HIC’s tribute to Josse van der Rest, a defender of the human rights related to habitat

During the Coronavirus pandemic, we lost a great figure in the struggles for land and housing in Latin America, Asia and Africa: the Cura van der Rest. His organization SELAVIP, Latin American, Asian and African Service for Popular Housing, is part of HIC.

Josse van der Rest, of Belgian origin, comes from a family of wealthy construction industrialists (Eternit). He joined the Society of Jesus in 1944 and was delegated to Chile in 1958, where he has lived ever since, when he was not traveling the world.

He learned the Spanish language and the harsh living conditions of the people by living in camps in Santiago, the settlements that emerged from the « toma » (land occupation) and the commitment to self-construction. There he learned a baroque language, from the street, without grammar or literature, full of swearwords.

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A practice marked, by shouting and fighting, by the rejection of all forms of land speculation, which excludes the poor and their need to live in the city; and by the contribution of a seed in the beginning of the long process of assisted self-production of the habitat: the delivery of a « mediagua« , a small wooden house of 3 by 6 meters.

In Chile, the Cura van der Rest is well known for his work in the Hogar de Cristo, for the Fundación Vivienda and its large plant of prefabricated wood in La Pintana, between the Uvas and the Viento; for having directly supported large land acquisitions, such as that of Cardinal Silva Henríquez in 1983. In his fights against the authorities in the middle of the dictatorship, he was heard to shout: « We must play the clown so that these « weones » (a word that means guys in slang) understand something ». In the 90s, he invented an improvement intervention in the popular neighborhoods: breaking the inertia of precariousness, installing a piece on palafittes and thus facilitating the action of housing regeneration.

In the world, since the mid-1970s and especially at the first Habitat Conference (Vancouver, 1976), Josse van der Rest became known for his thundering voice, his laughter and smile, and for his very direct speech: « 52% of the world without housing » was his introductory book to the subject of housing, with a large print run (1973) in several languages. It was his way of denouncing the overcrowded conditions suffered by most people everywhere. It is a denunciation that is now maintained in times of pandemics.

Also in the 1970s, Father van der Rest, with several Jesuit friends in Latin America – among them Alberto Jiménez of SERVIVIENDA (Bogotá), Antonio Ibáñez of FUNDASAL (San Salvador), el Pichi in Buenos Aires, Carlos Pozzo of CIRCA (Arequipa), Tío Paco García in Guayaquil – and with the support of MISEREOR, especially Eike Schütz, created the Latin American Service for Popular Housing, Selavip. This organisation was later extended to Asia – through the work of another Jesuit, Jorge Anzorena and his main partners, Somsook Bonyabanch in Thailand and Bimbo Fernandez in the Philippines – and later to Africa – through the work of Joan Mac Donald.

The international projection of Josse van der Rest and Selavip was multiplied by hundreds of trips, all over the world and in all the housing debates. He travelled light, with a bag hanging from his shoulder, in which was his pillow, a bible and the model of one of the 500 thousand mediaguas (a type of prefabricated social housing that can be easily moved) provided by the Belgian Foundation of the same name, which must have supported projects of dozens of HIC Members everywhere.

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