Whose fault is it? In examining the eco-disaster that has been plaguing coastal communities in Chile for more than two months now (but whose dire effects will be felt for an extended period), every article or news item on the issue inevitably leads to this question.
The so-called red tide -the largest and most intense in Chile's history - has had devastating effects: in coastal waters, the concentration of reddish-colored toxic algae has poisoned and suffocated millions of fish, mollusks and even marine mammals, resulting in images seen around the world that appear surreal, almost like stage sets from an apocalyptic disaster movie. In addition to the dramatic mass die-off of fish, which for many months has compromised the health of coastal waters, the algae bloom has spelled disaster for many seaside communities, from Valdivia to the island of Chiloè.
The little fishing villages on Chiloè, one of the hardest-hit areas, have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of what Jorge Huenuman Naín, a resident of Chonchi and leader of the indigenous community of Huentemó, has called a full-scale "contamination".
Government measures adopted at the height of the emergency included the suspension of daily fishing activities on the part of Chiloè's fishermen, exacerbating the discontent of a category already reeling from policies that -even at the global level - have never looked favorably on artisanal fishing, often and erroneously depicted as primitive, irrelevant and in a certain sense obsolete; a decrepit gear in a fishing mechanism that many, perhaps too many, would like to see increasingly modern, productive and efficient.
The ban on local fishing activities was followed by a proposal to compensate fishermen's families financially, seen as risible by many locals, especially because it does not address the root causes of their discontent. The eco-disaster, already grave in its own right, has thus become the straw that broke the camel's back, unleashing the rage and resentment of the communities whose livelihood depended on small-time fishing, all too often mere spectators in the political squabbles over the rules that regulate the exploitation of a resource that belongs to everyone. For years, the conflict between the traditional fishing communities and the salmon industry has been at the heart of the debate over fishing in Chile. The current laws favor marine fish farms and benefit - or at least do not hinder - large-scale industrial fisheries. The protests in Chiloè are merely the latest chapter in this acrimonious confrontation. Covered by all the leading international news agencies, the dramatic conditions the islanders find themselves in certainly had no need of sensational headlines that exaggerated the grim reality, described by Ana, Jorge's wife:
"In these day we have spoken with a few mothers who were weeping (Ana chokes up with emotion), because they finished the last of their bread and had nothing left to feed their children."
So then, whose fault is it? The replies point to two prime culprits: climate change and salmon farming. The first, which represents the official position of the Chilean ministry of the environment, holds that the red tide is produced by the combined effect of an unprecedented warming of the sea by the El Niño current and the presence of an unusually high concentration of nutrients, resulting in a toxic algal bloom. The second points the finger at the unregulated use of chemical additives in the salmon farming plants, with the additional accusation of reckless practices like the dumping (at just 130 kilometers from shore) of 9 thousand tons of dead salmon from the Chilean fish farms. Jorge is adamant:
"That was contamination, not a red tide, and that's clear to everyone who lives here, because we'd never seen anything like that before. You get to know the sea when you see it every day, and when every day you go out to sea to work. The sea is angry now."
Speaking about the dumping of the dead salmon, he continues:
"The way I see it, it's the salmon industry that is responsible. Their boats dumped the dead salmon in the sea, and they did it too close to the coast.".
Francisca Riveros , of the Chiloé Slow Food Convivium - who supported fishermen' mobilization providing them food- , calls the damage caused by the salmon industry "irreparable", and in addition to being the principal cause of the die-off of the fish, accuses it of wreaking important damage at every level: fish farming generates negative impacts along the entire production line: during the fattening process in the pens (which contaminates the waters, the sea floor, the beaches and the fauna and flora along the shoreline); during the production and transport of their food (including trucks and ships filled with fish meal) and even in the disposal of the waste and the labor relations with their employees (low wages and no job security).
There is a good reason why Francisca and Jorge talk about the "salmon industry", instead of aquaculture: in terms of quantity of fish produced and value of the salmon raised, Chile is the world's second-largest player. But the impact of intensive aquaculture goes well beyond contamination of the waters, and Francisca emphasizes how "salmon farming doesn't coexist peacefully with the local culture: it annihilates it".
