Bolivians Fear Repeat Landslide

Published BBC World Online: Latin America | 04.1.12
By Omari Eccleston-Brown

Black and ominous clouds now darken the afternoon sky in La Paz – Bolivia’s rainy season has arrived for another year.

Last February, 24 hours of intense rainfall in La Paz led to one of the worst natural disasters in its recent history – a huge landslide that destroyed four residential zones.

The thousands of people left homeless in its wake are now waiting anxiously to see what this season’s rains will bring.

“When it really starts to rain heavily this area is going to be dangerous. We pray we don’t suffer this tragedy again,” said Lucia Blanco, who lost her house in the Callapa neighbourhood.

“But another landslide could come down from the community directly above us. We can’t sleep, every little sound makes us jump.”

Staying put

Almost all the landslide victims have been moved into small but serviceable prefabricated houses, which are often shared by two families.

But according to the city council’s most conservative projections, they will be there for another year at least.

Slowly, people are adjusting to their new lives, but the vast majority insist on returning to the same land to rebuild their homes.

“I don’t want to go anywhere else. Our plots have cost us. We’ve invested so much money. Anyway, I don’t think this will happen again. I want to see a beautiful Callapa, that’s my dream,” said Angelica Mamani, looking wistfully at her former neighbourhood.

Space is scarce in overcrowded La Paz and many of the affected families are poor migrants from the rural highlands who built their homes illegally and rapidly wherever they could.

That meant building on the precariously steep hillsides of La Paz’s eastern corner, an area used to frequent, if smaller, landslides.

‘Collapse again’

One of the official causes given for February’s mega-landslide was the progressive weakening of the ground caused by this consistent informal building, and in particular makeshift septic tanks.

Many residents like Mrs Mamani simply refuse to accept this. Some even blame evil spirits of the hills for what happened.

Mrs Mamani’s husband, Vicente Mamani, a retired school teacher, is one of the few residents determined not to go back.

“It’s impossible. The hill’s too insecure. It could collapse again. Especially at the top, it’s still not very safe,” he said. 

But he does agree with his wife and the majority of the victims in rejecting the government’s proposal to build them new homes in La Paz’s sister city, El Alto, a further 350m (1,148ft) up into the Andean mountains.

The families say such a move would destroy their way of life. They say El Alto is too cold, too different and too far away.

The mayor of La Paz, Luis Revilla, has been both sympathetic and critical of their objections.

“They do have legitimate reasons for resisting the move,” he said.

Many of the homeless reared cattle in the warmer valley at the foot of the hillsides where they lived.

“Obviously in El Alto they wouldn’t be able to do that,” Mr Revilla said.

“However, they also say they need to stay in Callapa. Whether that’s possible or not depends on a ground analysis. Its results will determine whether they can return to their lands.”

‘La Paz unstable’

That study will be crucial. While many families are adamant they will return to their plots come what may, Mr Revilla has taken an uncompromising stance, saying he will cut all services to any area deemed unsafe.

Across La Paz, there are already 37 listed landslide zones, but according to some geologists, like Willy Quevedo, the reality is starker still.

He estimates that as much as 78% of the ground in the city is a risk for any structure over one storey.

He says a move to El Alto is the only sensible thing for all the landslide victims.

“El Alto is where they should be looking to set up a new city and not building homes in areas that have already suffered a landslide. Their previous homes were built on ground that was refilled and unstable,” he argued.

However, the families’ determination to stay means it is highly unlikely they will be persuaded to move in any large numbers.

Faced with this, the council is turning to education instead.

“We’re teaching them about proper drainage and better structural foundations. We’ve also set up workshops in sewing and crafts, so they can gain skills that don’t tie them to the land,” explained Yerko Bustillo, the supervisor of the biggest of the nine emergency camps.

The December rainfall was heavier than usual and freak storms have ripped shutters from windows and felled trees in parts of the city.

The worst months of January and February seem set to test the authorities, the families and the land itself.

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