Salvador: rebuilding comes slowly. Private group provides nails -- and glimmer of hope

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The heap of two-by-four posts, piled neatly by the roadside, contrasts starkly with the pell-mell chaos of hastily built shelters all around. For the thousand or so residents of the La Fossa slum in east San Salvador, those posts -- and nearby piles of corrugated iron sheeting -- represent the first sign of a better future since their shacks collapsed in last Friday's earthquake. Nearly 1,000 people are estimated to have died and, according to the government, at least 10,000 people were injured in the quake.

The building materials come from Fundasal, a widely respected private agency that has long specialized in low-cost housing and community organization. Since the disaster, Fundasal workers say, the group has gone into top gear and emptied its warehouses into the slums and squatter settlements of the capital.

While the government has gotten no further than expressing its hopes to help victims rebuild their houses and distributing United States-donated plastic sheets, the private group has been handing out posts, planking, corrugated iron, nails, and tools since Sunday.

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Fundasal's response to the crisis is in line with President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's plan to encourage the victims to stay where they are by promising them the materials they will need to rebuild on the ruins of their old homes.

This approach has won approval from independent relief and development agencies. ``The government's idea for rehousing is a good one,'' says Mike Murphy, local head of Catholic Relief Services, a church-based development group. ``In low-income areas people want to stay -- it's their home, and big shelters cause all sorts of problems.''

The Fundasal community organization chief, Edim Mart'inez, says, ``This won't solve the city's fundamental housing problem.'' But it helps meet the emergency, he adds, and the construction materials will be reusable when the time comes to build more-permanent homes.

But the plan's success, government and independent aid workers agree, depends on speedy execution. After visiting ``all around the affected communities, I haven't seen one single nail being distributed by anyone [else],'' Mr. Mart'inez laments.

This seems partly because the scale of the tragedy is so immense. Initial estimates by housing experts suggest that as many as 200,000 people were left homeless by the earthquake. Almost a dozen countries have sent emergency aid or disaster relief teams to aid the victims of Friday's earthquake.

``The resources of this city are not sufficient to cope with a catastrophe like this,'' complains Deputy Urbanization Minister Remo Bardi.

But effective relief work also relies on good community organization, points out Fundasal's Mart'inez.

In a city where community organizers have been traditional targets for extreme right-wing death squads, such cohesion is rarer than it might be.

``La Forca, for example, elected its community council only two months ago,'' explains the president of that council, Jos'e Artilo Constanza. ``We didn't get the tools we needed today because we were not organized enough to arrange for them,'' he adds.

``When our colony [community] still existed, we could keep things under control, but with things as they are . . . .''

Meanwhile, says Deputy Minister Bardi, the government's top priority is still saving the lives of possible survivors trapped in the ruins of big office blocks. ``We cannot pretend that we have a plan to reconstruct the city yet,'' he acknowledges.

When that planning starts, one Fundasal official predicts, ``there is going to be trouble, because the real solutions lie in drastic and radical steps'' to deal with deeper issues such as land ownership. ``And they will come up against some very powerful [economic] interests.''

The problem will be compounded, Mart'inez points out, because much of the land on which San Salvador's slums are built is totally unsuitable for housing -- on the steep slopes of ravines, for instance -- and new areas for development will have to be found.

At the same time, many of the homeless did not own their houses, but rented them. And it is unclear whether the government plans to help tenants or landlords rebuild them.

``The poor have spilt out of their slums onto the streets,'' the housing worker says. ``It's like when cockroaches come out, people just want to fumigate. El Salvador has always tried to sweep its poverty into the corner.''

This time, the housing worker hopes, that may not be so easy. Groups accepting donations: Acci'on International, 1385 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA 02139. Mark checks ``Acci'on International Relief.'' American Red Cross, El Salvador Relief, 150 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10023. CARE, El Salvador Disaster Fund, 581 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116. Central American Refugee Center, 3112 Mount Pleasant Street, NW, Washington, DC 20010. Mark checks ``Carecen/Earthquake Relief Fund.'' International Rescue Committee, El Salvador Fund, 386 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10016. Oxfam America, Earthquake Appeal, 115 Broadway, Boston, MA 02116. Save the Children, El Salvador Earthquake Fund, PO Box 970, Westport, Conn. 06881. UNICEF, 331 East 38th St., New York, NY 10016;(212) 686-5522. Mark checks ``El Salvador Emergency Relief Fund.'' United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator, United Nations, New York, NY 10017.

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