Monday, July 31, 2006

Chilean Armed Forces & Celco: local bedfellows

“The ocean has an infinite capacity to absorb our industrial waste.” – Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile. February 2005, Santiago de Chile.

“It’s very likely that local people will die to keep Celco from building their pipeline into the ocean. We the local fishermen are passionate and organized against this pipeline and we will sacrifice our lives to protect our future and our environment. This is my life and I support my children and my wife from what the ocean gives me – without the health of the ocean and its fauna, I am dead already; I promise that I will not sell out the health of this ocean to the toxic and corrupt paper industry.” – Gino, fisherman & artisan fishing community organizer; July 2006, Mehuin, southern Chile.

There is a ten-year recipe for social action in the making in Mehuin, Chile. In Valdivia, the site of a Celco pulp mill pollution scandal in 2005, Celco plans on building a 50-mile-long overland pipeline to dump its pulp waste directly into the Pacific Ocean near Mehuin. The local fishermen are up in arms, and since 1996 they have done something about it. Before I delve into a brief history of the unfolding drama, allow me to quote some of the news headlines from last week’s confrontation between Celco (who attempted to map the ocean floor site), the Chilean navy (who attempted to protect Celco from the local fishermen), and 40 local fishing boats (who successfully harassed Celco and the navy into leaving without gathering their ocean floor contour data).

“The Southern Ocean’s Secret War” – Diario El Gong, July 27, 2006.
“Celco Fails in EIR Bid After Fishermen’s Actions” – Diario El Gong, July 26, 2006.
“Neighbors Question Government’s Support of Celco” – Diario Valdivia Noticias, July 27, 2006.
“Navy Launches Warship to Protect Celco Scientists” – Diario del Sur, July 26, 2006.
“Navy Defends Actions and Claims to Not Protect Celco” – Diario Austral Valdivia, July 28, 2006.

Video footage of a confrontation between Mehuin fishermen and the Chilean Navy from August 2006:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EVENTS: In 1996, Celco seemed to understand that its pulp mill would irreversibly pollute the Rio Cruces / Valdivia watershed because they got approval to build a pipeline to dump their waste into the coastal waters of Mehuin, a small artisan fishing community near Valdivia. The Ocean Defense Committee, was formed by local fishermen to stop this project; they protested via massive demonstrations, burning 3 police motorcycles and one paddy wagon and succeeding in tabling the pipeline proposal.

Ricardo Lagos, president of Chile until 2006, reinitiated the subject in 2005 claiming that “a waste pipeline to the ocean is the only solution, since the ocean has an infinite capacity to absorb industrial waste.”

After the green light from the president of Chile, Celco reinitiated its geographic studies of the region for the construction of its pipeline. The fishermen of Mehuin followed closely, and in December 2005 shots were fired across the bow of a Celco boat by local fishermen as scientists attempted to take depth soundings, ocean bottom contours and water samples. Celco fled the scene without achieving its aims, but returned last week with an escort: a warship from the Chilean navy. Dozens of riot police descended on the small town of Mehuin to control the situation and electrical power to the town was cut.

Nevertheless, over 40 small fishing boats congregated at the scene in heavy seas and torrential rains; they harassed the Celco and navy boats to such an extent that Celco and the navy again left the scene without succeeding at collecting their data. Before they left, the Chilean warship managed to sink two small fishing boats in what it claims was an accidental collision.

I am reminded of the old curse: “may you live in interesting times."