It was the most destructive natural disaster in Colombia’s history.
On Jan. 25, 1999, two earthquakes, measuring 6.2 and 5.8 on the Richter Scale, destroyed more than 100,000 buildings in 28 municipalities in the heart of Colombia’s economically strategic coffee-producing region, killing 1,185 persons and leaving more than 550,000 homeless in a 1,360-square-kilometer mountainous region that lies between the Pacific Ocean and Bogotá.
The shock of the disaster, which had an economic cost estimated at 2.2 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product, was made even worse because it came during a period of economic recession.
“The state was challenged to overcome a crisis of credibility and legitimacy, because in the past the response to these crises had been slow,” says Manuel Fernando Castro, an advisor to Colombia’s Planning Department. Indeed, in many Latin American countries afflicted by natural disasters, so-called “reconstruction” plans are infamous for failing to deliver promised aid, and in the worst cases, for misspending much-needed government funds in poorly conceived or even fraudulent projects. But according to Jairo Salgado, an IDB specialist based in Bogotá who helped coordinate the Bank’s financial assistance for the recovery effort, in this case Colombia rose to the challenge.
Homes belonging to some 130,000 families have been repaired or rebuilt. Another 16,700 new homes have been built for persons who had previously rented property in areas at high risk of seismic damage. These families were relocated and given permanent titles to new homes, creating a new class of low-income homeowners. A total of 649 schools and 52 health centers were repaired or rebuilt in the 28 affected municipalities.
Although the official goal of reconstruction was to rebuild infrastructure that was damaged or destroyed, in some instances the region ended up better off after the earthquake than before. Armenia, a city of 300,000 inhabitants that was 60 percent destroyed in the quake, now has a gleaming new skyline, a new airport, a new police station, a new administrative center, and new hotels.
Julián Orozco Flores, a project management specialist assigned to the reconstruction effort in Armenia, says that by fortuitous coincidence the earthquakes struck “the day after Armenia completed its city plan.” The plan called for building a new police station and an “administrative center” to replace the old city hall; it also proposed relocating an army barracks and the market from downtown to the outskirts. “Because of the earthquake and reconstruction, the new buildings specified in the plan could be built, and the relocation of the army barracks and the market were carried out," says Flores. Several new schools were concentrated in one area called Ciudadela Educativa del Sur, as part of an administrative reorganization that had been previously contemplated but was suddenly made a reality during the reconstruction process.
Perhaps most remarkably, all this was accomplished in just three-and-a-half years. “A reconstruction program of this magnitude usually takes five to six years to complete,” says Castro.
A radical departure. How did the government do it? Ironically, the answer is that the government did not do it. Convinced that traditional bureaucratic channels would be too slow and inefficient, Colombian authorities devised a daring plan to mobilize nongovernmental organizations and put them in charge of the relief and reconstruction efforts.
The government selected 28 universities, cooperatives, civic groups and professional associations to administer the 32 operational zones set up for the reconstruction program. These NGOs were responsible for identifying recovery projects and families that needed relocation and new homes. They were also in charge of applying proper administrative practices, mechanisms for participation of the affected population in the reconstruction process and environmental safeguards. Finally, the NGOs called for competitive bids from construction firms who were subsequently awarded contracts to do the actual construction.
The government's role was confined to providing overall supervision to the process and assigning resources from a special fund known as FOREC (from the Spanish initials for Fund of the Reconstruction and Social Development of the Coffee Region). Only 120 government officials were permanently assigned to the reconstruction program. In keeping with the goal of limiting bureaucratic intervention, the government officially dissolved FOREC on July 25, 2002, declaring that it had completed its mission.
“It is worth noting that 95 percent of FOREC’s resources were directed to investments and only 5 percent to administrative costs, whereas in a typical government agency in Colombia about 50 percent of the resources go to administrative costs,” says Edgar Aristizabal, a housing expert who assisted FOREC’s reconstruction effort in Armenia and nearby communities.
FOREC also ensured that the program followed sound disaster prevention policies. The United Nations, which gave its Sasakaway Award for Disaster Prevention to FOREC’s reconstruction program in the year 2000, specifically cited this aspect of the strategy. In its citation, the U.N. commended FOREC for “tremendous work in integrating basic elements of prevention such as land-use planning, hazard mapping, respect for seismic-resistant building codes” as well as for the speed and efficiency of reconstruction.
International organizations, including the IDB, provided financing for about 40 percent of the $750 million price tag for reconstruction. The IDB in 1999 approved a $20 million emergency loan, followed by $133 million in previous loans to Colombia that were reprogrammed and redirected to earthquake reconstruction with a focus on housing, schools and health centers.
Home-grown solutions. Radical decentralization was not the only innovative aspect of the reconstruction program, however.
In order to increase popular participation and competition in the selection of subsidized homes built following the earthquakes, beneficiaries were allowed to select a house design and the possible locations through public exhibits known as vitrinas mobiliarias (property windows). Grass-roots community groups called Organizaciones Populares de Vivienda (OPV) were formed to help organize families that were forced to leave destroyed dwellings or homes in seismic zones. The OPVs would help these families to understand and compare the various available housing options and complete the paperwork necessary to obtain a legal title to their new property.
Yagid Toro Guevara, a 42-year-old cab driver and a widower with two daughters, received a subsidized home through his OPV and now lives in a community known as Ciudad Nuevo Amanecer. He says the purchase gave him a new sense of stability and purpose. “When you are a homeowner, you have something to look forward to when you return from work,” he says. “You know you now have something important that is your own.” Still another innovation was the use of bahareque, a local construction technique that employs a native giant bamboo known as guadua. Bahareque has been used by rural Colombians for hundreds of years to make inexpensive and surprisingly durable houses. Though many bahareque homes were destroyed during the earthquakes, Colombian engineers in recent years have perfected techniques for reinforcing baraheque walls so that they become highly resistant to seismic events.
Two hundred of these modern bahareque houses were built during the reconstruction program for refugees who selected them in the “vitrinas mobiliarias.” Qualified families could choose a two-story, three-bedroom bahareque home made of guadua, or a one-bedroom home made of the more expensive brick and cement. Many of those who decided on the smaller, brick structures “now regret it,” says Aristizabal. “We know a well-built bahareque can last more than 100 years.”
One of those who chose a bahareque house was José de Jesús Aguirre, a 44-year-old-laborer with four children. Previously a renter, he became owner of a government-subsidized home in Ciudad Alegría near Armenia.
“My father had a bahareque, so I know they are good,” he says.
Like any reconstruction program, this one did not satisfy everyone or solve all the region’s problems. The construction employment boom that followed the earthquakes has begun to wind down, for example, leading to layoffs of many skilled and unskilled laborers. More ominously, Colombia’s entire coffee-growing sector is still trying to overcome the consequences of the global coffee glut.
“The coffee belt has been suffering from a recession for about 10 years,” says government economist Jaime Niño, who helped to supervise the dismantling of the FOREC administration after its role was officially terminated. “It was hurt by the fall in international prices. There have been some attempts at agricultural diversification, but the region still depends on coffee.” For these and other reasons, many local residents worry about the economic future of their region.
But for Jorge Enrique Sánchez, a 44-year-old fruit vendor who lives in a new settlement of 600 homes called Ciudadela Compartir, the future looks brighter in one very significant respect. His was one of the many families that was resettled away from areas that were at too high a risk of future earthquake damage. Sánchez, who has converted his new living room into a fruit stall, says his new quarters are “about the same” as those he was forced to leave. But at least now, he says, “I don’t live in a seismic zone.”