By Sebastian Silva
Viña del Mar, Chile, May 4 (EFE).- “There are more than 900 families here and they all have a story. Or you think we wanna be here?” Veronica Villegas, a leader of one of Chile’s largest informal settlements, told Efe.
Like the Felipe Camiroaga Camp where she lives outside the glamorous tourist city of Viña del Mar, many other squatter communities in other parts of the country have recently experienced a sharp rise in new residents.
At present, a total of 81,643 families live in these communities nationwide, up from 47,050 families in 2019, according to the March 2021 National Land Registry.
That sharp jump of 74 percent, triggered in large part by the health emergency, has occurred even as the cumulative wealth of Chile’s eight biggest fortunes has grown at virtually the same rate and currently amounts to $40.3 billion, a massive disparity that Villegas terms “scandalous.”
Although a handful of billionaires have thrived amid the Covid-19 pandemic and that South American country still ranks high in the region in terms of gross domestic product per capita, the health emergency has taken a hefty toll on the average Chilean.
Around 2.3 million people have fallen out of the middle class and into poverty since the crisis began, according to World Bank figures, while Villegas says that despite being out of work for a year she has received no financial assistance.
“I don’t qualify,” she said of the government’s aid criteria.
Chile’s squatter camps – informal communities also known as shantytowns, lost cities or favelas – generally are located in marginalized zones of urban areas, often next to scrap heaps, railroad lines, highways or ravines; they also lack at least one of the three basic services: sewage, electricity and/or potable water.
The executive director of the Techo + Fundacion Vivienda foundation, Sebastian Bowen, said the camps are symptoms of a broader problem.
“Access to housing is the most painful, stealthy and dramatic illness we have in Chile,” he said.
The number of squatter camps had been in decline for 20 years, but starting in 2011 nearly 3,000 new families began inhabiting these settlements annually.
After 2019, in the wake of massive protests against social inequality and then the onset of the coronavirus crisis in March of last year, those figures started to soar and take on new characteristics. The number of informal settlements rose by 20.8 percent and the population grew younger, with 57,000 children under the age of 14 now living in them.
“30 percent of the families say the reason they’re there is the increase in the cost of rent, which they couldn’t afford,” Bowen told Efe, adding that the situation is closely linked to a doubling of the price of land over the past 15 years.
“Chile’s in bad shape,” 58-year-old Maria Tapia, leader of the Manuel Bustos Camp, also located in Viña del Mar and Chile’s largest with more than 1,280 families in 2019, told Efe.
Viña del Mar, a seaside resort located 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Santiago that is filled with glitzy nightclubs and five-star hotels, and the nearby port city of Valparaiso are home to the largest concentrations of informal settlements.
“We’re invisible. No one looks up into the hills of this city (Viña del Mar), and on all sides the housing deficit is terrible,” Tapia said. EFE