Chile (orthographic projection) 500

Chile's position in green on the Globe

On Saturday morning there was an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in central Chile. Stop right there! Remove all pictures of Haiti from your mind. instead if this had happened in the United States or Japan for we are not referring to an undeveloped and poor nation but rather to the wealthiest, most developed country on the entire South American continent. This is a country where the life expectancy is 77 (Jamaica: 76, US: 77, UK: 78, Canada: 80) and literacy stands at 96%. Chile has half as many AIDS cases per thousand of population as does the United States. They have attained what many countries aspire to: zero population growth. On a scale of one to ten with Haiti being one and the US and Canada being ten, Chile would be nine.

Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert

Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert

The geography of the country is unique as Chile is barely 200 miles wide but almost 3000 miles long. The reason is simple, the towering Andes create a natural border so Chile occupies the ribbon of land between that enormous mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. The country runs through 38 degrees of latitude from the Atacama Desert in the north to the Grey Glacier in the south, with every imaginable climate in between. The northern desert is the source of Chile’s traditional wealth as it is there that the world’s largest copper mine is located. The country has also in recent decades become the world’s fifth largest exporter of wine. Chile’s magnificent wine is grown in the Mediterranean climate of it’s central region.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine

Grey Glacier, close to the Antarctic Circle

The ethnic make up of the country is remarkably homogenous. 65% is mestizo, the Chilean version of “Jamaica white” being a mixture of mostly Spanish European ancestry with some Amerindian. 25% is European, mostly Spanish, German, Italian, Irish, French, Swiss and Croat. Another 5% is mostly Middle Eastern. Roughly 4.5% of the population consider themselves native, though few can claim to be pure bred Amerindians. Afro-Chileans make up less than 1% of the population and again are mostly of mixed blood. I have mentioned the ethic mixture because it fascinates me. Chile seems to have almost risen above the prejudices between the European settlers and native people that is so obvious on the other side of the Andes and, indeed, so much of the world. They appear to be on the way to becoming a true racial melting pot. The official language is Spanish with German spoken in some areas. English is mandatory in school. The four native languages have unfortunately almost died out.

On Saturday morning the BBC spoke to a scientist from The Royal Geological Society who explained differences between Haiti’s earthquake and Chili’s. Hopefully I can accurately pass the information on. Haiti’s quake was caused by a crack in the Teutonic plate and was 6 miles below the surface. This caused almost the full 7.0 force to be felt on the surface though over a fairly small area. Chile’s quake was caused by one plate slipping under another and was about 37 miles underground. The gentleman from the RGS said that the distance underground would have made the epicenter less relevant with an equal force at ground level possible 50 by 200 miles in size. The full force of 8.8 (700 times greater than the Haiti quake) would not have reached the surface. The Teutonic slip, as in the Chile quake, is also more likely to generate a tsunami, hence the warnings across the entire Pacific basin. This type usually has more frequent and stronger aftershocks than when the plate cracks. I hope my explanation is accurate enough to satisfy the experts, particularly my brother-in-law, a highly qualified practicing geologist.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is patently obvious to everyone that the main difference lies mostly in the vast economic chasm between Haiti and Chile. In proper codes and practices in one and the total lack of either in the other. In the difference between total despair and the ability to deal competently with a situation. In the difference between thousands of homeless people living in the streets six weeks later and streets which are mostly empty after two days as almost everyone has a place to go (some families even have tents as part of their emergency kits).  In the difference between a strong President and Government who are front and centre within the hour and ones who cowers in shock for days. However, we have already seen wide scale looting in Chile but isn’t this also a difference, for people more used to creature comforts will loose patience quicker than those who often survive in substandard conditions as a matter of course. The Chilean government is starting to deal with the associated problems and is already putting in place a timetable for recovery. Unfortunately, they have been through all this before and likely will again in the future.

All this being said; we must send our heartfelt condolences to the people of Chile. They do not need the huge outpouring of assistance that Haiti did, but President Bachelet has appealed for help in the form of mobile hospitals and search and rescue teams. And of course, they certainly need our prayers and good wishes.

(Photos from Wikimedia Creative Commons)

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