Juan Manuel Espinoza Cortes and a building made of earthquake-resistant superadobe under construction in Hueyapan, Mexico. Photo by: Mallika Vora

MORELOS, Mexico — Just 60 kilometers north of the epicenter, Hueyapan in Morelos, Mexico, was largely devastated by the Sept. 2017, 7.1-magnitude earthquake. The community of about 7,500 sits in the foothills of the great Popocatépetl volcano where trembling of the earth isn’t uncommon, but never before had such a powerful earthquake hit so close to the village. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed, leaving many homeless.

Nearby Mexico City received most of the public attention, as news shot across the globe about people trapped in fallen high-rises in one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest cities. It took most relief groups at least a week, some a month, to reach Hueyapan, where conditions were worsened by the rainy season and high altitude.

A year on, two Mexico City-based groups are thinking ahead to the next quake. They've teamed up to build homes made of “superadobe” — a version of earthbag construction which adds lime and polypropylene bags to the mix, effectively making the structures tremor-proof when well-built.

Nonprofit Guadalupe Madre Tierra has funded the construction of five superadobe homes in Hueyapan, designed by Siembra Arquitectura. The firm hires local workers, not only to provide work, but also to impart the knowledge necessary to continue rebuilding communities and to maintain the tradition of working with adobe — in a more updated form.

“The idea is that the entire project of supporting and helping people rebuild their community becomes sustainable, so that we can maintain it without asking for donations from all over the place, which is very complicated,” said Claudia García Mendez, assistant to the president at Guadalupe Madre Tierra.

A new home made of earthquake-resistant superadobe in Hueyapan, Mexico. Photo by: Mallika Vora

“It’s costing us blood. Even in the city, there are buildings that need to be torn down and others that need to be repaired,” she said.

Juan Manuel Espinoza Cortes, a native of Hueyapan and a beneficiary of Siembra Arquitectura’s first superadobe home in the village, is now the lead builder for other homes, having learned the ins and outs of superadobe and the architectural process. Espinoza Cortes said he is optimistic about superadobe as a durable construction material in Hueyapan, now that he is able to teach the method to others.

“There have been other earthquakes since ... And when people see these homes are unaffected, they are more willing to learn the methods. They are more willing to put in the work. There are younger people who are interested in this, too. That is what we need,” he said.

Espinoza Cortes’ superadobe home has three bedrooms and one bathroom, and cost about 180,000 Mexican pesos ($9,600) to construct, including labor. The Siembra Arquitectura team has built smaller homes that cost less; and larger, luxury homes that cost $50,000 in Mexico, all made using superadobe.

Both adobe and superadobe homes take about three months to construct, depending on size, weather, and available workforce.

While the government’s department of disaster relief, FONDEN, allocated money for properties damaged by the earthquake, the distribution has been marred by complications — including unequal payment, confusion over recipients, and difficulties obtaining funds when needed, according to locals. FONDEN did not respond to requests for comment.

“Lasting projects are a learning process for the people who are helping … It involves the organization seeing what’s really happening and sometimes that involves changing their initial plans or ideas.”

__ Analiese Richard, sociocultural anthropologist and professor, Metropolitan Autonomous University

The shortfalls have made the charitable programs all the more necessary, and why groups are trying to ensure their rebuilding efforts can be sustainable and replicable — when another earthquake hits.

García Mendez said that of the five houses that Guadalupe Madre Tierra has funded, only one was given any money by FONDEN: 20,000 Mexcian pesos out of the 71,000 promised.

Her organization has plans to keep building in Hueyapan and also to create other jobs in the area, including a small marmalade factory that takes advantage of the region’s abundant fruit harvests — which right now often go to waste — as well as creating and selling fertilizer from livestock. They also plan to teach locals to build rainwater filtration devices, which can be constructed with materials that are sold in Hueyapan, as another means to ensure a sustainable future for the community.

Analiese Richard is a sociocultural anthropologist and professor at Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, who has more than 15 years of research experience in rural development in Mexico. She said the long-term sustainability of projects such as superadobe housing in Hueyapan depend a lot on the initial approach in the community, as well as the ability to use local products and hire local workers rather than inputs from other places.

“Lasting projects are a learning process for the people who are helping,” Richard said. “It involves the organization seeing what’s really happening and sometimes that involves changing their initial plans or ideas.”

What interests Richard about the particular case in Hueyapan is that it appears there are multiple groups involved in a variety of sustainability efforts.

“There are a number of projects and ideas that are converging in the same town, that has the potential to have some synergy right now and that in itself is interesting … These efforts tend to bubble up following disasters when outsiders see an emergency, and then they see later that there are chronic problems of poverty that don’t have easy solutions,” Richard said.

“People arrive with projects that could function, but what stays in the community are the aspects of that project — that technology is there, and people can continue adapting it themselves to the point that it’s most useful to them ... and it can actually become part of a cultural repertoire.”

García Mendez believes that is the case in Hueyapan: “Our major idea is that the villagers can learn new skills in order to have a better quality of life.”

“We have no intention of being here forever. When we leave, we want to know they have all they need in order to continue. We want this to be something that grows, but also that is sustainable.

About the author

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    Megan Frye

    Megan Frye is a writer and translator living in Mexico City. She has a history of newsroom journalism as well as nonprofit administration and has been published by several international publications. Her journalistic work is mainly focused on issues of sustainability, development in rural communities, human rights, and ethical travel.