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Letters from Chile: Visiting Dichato – the Town That Was

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a series. Read Part I here.

A former beautiful, bustling and touristy coastal town in Chile clings to an uncertain future after being engulfed by the 2010 tsunami.

A Dichato fishing boat scene, in waning evening light, exudes a serenity that
belies the realities of the almost complete destruction behind.
All photos © copyright Craig Mackintosh

Up to 90% of the buildings of Dichato were destroyed, creating a graveyard
of rubble, peppered with dilapidated buildings – many of which may soon end
up the same way.

Yesterday I visited the little coastal town of Dichato. A few months ago, such a trip might have included a bare-footed wade along the town’s tranquil beach, and, depending on the time of day, could have included a friendly wave or greater interaction with some of the smiling local fishermen bringing in their hauls. Afterwards I might have had a nice meal at one of the sun-drenched seaside restaurants or a coffee break in one of the town’s modest cafes, frequented by sea-loving tourists from near and far. It’s the kind of place many could envision themselves retiring in, or where you might establish a small business to accommodate a more leisurely lifestyle choice. Framed by green hills and groves, lined by a long sandy beach, and embraced by a beautiful natural cove that passively calms the restless South Pacific ocean, Dichato was, simply put, a very nice place to be.

Entire blocks were wiped out

Two months on and the cleanup seems barely started

But children find a way to play anywhere

The idyllic harbour’s natural calming effect on the sea is ironic, as two months ago these natural land formations worked instead to funnel and focus a quake-powered tsunami – creating a series of mammoth waves that engulfed the town of 3,000 people in a way that defies belief. Waves reached heights of 10 metres according to mainstream media reports, while some locals we spoke to pointed at salt water tree damage at heights that had to have been up to 14 metres. Either way, these are said to have been the highest surges and waves reported from the February 2010 Chile earthquake.

Waves washed right over these two story apartments.

The harbour’s shape intensified the tsunami and increased its destructiveness.

Compared to the physical destruction, loss of life was rather light. Locals here are experienced with earthquakes, and aware of the great waves that can follow. Indeed, municipal road signs – crudely portraying people fleeing with oversized waves behind – clearly mark tsunami danger zones and encourage retreat to higher ground. As a result, only about fifty people died in this particular town, and many of those were due to their returning too soon, believing the wave series had ended, or they were new residents from foreign countries who didn’t appreciate the wisdom in the calls to flee.

PRI Chile seeks to help

We came to Dichato because Grifen, Javiera and the others from Ecoescuela El Manzano (The Apple Tree Eco School) team wished to speak to the town’s mayor about ideas on sustainable building and community design. You’ll begin to understand their motivation behind this meeting when you see the pictures to follow.

A makeshift depot outside Chile’s second largest city, the heavily damaged
Concepción, loads prefabricated emergency housing onto trucks, ready to
erect into instant villages in destruction zones like Dichato nationwide.

The people of Dichato call this new tsunami refugee camp outside of town
‘the big neighbourhood’. This one camp will have 519 ‘homes’ in it, each
measuring 3×6 metres (18 square metres, or 193 square feet). The borders
of Dichato will host four or five more such camps,
albeit much smaller, before they’re done.

As much as we might wish we were, permaculturists are just plain not ready to roll out new sustainable communities of low-energy, earth-friendly, but low-cost eco-homes on the scale needed, and in the time frames needed, to address the immediate housing needs of survivors of such disasters. We have to be realistic here, as local mayors need to be in this respect. But, we can also recognise that our inability to fill the housing voids created by disasters such as this is largely because of a deficiency of common sense in our mainstream educational systems, a moderate supply of which could in turn bring a corresponding deluge of investment in appropriate preparedness via knowledgeable people throughout society. While we may not be geared up to take on the present challenge of housing thousands of people right now, we could be tomorrow if we are today showcasing the potential of appropriate housing to the right people and engendering their support and promotion of the same.

This is exactly what Grifen, Javiera and Co., with the backing of PRIs worldwide, are seeking to do.

Grifen and others talk to the mayor of Dichato

As it stands, the people moving from their temporary tents and hastily improvised shacks in other parts of the town (see pics at bottom) into one of these ‘beauties’ are being told that they should expect to put up with them for "no longer than one or two years". But, they have not been told what should happen after that…. In these tiny, uninsulated hutches, with winter arriving and a hot summer after that, one or two years will seem like an eternity – and yet, I think these dates are highly optimistic. Chile, like more and more countries today, is already dealing with acute energy problems. With an increasing likelihood that energy shortages and their associated economic woes will deepen global crises, I can easily predict these poor people remaining in these camps indefinitely – unless they can find a way to take control of their own futures.

There’s more to the article after the following short tour of ‘the big neighbourhood’:

The Chilean military coordinates the relief effort…

… and the resulting construction looks incredibly like an army compound.

Urban planning, army style. The emergency housing are all facing
the wrong way – away from the sun.

The new residents are moving in.

The 3×6 metre room – ready to move into.
[This and the next two photos are taken with an ultra wide angle lens,
so they look much bigger than they really are.]