Despite the critical circumstances, Francisca notices that: "this crisis has produced an active social movement" , explaining that -besides angry and protests, people of Chiloé want now to find out solutions. Although the small-time producers and fishermen like Jorge aren't expert sociologists or familiar with the principles of applied economics, they know enough about the impact of the salmon industry to identify and underscore the most damaging effects for the area's communities:
"Many young people don't know how to do the work that I - an adult and in some ways an older person - used to do in the fields: making tools, planting potatoes and sowing legumes; the reason why many of them can't do this is because they went to work in the factories (the salmon plants). They liked the idea of making easy money";
a perfect explanation of what Francisca means when she talks about "annihilation" of the local culture.
The fishermen and other residents of Chiloè will have to find other jobs and sources of income to cope with this situation: besides tourism, a sector that can still offer some good opportunities (as Jorge notes), the soil is the only other possible source of sustenance for the local communities, including those consisting mainly of fishermen:
"If we don't till the soil, how will we survive? Who will feed us? We are forced to work the earth, and everyone knows it, because any chance of working the sea, which used to provide for us in the past, is now gone."
The Castro Chiloé Slow Food Convivium has also organized farmers' markets during the mobilization, in order to promote the local food production.
The adjustments that the islanders of Chiloè will have to make are one thing, but the things that should be done at a higher level, where laws and policies can and must make a change, are quite another. Because, as Francisca says, "participation and inclusion of the communities in making the decisions that impact their production activities" is the only real option.
But what about climate change? This is the other explanation, although it should be noted that this is not proffered by the fishermen and other residents of Chiloè, but by the politicians and ministers called upon to comment.
Although the extraordinary warming caused by El Niño has also been confirmed by the experts at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), it is dangerously illogical to believe, or to try to persuade others to believe, that the world's second-largest salmon industry has not at least contributed to the proliferation of toxic algal blooms, for which warmer waters can be pointed to as a contributing factor, but not the principal cause. The accumulation of nutrients in the water and on the sea bed -the real and proven cause of eutrophication - is in fact known to be an effect of the intensive aquaculture of species such as salmon and tuna.
The tenacity and insistence of the people of Chiloè add impetus to the battle to lend credence to the hypothesis of a genuine contamination, directly linked to aquaculture: samples of mollusks and other species have even been sent to Canadian labs for analysis, and the results will hopefully provide evidence that will help resolve the question.
Whether the blame lies with climate change or the salmon industry, however, we should consider the larger issue, outside the scope of food production, and even - however wrong this may seem -outside the socio-political realm that serves as a stage for this drama. This in order to understand that we are also responsible, above all when we invoke climate change and global warming as if these were independent forces we can do nothing about. When confronted with phenomena like those that have hit Chile, the explanations we have become used to hearing take the same form: we (human beings) on one side, and the rest (a forest, the climate, nature itself) on the other.
It may seem banal, but this is the most serious error: considering ourselves "others" with respect to a forest, a sea or nature in the broadest sense. We err in placing ourselves on the other side of a line traced by us, setting us apart from all the elements and non-human forms of life, egotistically convinced that we don't belong to a system of which we are instead an integral part. And so expressions like "nature is rebelling", "it's all because of climate change" or even "these are natural catastrophes", only accentuate this absurd dichotomy, serving as easy excuses that allow us to stand outside this system and comment on or judge its malfunctions, at times almost disappointed by its inferior performance and relieved, in some ways, that it's not our responsibility.
As we look to a future in which these kinds of events will become increasingly frequent, pointing a finger at the guilty party will no longer be sufficient. We will be obliged to reconsider this complex interplay, accept our indisputable interconnection with the forces of nature and re-examine the role that each of us plays in the system.
Recognizing the power and the permanence of this link is a necessary precondition to exploiting its potential; the same potential which has for centuries permitted communities around the world to prosper by exploiting the natural resources on which they depend in a sustainable and respectful manner.
Many people, however, appear to be fully aware of this fact. They know that there is an ineluctable connection between human beings and the environment, in the broadest sense, and that the parts of this system are like the intersections of a spider's web that links them all, so that a stimulus in one place is felt in all the others: the people know, Jorge knows, and deep down, we know it, too.
No podemos molestar al mar. Nuestras creencias son así.
Author: Marco Marangoni
Photos: Slow Food Convivium of Castro-Chiloè
The interview to Jorge Huenuman Naín and Ana Delia Huenuman has been carried out by the Slow Food Convivium of Castro Chiloè.
To support the fundraising campaign, which is essential to the revitalization of the local artisanal fishing sector and for the construction of farmers' greehouses:
Holder: Asociación de consumidores Convivium Slow Food Pilgua
Conto elettronico, Banco Estado 291-7-066987-6
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