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  • Cultural heritage: A new engine for Chile’s development



    By Verónica Adler and Cristian Heinsen Planella*

    The program to restore churches in Sacorama not only preserves Chile’s cultural heritage, but is also a driver of development and unity in the community.

    The restoration of churches in Sacorama , Chile has become a source of employment for the community. Photo: Altiplano Foundation.

    CHILE – The restoration of churches in Sacorama , Chile has become a source of employment for the community. Photo: Altiplano Foundation.

    Preserving a tradition

    Norita is a 55-year-old  woman who lives in the Andean village of Socorama situated 3,050 meters above sea level in the mountain region of Arica and Parinatoca located 1,800 kilometers north of Santiago, the Chilean capital.

    She is a good example of the complex cultural evolution experienced by villagers of the Aymara ethnic group who still reside in the extreme north of Chile. Norita was born and raised in a hamlet that dates to the pre-Columbian period and features traditional adobe houses and millennial terraces for raising potatoes, corn and broad beans. To complete her education, during her early years she had to descend 100 kilometers to the coastal city of Arica. She later looked for work there as a domestic employee and formed her family.

    Still, the ancestral connection of the Aymara people to their communities and land remains powerful. Every festival dedicated to San Francisco de Socorama in her town is for Norita and her people the spark that moves them to make a pilgrimage to the church which remains the center of preservation of their culture and traditional spirituality.

    Early in the year 2000, Norita and her fellow villagers became worried as they saw their beloved temple was on the verge of collapse after several earthquakes that had damaged its structure. As a result of the progressive abandonment of Socoroma through migration, they were losing the sense of community that had been so strong among their parents and grandparents.

    The loss of traditions—such as building with adobe and shared community labor for preservation—led the Socoroma residents to consider demolishing the church and building a new one with cement and steel, a move that would cause the loss of part of their cultural identity.

    As this decision hung in the balance, the Bishopric, backed by collaboration from the Fundación Altiplano (Andean Plateau Foundation) gave support for launching a program designed to create value in a tourism circuit of Andean churches.

    This project aims to fortify the temples of the region as a cultural heritage of America and a resource to boost development in their communities. One of the principal benefits of this program is that in each community with a church to be restored, the residents will organize around workshops that offer training and employment. The purpose of the workshops is to teach and recover the old and new methods of building with adobe.

    The community makes the difference

    Each Andean church is the heart of a community that has been affected by migration and cultural uprooting. The option of taking responsibility for preserving the temple as a legacy project is complex and involves both fears and apprenticeship for the community. Many people are opposed and see dark intentions in the proposal of restoration. Norita and other members of the community understand the depth of the challenge and are determined to support complete recovery of the temple and its enormous value as a community asset.

    The program allows the community to fulfill what seemed to be an impossible dream: restoring the old adobe church and making it secure, enhancing the value of this treasure preserved by their grandparents for centuries to pass on to new generations. In the rehabilitation process, Norita took on a learning challenge: she accepted appointment as building assistant and supports the architect in residence.

    Little by little, community residents are proving that the promise of sustainable development is real and possible—to the extent that they take responsibility collectively to learn techniques and skills. Norita knows this well, from her continuing role as builder’s assistant for new restoration projects, part of the Andean Churches Plan, which today is a reference for recovery of cultural heritage in Chile and America. In addition, the Circuit of Churches of Arica is now a cultural tourism offering that adds value to the local economy.

    The program financed part of the studies and rehabilitation work that supported the declaration of the Inca Highway as world cultural heritage site in June 2014. The highway is a network of more than 30,000 kilometers of paths that connected the Inca empire and today attracts thousands of tourists every year in a joint initiative of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

    Cultural heritage: a source of development

    This story and many others like it make up part of the Program to Value Cultural Heritage, partially financed with resources from the Inter-American Development Bank. The IDB has backed more than 259 initiatives to enhance the value of cultural heritage for a total of approximately $160 million.

    The objective of this program is to protect and enhance the value of properties declared, or soon to be named, National Monuments, and structures important to nations and regions, so that the lives of people like Norita and their families will improve in socioeconomic terms and sustainable development will become a reality.

    This program has raised the value of heritage properties and enhanced their sustainability as demonstrated by the design and operation of mechanisms to manage these goods and has achieved other impacts. The most outstanding external benefit is to position the issue of cultural heritage as a factor that promotes social cohesion and generates economic activity through industries based on culture and tourism.


    This post is part of a blog series on development effectiveness featuring stories on learning and experiences from IDB projects and evaluations. For more information about design, monitoring, and evaluation of IDB’s projects check

    *Veronica Adler is a Senior Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. She holds a bachelor´s degree in Economics and an M.A. in Public Policy from Argentina’s Universidad Torcuato Di Tella.

    *Cristian  Heinsen Planella is the Executive Director of the Fundación Altiplano (Andean Plateau Foundation) that seeks to recover the cultural heritage of Andean communities. Fundación Altiplano promotes the creation of research centers within rural communities to foster sound and sustainable development projects and activities.



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