Volunteers of the NGO TECHO in the campamentos of Copiapó, Chile

When the need for housing becomes a crime: informal settlements in Chile

Imagine calling an ambulance that does not arrive because your neighbourhood is not covered by public services. In the event of an emergency such as a fire, burglary, or medical problem, we would call the police, an ambulance, or the fire department without hesitation. It is unthinkable that these services would not arrive simply because the residential area is difficult to access or is considered too dangerous to enter.

In Chile, around 113 887 families were at risk of being affected by this problem in 2022. These families live in the so-called “campamentos” or “tomas”—informal settlements in occupied areas, which are mostly not covered by public services. The term “tomas” is derived from the Spanish verb “tomar”, with the meaning “to take”. It refers to the land that has been illegally appropriated—taken. Unlike a toma, a campamento is registered by the Ministry of Housing in Chile.

Due to the informal nature of these dwellings, the inhabitants are in constant fear of eviction. But what alternatives do families have to living in campamentos? Not many. The main reasons for moving to an informal settlement in Chile are high rents, low incomes or the need for independence from relatives. The housing crisis in Chile is reflected in the growing number of campamentos. Every day, 120 people move into a campamento. The state is trying to prevent this. For example, by giving forty per cent of the most vulnerable part of the population the possibility to apply for housing benefits. However, due to the lack of formal housing, only thirty per cent of people who receive this allowance can use it at all. Also, the Emergency Housing Plan presented by the Chilean government in 2022 does not cover the need for housing. It aims for 260,000 accommodations to be built by 2026. At first glance, this may seem ambitious. However, it would cover only 40% of the 650,000 dwellings currently required.

In campamentos, at least one of the basic services is insufficiently available. In addition to a lack of access to emergency services, the inhabitants of the campamentos often have no legal access to water, sanitary facilities, or electricity. Only 5.9% of the campamentos have legal access to water. The rest are dependent on deliveries from water tankers or illegal syphoning of the public water supply network. Moreover, 63.1%  tap into the public electricity network. This method, used most frequently, harbours dangers such as cable fires due to inadequate safety standards. Due to the need for connection to urban infrastructure such as the public electricity network the campamentos are mostly located on the outskirts of towns.

Campamentos in the Atacama-Desert, Chile

The transition between legal buildings and campamentos is abrupt: suddenly the paved road ends and a gravel path continues between the houses, some of which are very similar to the “legal” houses in the city, and some of which are only made of recycled boards, cardboard, or tarpaulin. Building such houses can be especially dangerous in the north of the country. Chile is often shaken by earthquakes and in winter there can be rainfall in the Atacama Desert—this can tear the houses on the slopes of the mountains away with tremendous force. And these are not the only fears that affect the inhabitants of the campamentos.

The Usurpation Law was passed in September 2023 to address the increasing number of people living in campamentos. This law implies that the usurpation of land is punishable by a prison sentence. For the moment, campamentos that are registered in the register of the Ministry of Housing in Chile are exempt. “Tomas”, in contrast to campamentos, falls under this law as an unregistered occupation. This is why the law is colloquially known as the anti-tomas law. The data about the informal settlements in Chile are only collected once a year and around 34.74% of people living in the campamentos are immigrants from other Latin American countries—mainly Bolivia, Columbia and Peru—who may not be familiar with the exact legislation in Chile.

Campamentos also have a long history in Chile. The first informal settlements emerged with the rapid urbanisation at the beginning of the 20th century. Although there were attempts by the state to provide the newly founded settlements with public infrastructure in the middle of the 20th century—especially on the outskirts of Santiago—these could not keep up with the rapid increase in population in urban areas.

The current situation is similar: support from the state in the housing crisis is scarce. Instead, sanctions are imposed and the already precarious housing is criminalised even further. Some NGOs, such as the NGO TECHO, support the people living in campamentos. They campaign for decent and adequate housing for everyone. TECHO provides support in the form of advice on applications for the official recognition and provision of infrastructure in the campamentos, applications for housing subsidies from the state, or the realisation of construction projects. Community centres, emergency shelters, and playgrounds are built by TECHO volunteers in collaboration with the residents of the campamentos. The work is based on the self-efficacy of the campamentos, which develop and carry out construction projects together with the volunteers.

Sylvia Muñoz Gahona, director of the TECHO Chile Foundation in the Atacama region, appeals to political decision-makers:  “It is necessary to create a permanent political framework that addresses not only the housing shortage, but also the economic, political and social causes that have led to the explosive increase in the number of households living in social and housing exclusion, and in this particular case, in the campamentos.”

A Playground constructed by TECHO in a campamento in Copiapó, Chile

Is it not the responsibility of a state to provide access to adequate and dignified housing? Adequate housing is recognised as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As a member state of the United Nations, Chile has committed itself to protecting the right to adequate housing. This is not being done by passing a law enforcing tougher action against informal settlements while the housing subsidies are more of a drop in the ocean than a real solution. Instead of exposing informal settlements to stronger sanctions and relying on the work of NGOs, political measures for more adequate and dignified housing options are urgently needed to effectively combat the housing crisis in Chile.

By Paula September Kohrt

All photographs are the original works of the author.

April 14, 2024

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