Canadian scholars in solidarity with Chile

March 3, 2010

Malinda S. Smith, vice-president (Equity)

Perhaps the epic poem, La Araucana, said it best:  “Chile, province fertile and marked / in the famed region of Antarctica / by remote nations respected / for its strength, nobility, and power.”

Chile is a land known for its Nobel Prize-winning poets Gabriela Mistral (Lucila Godoy Alayago) and Pablo Neruda, world-renowned novelists including Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Ariel Dorfman, Isabel Allende and Luis Sepúlveda, painters such as Nemesio Antunez and Roberto Matta, and musicians that include the likes of Inti-Illumani and Quilapayún. We also know it for its resilience, after surviving decades of dictatorship and disappearances.

On 27 February 2010, Chile became known for something else: it experienced a devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake, which lasted three minutes, altered the earth by three inches and shortened the day by milliseconds. Tremors were felt as far as São Paulo, Brazil and Ica in southern Peru, and deaths recorded as far as Salta, Argentina. A tsunami watch initially was issued for over 53 countries and seiches (standing waves) occurred in New Orleans. The damage is still being assessed.

A Call to Action

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet characterized the quake as a “catastrophe” and declared a national state of emergency. The quake has claimed some 800 lives, with many still missing, 500,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 1.5 million people displaced and impacts felt by over 2 million of Chile’s 17 million people.

The damage to insured infrastructure is an estimated US$8 billion, stretching from the epicenter of the quake in Chile’s second largest city Concepción, to the capital city of Santiago, and the World Cultural Heritage Site city of Valparaiso. One port town of Dichoto,  known for its fishing and tourism, has been totally destroyed by fifteen feet waves from the tsunami, which swept away lives, livelihoods and the dreams of many.

Chile is in need of our solidarity and support. It needs financial assistance, damage assessment teams, water purification systems, electric generators, satellite telephones as well as field hospitals and medical personnel. Canadian charities are also responding to the disaster. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins San Frontières and Oxfam have teams on the ground and are appealing for donations for Chile. The Red Cross has appealed for $7 million in donations to assist 15,000 families in need of food, water, tents, generators and other emergency items.

Chile needs emergency relief and we can help. Today the Canadian government pledged $2 million to assist Chile with its relief efforts. Like Canadians across all walks of life, we call upon the social science and humanities community to show solidarity with Chile, to give generously wherever possible and to offer support to the Chilean diaspora in Canada.

Over the long-term our community can also play an important role in helping Chile rebuild an often overlooked area of natural disasters – their devastating impact on culture and memory. The quake has led to physical and water damage to many of Chile’s cultural artifacts, museums, manuscripts, art, and records and archives. In Santiago, the National Museum of Fine Arts was badly damaged. Other iconic architecture such as the Museum of Contemporary Art is surrounded by rubble and will need restoration.  Likewise the UNESCO-designated World Cultural Heritage Site of Valparaiso, known for its stone buildings and cobbled streets, and which boasts the country’s oldest library and extraordinary architecture, has been damaged. Our scholars have invaluable expertise and can partner with Chileans to help in efforts to restore and preserve the country’s cultural, artistic and architectural legacies.

We can also collaborate with Chile’s poets, writers, novelists, musicians and film-makers who, more than ever, will be needed to tell the stories of the quake, to help with psycho-social healing and wellbeing, to remind not only of the destructive powers of nature but also of the wonders of the country’s natural beauty, and especially to inspire the strength and resilience of the Chilean people as they rebuild.