22 October 2006

Contra Celco: Citizen Movement in Los Molinos

Today I participated for the first time at a community meeting in our small fishing village organized by a group of impassioned activist students, Mapuche leaders, and local subsistence fishermen. On this rainy afternoon, a group of 20 or so came together as a community in a room owned by the fishermen union of Los Molinos, constructed on wooden stilts with a wall of windows looking out above the working pier. Much of the meeting was dedicated to exploring our own diversity, special interests, and stereotypes for each other, the floor often getting away from the young student in charge of keeping speakers in order, but organically we eventually fell into common ground on the issues of contamination and the impacts felt both physically and spiritually within the borders of our small bay and up the coastline.

The general goal of the meeting was to raise awareness among the coastal community of the growing and continuing threat of pollution generated by the Chile-based, largest forestry company in South America, Arauco (Celco) who, among other polluting industries in the area, sends toxic waste water down river to the ocean and billows of carbon gases into the atmosphere, directly impacting local plant and marine-based ecosystems. Celco’s factory outside of Valdivia began operations in early 2004 as just one of several pulp mills operated by the company in Chile, which collectively produce the third largest amount of wood chips and paper pulp in the world, materials essential to satisfy the insatiable paper-product needs of especially the Asian, North American, and European markets. The industry thrives on massive tree plantations of foreign, fast-growing pine and eculyptus species, which encroach on the unique, temperate rainforests of southern Chile, create ecological dead-zones for native wildlife, and shed toxic pesticides throughout their growth. In the conversion process, Celco applies enormous amounts of toxic chemicals necessary to breakdown the large, mature tree matter into wood chips and pulp, which are then simply flushed out as waste water directly into area rivers meant to channel the toxins to the ocean.

In the case of the Valdivia factory, Celco’s waste water dumped in the Cruces River was heavily absorbed by the vegetation of the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary wetlands before reaching Valdivia and the ocean at the coastal fishing villages of Niebla and Los Molinos. The excessive pollutants and chemicals in the Nature Sanctuary led to the sudden destruction of plant life, including the main food source of southern Chile’s once largest population of black-necked swans. Within a few months of the Celco’s factory opening in 2004, hundreds of these beautiful swans were found dead from starvation in the Sanctuary and in the backyards of Valdivian residents as they wandered ashore seeking food. Many other hundreds migrated away in search of food. Protests ignited national debate and sanctions were proposed against the forestry giant, which closed factory production for several weeks at the peak of the public outcry. However, after re-examination the government soon approved Celco’s standards as in-line with Chile’s minimum environmental protection levels and without any change in filtration or waste-water management, Celco returned to full pulp-production in 2005. Soon afterward large chemical stains were regularly seen in the river from the bridges of Valdivia and local fishermen began noticing the stunted growth of once abundant shellfish beds at the river-mouth.

Currently, the forestry giant’s proposed solution is to channel their waste-water directly to the ocean through a duct to be placed at the fishing village of Mehuin (north of Los Molinos) on a sacred Mapuche religious site, a proposal that the community of Mehuin has fought against for the past 10 years. Celco claims that this proposal is the most efficient and refuses the development of a zero-discharge, internal waste-water cleaning and recycling system, as used in the Finnish pulp mills where environmental integrity is highly-regulated, as too costly. Frustrated by the arrogance of the forestry giant, the compliance of the government, and Chile’s growing burden of local contamination for international products (ironically, paper products in Chile such as print materials and notepaper are outrageously expensive to purchase), activists are calling for the closure of Celco’s pulp mills and national seizure of the tree plantations. Although this political goal may be extreme and unlikely (and personally I’d much rather pressure Celco toward the costly internal waste-water management system), given the alternatives where a government sells national land to corporations with powerful foreign investors and then relaxes environmental controls on that land in the face of political pressure, what else can young Chilean activists, coming to age as the first generation not living under daily fear of a military dictatorship, hope to achieve?

So, eventually our community meeting came down to that point, that the people of Los Molinos stand by the coastal community of Mehuin in defending their environment and way of life as equally as our own. We decided to distribute signs to be posted in the street-facing windows of houses, restaurants, and stores that call for the end of the pollution and the closing of the forestry giant. I shared free copies of recent issues of El Ciudadano that have well-informed articles on the issues facing Mehuin and the political dealings of the Celco pulp mill (all themes I sketch out bi-monthly in
my comic for the paper, No Sólo Cisnes), and I actually spoke up (my political will overcoming my personal nervousness to speak out-loud in my bumbling Spanish) to invite our fledgling group to participate in Chile’s up-coming national march for the environment, October 28, which everyone agreed was a good idea, immediately launching into planning a demonstration in Los Molinos with documentaries and a march.

Returning home to make a late lunch of fake-meat lasagna as the Spring rain continued to fall outside, I felt a new charge of energy to know that my own neighbors, so often quiet in their political thoughts, too busy untangling nets and setting out to fish at farther and farther distances, our lives so completely opposite, actually shared my sense of urgency at the environmental challenges facing southern Chile and the quickened pace at which outside influence is rapidly declining daily life. And for the first time I felt accepted within the community, certainly not for my limited grasp of the language and un-deniable foreignness, but for our shared understanding and desire to protect the unique beauty of this place. Now, to work on my protest sign to carry in the march….

