Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Year after the Earthquake and Tsunami, the Battle for Clean Water Continues in Chile

The Chilean coastline stretches 2,700 miles, extending across 38 degrees of latitude. That’s comparable to the stretch of Pacific coastline from La Paz, Mexico to Northern British Colombia, Canada. It is a country with the wildest geography, a string bean of land with so many climate types, from some of the driest deserts, areas with a Mediterranean climate, humid subtropics like Easter Island, to cold mountainous regions and numerous islands in the south.

It’s a magnificent coastline that not only provides habitat for otters, dolphins, whales, and many other coastal and marine species, but also some of the best surf on the planet.

In February of 2010, Chile was hit with a magnitude 8.8 earthquake and ensuing tsunamis that devastated more than 400 miles along the coast and took the lives of many Chileans. Being uniquely positioned to assist with relief efforts following the disasters, last year Save The Waves, spearheaded by my predecessor Josh Berry, delivered supplies and equipment to the Chilean people and assisted with community projects to get people back on their feet. Among other supplies, the Save The Waves team delivered 1,000 water filters that allowed over 10,000 Chileans to have access to clean water immediately after the disaster.

Visiting the region, I completely understood why Save The Waves decided to undertake the relief project. With good-natured and hospitable people and a coastline like this, it was not an option to sit idle. The STW team felt obligated to support the people who have worked with us side by side for the past five years on conservation and water quality issues. The health of the coastal and marine habitat and wildlife also depends on the well-being and vitality of the Chilean coastal communities.

The epicenter of the earthquake was located just off the coast of Cobquecura in the Bíobío region (southwest of Santiago). Tsunami waves headed northeast and southeast of the epicenter, hitting Constitución, Pelluhue, and Curanipe hard in the north and Talcahuano, Dichato, and Concepción in the south. The destruction of the natural disaster is astounding. Countless times my partners would point out what was a structure and now is only dirt. They would say, “There used to be houses here, a restaurant there, or a theater was over there.” In Constitución, at the mouth of the Maule River communities built on the southwest banks were completely washed away.

One year later, many of the affected towns are still struggling to recuperate and return to some sense of normalcy of life before the earthquake. Communities are rebuilding, although some people are still living in camps that were meant to be temporary. Seeing the aftermath of the disaster still an everyday reality one year later, my thoughts turned to the current situation of the people of Japan who were hit by a worse fate just days before my trip to Chile.

While immediate needs understandably have taken priority following the earthquake and tsunami, water quality remains an issue for the coastline where industrial giants rule the land. In 2008, Save The Waves, having worked in the region for years, founded the Maule Itata Vigilante Costero (Coastkeeper), in partnership with the environmental legal nonprofit FIMA. The mission of the Maule Itata Coastkeeper is to monitor the quality of water along this region from the Maule River to the Itata River, along Chile south central coast. Rodrigo de la O works to monitor the coast, provide environmental education, and to build the local community’s capacity to serve as advocates on water quality issues. Charismatic, humble, and passionate, Rodrigo works with the local community to protect the Maule and Bíobío region’s coastal heritage.

In 2006, despite vehement opposition from Save The Waves and local groups like Salvemos Cobquecura, a new pulp mill plant owned by the company CELCO was constructed in the valley of the Itata River. The plant, the Nueva Aldea Forestry and Industrial Complex, is the largest plant of its kind in the county with the capacity to produce more than 800,000 tons of bleached pulp per year. Originally dumping waste directly into the Itata River, CELCO constructed a 50-kilometer pipeline, completed three years after the plant’s opening in 2009, to carry the plant’s effluent underground through the region’s agricultural lands and out into the ocean. This effluent carries the byproducts of pulp production, which includes the use of chlorine to bleach the pulp leaving highly toxic organochlorines like dioxins and furans. Standing at the mouth of the river near the last section of the duct, the earth trembles from pumps underground forcing the waste into the ocean. This waste is deposited into the ocean along a stretch of perfect left point breaks that dominate the region.

North of the Nueva Aldea plant, Constitución, once called the Pearl of Maule, is a town that has been living with the realities of pulp mill production since the late 1960’s. The pulp mill plant occupies prime coastline of the town and emits fumes that burn your eyes and nostril, reeking of toxic cabbage. A friend traveling with us, who is from Constitución, shows us the best place to get a birds eye view of the plant and points to an open space on the hill and says, “This is where we played as kids.” The consent amongst the townspeople is that air quality is now better following the installation of several air filters. Downwind of the plant, I couldn’t imagine what it was like before.

These plants transform pine and eucalyptus and into wood products and pulp to be later processed at paper plants. In the northwestern coastlines of the region BioBio and Maule, the forestry industry owns a great majority of the coastal and adjacent land where Pine and Eucalyptus, both exotic, highly invasive, quick-growing, and water consuming species. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, from 1985 to 1995, Chile lost nearly 2 million hectares of native forest, decimating local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Despite the forestry/pulp mill industry’s intent to turn the land into a profit machine, the coast is breathtaking with grasslands and forests with a rocky coast along perfect left point breaks stretching down every few kilometers. Pockets of wetlands and native Maule coastal forest habitat remain amidst the vast rows of tree farms.

The Mediterranean climate, comparable to that of California, allows small-scale farmers—nearly 1,000 along the valley of the Itata River—to produce grapes, corn, wheat, potatoes, berries and other crops in the fertile lands. Along the rocky coast, artisanal fishermen live of the sea by catching Merluza, Pejerrey, Jaibe, Reineta, Corvina, Congrio, Robalo, Lenguado, and other seafood.

In addition to pulp mill pollution, another threat is lurking in the shadows for this region. A coal-fired project called Los Robles is proposed for coastal land just north of the big wave spot Santos del Mar in the Maule Region. The project entails the construction of a 750-megawatt coal-burning facility and industrial port. Pulverized coal shipments from Australia would be unloaded there, damaging the ecosystem and polluting the ocean with ashes and toxic wastewater.

More than twenty proposals are approved or pending for the construction of similar coal-powered plants throughout Chile, many slated for the coast. Despite this overwhelming number of proposals, community organizing efforts have paid off in other regions like in Barrancones where controversial plans to build a thermoelectric plant near a protected area in the northern Chilean region of Coquimbo were cancelled. This victory illustrates the need to stay united and mobilized to protect the coast and ocean.

Up against powerful polluting industries and a pro-business government that bows to company interests, every day, local and international heroes are working for communities’ rights to clean water and air, as well as the right to a sustainable livelihood. Individuals from groups like the Maule Itata Coastkeeper, Salvemos Cobquera, Accion Ciudadana Pro-Defensa De La Costa Del Maule, Conservación Patagonica, Patagonia Sin Represas, Greenpeace, FIMA, Terram, and many others. In addition to these groups, many everyday residents (fishermen and landowners) have become leaders by drawing a line in the sand, sticking to principal, and refusing to accept bribes to overlook pollution created by powerful companies.

Save The Waves is continuing to work in the region to engage and support community members to participate as advocates to address water quality and coastal conservation issues. Like our colleagues at Maule Itata Coastkeeper say, our movement is about “Aguas Limpias, Communidades Fuertes (clean water, strong communities).” That about sums it up, although I might add “Olas Perfectas” (perfect waves) to the tag line for it to be ideal.

- Katie Westfall, Environmental & Program Director

No comments: