CHILOE IS AN ARCHIPELAGO in southern Chile, known for the distinctive culture of its people, superb shellfish and its unique ecology. Its whole way of life is now under threat.
Salmon farming has taken over whole areas, destroying the ecology. This monoculture results in industrial levels of dead fish, which are tipped into the sea, along with chemicals to disguise the stench of rotting fish. And now there is the ‘red tide’ – a fatal algal bloom that has covered the coast of the whole archipelago and some of the mainland, killing everything it touches, Chilotes believe caused by the dumping in the sea.
There are apocalyptic scenes of beaches covered in dead crabs, and mechanical diggers trying in vain to scoop up all the marine fish killed by the bloom. A whole community faces devastation and the government has offered minimal financial compensation.
This is the latest episode in the story of governments being unresponsive to people’s needs and in hock to big industry: for example, Felipe Sandoval, undersecretary for fisheries in a previous government is now the head of the salmon industry association. But because so many Chilotes have fled poverty to work in the rest of Chile, a national movement has spread across the country, joining up with students, workers and ex-political prisoners who were already demonstrating on other issues.
In London, Chileans demonstrated when the President, Michelle Bachelet, visited in May. The Chilotes themselves have brought everything to a halt. Mass demonstrations, with music, dancing and celebrations of Chilote culture, have closed roads and bridges.
In response to the crisis, the government has sent not food or help, but troops. The Chilotes are resisting. Their demands include that the whole Chiloe archipelago be declared an environmental disaster zone, an immediate investigation be launched and those responsible for contamination be punished.
There needs to be a proper accounting of the 30 years of environmental damage done by the salmon farming in order to determine how much compensation should be paid to all those affected. Strict regulations should be imposed to prevent future disasters, along with an immediate freeze on all interest payments on credit owed by the fishingcommunity of Chiloe, which has been devastated by this crisis.
In the longer run, the state will need to establish permanent help to the Chiloe people because of the toxic waste bloom now permanently present in the archipelago. ‘This is a tragedy, the death of the sea,’ says Prosperina Pizarro, a fish and shellfish collector. ‘We cannot see how we will feed our families. Before, I lived off the shellfish I collected. Now I have nothing. I want to know what our president will do for us. She has left us to starve. The only ones who are surviving now are the salmon farmers, the same ones who killed our sea. We may die of hunger but we will continue our struggle.’
In a video for Greenpeace, Andres, a diver and shellfish collector, speaks of his bitterness standing on a beach covered with dead crabs. ‘As you can see, they killed everything we depend on. The community here is furious, there is a real anger and we will not be held back. We will not stop until the government sorts out a solution for us.’
‘The situation faced by Chiloe creates both indignation and hope,’ says Gabriel Boric, the Congressman for the far south region of Magellanes and member of Autonomous Left. ‘Indignation because it is yet another example of how we in Chile have no model for development which considers the needs of people or the environment. But also hope when we see the street assemblies, the dignity of a people who rise up and take power, denouncing but also proposing, thinking about the land from the community’s viewpoint.’ ‘We have a major problem in Chiloe and all of Chile,’ he adds, ‘which cannot be reduced to the ‘red tide‘. We have a system that encourages economic growth at whatever cost, where the state has prioritised and privileged extractivist strategies which condemn us to sacrifice our lands and communities for the benefit of a few.’