live with a changing climate. It is a daunting task, but I see potential to rescue, preserve, and reseed following a devastating event. I am referring to the consequences of reconstruction in light of how the community of Constitución displayed respect for the estuary and regard for the land that was left behind.

While we were at the estuary of the Maule River, we met with Alejandro Hormazábal, a community member from de Fundación AcercaRedes Maule Costa. Alejandro grew up in Constitución and not only survived the events of 2010 but led the community through the process of healing once the storms subsided and the damage could be assessed. As a result of his engagement with the community, and with the storm, Alejandro was also an advocate for not building back on the lands affected by the tsunami, lands immediately adjacent the estuary. And he was not alone. Many of the survivors who wit- nessed the force of the event were restless, and uneasy about recon- struction. Rather, they imagined planting a forest-park rather than rebuilding, conceivably because trees would help attenuate waves, and the community knew trees well enough because they worked so closely with the plantation industry. Although Constitución is a company town affiliated with the tree-planting industry, it was re- markably hard to simply acknowledge the flood line, and plant trees instead of buildings. Instead of a community project, the vision of the community, informed by the environment, entered a long engagement with the state, with property owners, architects, and engineers. Years of negotiations led to the community being isolated from the design. The ensuing parklands were elevated by concrete seawalls, filled with imported soil, planted with the same two species that supply plantations and enclosed by a three-meter fence. We met Alejandro at the edge of the park, after a series of phone calls to have the gate unlocked. He said:

The earthquake worsened the relationship we had with the river. The north bank is very close to the south, so the mouth, or estuary is very narrow. There are times when the opening is barely forty meters.
Engineers removed strength from the river flow by building these walls. They told us the purpose is to prevent flooding when the river rises in the winter, but it also reduces the speed and the water gets stuck, so sediments accumulate. The walls affect fishing primarily because they block access and fishermen cannot reach the Maguillines dock, where they carry out their activities. So the reconstruction worsened the relationship with the river too.

Alejandro and his colleagues entered a long process following the tsunami event, starting with an appeal to the state for a housing subsidy so that community members could afford to buy or build a home elsewhere. Individual payments ensued progressively, as houses were demolished, and people slowly moved out. The expropriation was approved over a period of almost two years:

The ground where we now stand used to be private property and was expropriated for the park. Now it is owned by the state. It was a very difficult process to engage 170 plots that were extremely fragmented socially and economically. Plots were owned by different socioecoenomic classes, so owners wanted to negotiate individually. Wealthier people wanted to lead a separate group in order to negotiate directly with the state. As a united community, we opposed initiative and declared that everyone had to live the same reality.

Alejandro and his group worked against the traditions of rebuild and reconstruct, creating instead a community group committed to building consensus. The appeal for a “forest-park” was made to the state because they understood trees and felt strongly that a setback from the river showed respect for the floodplain. This is a landscape of retreat, a commitment to the land that is left behind, to appreciating risk and adapting in turn.