17 October 2006

Noam Chomsky's Visit to Chile

U.S. philosopher and out-spoken critic of conservative politics Noam Chomsky visited the south of Chile this week (specifically the city of Temuco), speaking on topics as diverse as indigenous rights, grass-roots land movements, and the ability of individuals to resist the capitalist machine. I went into Valdivia today to help the El Ciudadano staff translate an informal transcript of Mr. Chomsky’s recent talk for publication in their periodical (edition 37), amazing even myself at my fledgling ability to read text written in English out-loud in Spanish. Granted, Mr. Chomsky spoke in a vernacular, simple prose with circular and repetitious points, and I’m far from Christine’s academic ability to translate complex literature theory text out-loud at a fluent pace, but still, a nice surprise.

Some of the interesting points that Mr. Chomsky highlighted in his talk included praise for the International Peasant Movement coming out of Brazil:
La Via Campesina. The group is not only gaining momentum and inspiring similar movements in India, Africa, and other areas, but is now seen as a respectable section of Brazilian society with their own, hard-fought for, land holdings. The movement holds regular meetings all over the world where seeds and techniques are exchanged to help spread the knowledge of subsistence farming and the defending of land rights. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens here in Chile and as the same financial pitfalls that befell small farmers in the U.S. in the early half of the 20th century begin to increase pressures on the agricultural majority of today’s Chilean countryside, such lessons in land rights and sustainable farming will become all the more essential.

The diverse Mapuche tribes of the Chilean south have spent centuries defending their rights to self-government with limited support from even their farming and fishermen neighbors, as equally endangered by the pollution suffered at the hands of giant forestry companies who replace native forests with plantations of foreign trees lacking eco-diversity and contaminate area rivers and the coastline with toxic waste water. Hopefully the south will awaken to the fact that the struggle for independence from the centralized and capital-hungry policies coming out of Santiago is not just an indigenous-rights issue, but a Chilean issue to create a more just and citizen-oriented society; not a society that only caters to the dollars wielded by powerful, trans-national corporations.

Mr. Chomsky further encouraged the simple mental resistance of refusing to accept the definitions for such concepts as “globalization” as handed to us by those in power, which he defined loosely as the “rulers”: bank executives, corrupt politicians, and heads of trans-national corporations. Instead of viewing globalization from the capitalist perspective as a series of financial transactions leading to the inevitable homogenizing of cultures into markets for exploitation, Mr. Chomsky encouraged the view of globalization as a coming-together or voluntary opportunity to spread cultures and ideas among diverse, international groups. Instead of defining concepts like globalization from the perspective of those in power, he chooses to define such concepts from the perspective of the marginal fringes of power, to explore the positive opportunities presented by a more global and conscious society.

In many sectors of Chilean society at the moment, reflecting the trauma experienced at the hands of colonization and successive dictatorships, the idea of valuing individual perspectives and local definitions over the definitions mandated by those in power borders on revolutionary and is stained with the low-self-esteem common for those countries like Chile, branded as “third-world” by the mysterious “first-world” that continues to enforce its status daily through international cable television and foreign name-brands sprouting up in identical shopping malls. But it is in these spaces more than anywhere else where the messages of critics like Noam Chomsky and other revolutionaries are necessary, pertinent, essential to building citizen movements and resistance to the McDonalization of the world community. In whatever language these messages may present themselves, I believe that they are more than lessons worth listening to, they are lessons worth acting on and soon.

15 October 2006

Chilean Time Change

Just a warning to our lovely and extremely appreciated international callers that Chile “Sprung Forward” in time last night so we are currently 1 hour ahead of the U.S. East Coast, 2 hours ahead of the U.S. Midwest, and 4 hours ahead of the U.S. West Coast. However, in the not so distant future most of the U.S. Northern Hemisphere will “Fall Back” in time and that will complicate things further (please do the math yourself). For the mid-term, please adjust your calling schedules accordingly. Suffice to say, we in Chile are entering that half of the year when we are no longer on U.S. Eastern Standard Time, gloriously taking in more sun in eager servings. For our other friends and family scattered in other parts of the globe, we never know what time it is with you anyway so this information changes nothing and matter’s not. Paz, abrazos y chau!

06 October 2006

Southern Hemisphere Moon Festival

The full Moon appears in our front window for the offeringsHappy Chinese Harvest Moon Festival! However, being in the Southern Hemisphere, we are not exactly celebrating an Autumn harvest, rather a Spring planting and sprouting season. Our vegetable garden is just beginning to sprout, the beans first to break the soil, their early leaves now spreading green and shining. Hopefully the potatoes will soon follow and we will have plenty to enjoy before the end of the season in March. Nonetheless, a good excuse to fill the house with fruit offerings, incense, and warm thoughts of our friends and family all over the world. Christine and I celebrated alone this year for the actual offering of fruit, but later in the night met up with friends in Niebla (the neighboring coastal town), toasting the Moon as it flirted with us from behind the clouds and cast an enchanting glow over the ocean waves below. Although Chileans do not typically salute the Moon in October, the celebration's essence was definitely embraced. Happy Moon Festival!

01 October 2006

Viva La Concha en La Capital

C&CyC: Carol & Christine y CersoYesterday we brought the Viva La Concha movement over 800 kilometers to the streets of Santiago, chanting at passing buses filled with Saturday shoppers and smiling abuelitas, waving our sign, flashing our t-shirts among our rainbow-clad Sureño contingent from Plaza Italia to La Moneda all as part of the 10,000 or more active participants in the Marcha del Orgullo Gay 2006. The dykes on bikes honked their horns, the ladies of the Otra MarchaCarol y Queno Celebrate at La Moneda paused in their seriousness to smile and laugh, while still many others celebrated with photographs and the waving of their own banners in support. All in all, a successful day for the budding message that the Concha, the most sacred part of the female anatomy, which is constantly the object of derogatory comments in Chilean slang, deserves a renewed place in the language that embodies nothing less than Love, Respect, and Celebration. Viva La Concha!