They’ve brought their appliances, but we’re not sure when or if they’ll receive
power to run them. Water will be dispensed from centralised collection points,
delivered by truck to the new township.

I observed the buildings having many holes in the already thin cladding,
particularly where there were knots in the wood. These people
are in for a particularly unpleasant winter.

Someone scored the big chemical toilet contract….

The mother of this child described how after the tsunami many of her friends
returned to find at least something of their house and belongings left,
but she couldn’t find even a trace.

Families live roadside, awaiting their invitation into ‘the big neighbourhood’.

Demonstrating alternatives

It is politically correct for authorities to promise only a brief stay to new camp occupants, although unrealistic expectations and false hopes can entrench a feeling of waiting, and a feeling of dependency, in these makeshift communities. Such ingrained thought can ultimately lead to bitterness and unrest. Most of these people have little in the way of money – they cannot just buy their way into a better situation.

Even in these strait circumstances, however, there are ways the people can improve their lot, and right now. To showcase this, two weeks ago Grifen, Javiera and team ‘Expostsismo’ (a play on the words ‘Expo’, and post-earthquake – ‘postsismo’) ran a highly successful emergency housing exposition in the city of Yumbel, where they took one of these generic emergency houses, donated by the local municipality, and modified it in different ways over the course of a weekend. This demonstration was observed by hundreds of people and was so well received that it resulted in several other towns from different parts of Chile hearing about it, and requesting the same demonstration to be shown to their citizens and officials.

These invitations are not surprising as team Expostsismo – around forty volunteers in total – had wowed people with some simple but effective options. One was to turn the walls inside out, so the ‘pretty’ side was on the inside, and the ‘support beams’ (hard to call them support beams when they’re only 2×2"…) were on the outside, where they easily added some simple shelving before being filled with earthen mortar (straw, clay, a little sand and water) for significantly increased insulation. Other alternatives were to do the aforementioned, then separate the inner wall from the earth wall and utilise it as a ceiling panel, which can also be insulated above. (The generic emergency house has no ceiling panel and nothing but builder’s paper for insulation.) Other options shown were to re-shape one corner, utilising the material to construct a dry (composting) toilet. Officials and citizens were also taught about water harvesting potential, biological greywater cleaning systems, worm farms and their combined potential for both improved sanitation and rapid garden development.

Such simple techniques require almost nothing by way of investment – rather, it’s simply an educational process to show people healthier, low carbon alternatives that can improve their situation right now and which promise meaningful, skill-building activities that can help people to begin to take charge of their own lives and well-being.

The effect of the Expo was to inspire people with hope – they turned disaster into opportunity, hopelessness into enthusiasm. I wasn’t there, but from the volunteers I spoke to the spirit-lifting atmosphere emitted from observers was palpable.

Expo to run at Dichato

The mayor of Dichato would now like to see such an expo run in what’s left of his town. This has been roughly scheduled for May. The Expostsismo team have nothing less than a captive audience to showcase all kinds of permaculture goodness.

This is the kind of work permaculturists have a profound privelege to be involved in. The results can reach well beyond these disaster refugee camps, as such knowledge and the benefits thereof, once implemented, will ripple out to the wider community, and reach not only into subsequent disaster relief but into the very heart of mainstream thinking. This is particularly appropriate, even critical, as, in one way or another, increasing disaster frequency and intensity are likely expectations for all of us in the months and years ahead.

Continue on to read Part III: Who Gets the New House?

Please consider contributing to this worthy cause – you can do so via donation links on this page!

Additional images to follow:

The lopsided sign hanging outside a damaged and barricaded shop reads:
"Let’s go Dichato – Let’s get up! It’s time community!"

Chilean flags wave over an impromptu shack village erected post-tsunami

Even the livestock are roughing it

This large fishing boat was washed a kilometre inland from the coast. It has
since been hoisted up onto supports to protect the hull.

Most of the industries, including fishing, have collapsed. But, people start
to build again, start to live again, and we try to provide them with skills and
knowledge to increase their resiliency and optimism.

Dichato has seen better days, but now it’s up to the people to rebuild,
cooperatively and with intelligence.


  1. Fascinating ideas about refugee housing hacks. I can only try to guess how many FEMA bureaucrats would descend upon any poor soul here in the USA who would dare to modify their disaster relief housing without the proper array of permits and permissions.

    I wonder if these people can get a neighborhood house-rotating party going and turn the shacks northward.

  2. Cannot see any positive patterns at all in these barrack towns, hope it will just be temporary. Anyway, the so called “modern” blocks I see here outside my window have no more life in them than these barracks. It’s all fabricated, not generated, like an oak tree is:

    “In this sense it is like the natural order of an oak tree. The final shape of any one particular oak tree is unpredictable.

    When the oak tree grows, there is no blueprint, no master plan, which tells the twigs and branches where to go.

    We know in general that it will have the overall form of an oak, because its growth is guided by the pattern language of an oak tree (its genetic code). But it is unpredictable, in detail, because each small step is shaped by the interaction of this language with external forces and conditions – rain, wind, sunlight, the composition of the earth, position of other trees and bushes, the thickness of the leaves on its own branches.

    And a town which is whole, like an oak tree, must be unpredictable also.

    The fine details cannot be known ahead of time. We may know, from the pattern language which is shared, what kind of town it will be. But it is impossible to predict its detailed plan : and it is not possible to make it grow according to some plan. It must be unpredictable, so that the individual acts of building can be free to fit themselves to all the local forces which they meet.

    The people of a town may know that there is going to be a main pedestrian street, because there is a pattern which tells them so. But, they cannot know just where this main pedestrian street will be, until it is already there. The street will be built up from smaller acts, wherever the opportunity arises. When it is finally made, its form is partly given by the history of happy accidents which let the people build it along with their own more private acts. There is no way of knowing, ahead of time, just where these accidents will fall.

    This process, exactly like the emergence of any other form of life, alone produces living order.

    It is a process by which the small acts of individuals, almost random, are sieved and harnessed, so that what they create is orderly, even though the product of confusion.

    It creates order, not by forcing it, nor by imposing it upon the world (through plans or drawings or components) : but because it is a process which draws order from its surroundings – it allows it to come together.

    But of course, by this means far more order can come into being, than could possibly come into being through an invented act.

    It is vastly more complex than any other kind of order. It cannot be created by decision. It cannot be designed. It cannot be predicted in a plan. It is the living testament of hundreds and thousands of people, making their own lives and all their inner forces manifest.

    And finally, the whole emerges.”

    The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, page 510.

  3. Hi Kate – I wasn’t at the Expostsismo event, as it happened a few weeks before I arrived. But, I may be going to another to be held this weekend, so shall certainly post pics from that if I can make it there. Thanks for the interest.

  4. The essential ideas of pattern language theory are the following:

    1. In traditional cultures, successful environments were always built by using pattern languages. They showed people how to make an almost infinite variety of buildings by combining and recombining the patterns, and contained within the process a modest guarantee that the buildings would be successful. Hence the great variety and beauty built by traditional societies.

    2. Each culture had its own pattern language. The pattern languages reflected differences from culture to culture, and often nearly embodied the culture as a whole, in the form of rules which defined the spatial structure of the built environment.

    3. The patterns were, for the most part, based on human needs, understanding, and necessity. They reflected the deep practical daily concerns of people and were, as rules, expressed in a form which made it possible to put these things into the built environment in an immediate, practical, and effective form.

    4. At the same time, although patterns vary from culture to culture, and while human needs vary and are highly specific in different human cultures, there is a core of material – a central invariant structure – which is common to all cultures. A portion of this invariant core – or at least a sketch of such a thing – is described in A PATTERN LANGUAGE.

    This much of the theory is descriptive. But for the most part, the main purpose of the pattern language theory was not descriptive, but prescriptive. We discovered that it is possible to create pattern-language-like systems, artificially. That is:

    5. It is possible to create pattern languages for our own time, which, like traditional languages, embody knowledge, cultural subtlety, human need, and empirical information about the structure of living environments, in a form which may then be used to generate living centres by a combinatorial unfolding process.

    6. It is possible to invent and create new pattern languages, artificially, by trying to see what new patterns will solve problems that exist in a given context. Although these may be new, in the sense that they are newly defined, many of them may, obviously, be versions of ancient patterns, familiar in different cultures, but so deep that in some form they are still relevant to our new era and new settings.

    7. The objectivity of the patterns is context-sensitive, and always includes a built-in reference to be the context for which the patterns work.

    8. The patterns, because of their explicitness, allow discussion, debate, and gradual improvement of the material.

    9. The artificial language will work well only to the extent that it embraces A WHOLE – that is to say, to the extent that it comprises everything that needs to be said about a given building situation, and that the various patterns it contains work together as a whole system, which accounts for all morphology that is required to design, plan or make, a complete building of that type and its immediate surroundings.

    10. These artificial languages, like traditional languages, can then be used to steer processes of design and building, just as traditional languages played that role in traditional society.

    11. For any new building project it is necessary to construct such a language, merely to provide a clear functional basis for the character and organization of the building. The language that is written down, at the beginning of a project may be invented from scratch, composed of known languages that have been re-combined, or may be a modification of a known language developed earlier. This will vary, according to the degree that the project is new, not yet fully understood, or old and familiar.

    “The Process of Creating Life” by Christopher Alexander, page 344-345.

    Please help these people to create a new, beautiful and shared pattern language, which to use to create a new, beautiful and shared town for themselves. A town which is whole, full of life and meaning, a town of Permaculture!

  5. From I found one more VERY USEFUL document about how to create a new pattern language, please follow this link:

    From the document:
    # Write a poem like the one for Samarkand, for your own new, imagined neighborhood. Allow yourself free reign, free imagination, and make it poetically whole. Capture the spirit of the very best, and most serious that this new neighborhood could be.
    # If possible, pin up the poem you have written, on the wall where people can see it, and listen to what they say.

    People of Dichato, you are poets, start making poetry!

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