Sunday, July 9, 2006

Chile's Corporate Dinosaurs & Black-Necked Swans

Thank the gods of the ocean that Chile barely has petroleum reserves of its own. That's what I'm thinking as I'm sitting in a cafe in Santiago de Chile, between environmental surf missions, reading of chaos in the Middle East, Iraq, Israel... Having to import all of your oil into a remote South American nation makes for high oil prices, angry truckers, and sweet STABILITY. No fundamentalists seeking martyrdom, no foreign armies protecting their "interests", no private-public mega-corporations seeking stockholder fortunes. Or is it so? How stable is this famously heralded economic miracle of Latin America?
After five years of studying, living, working and surfing in Chile, and one year back home in California, I have been sent back to beloved Chile by Save the Waves Coalition to tackle the billion-dollar dinosaur known as Celco Nueva Aldea: a new pulp mill in southern Chile owned by the Angelini Group which threatens to destroy numerous cold water point breaks and local livelihoods with air, water and soil pollution. Celco had been found responsible by Chilean authorities and Latin American international court of grossly polluting the Carlos Anwandter Sanctuary, an internationally recognized wetland and black-necked-swan habitat near Valdivia. There were thousands of swans living in this sanctuary, but as of last week their number is officially down to 127. I hope to raise enough public and political hell to stop this from happening in Nueva Aldea, the site of Celco's newest billion-dollar-baby.

"Complejo Forestal e Industrial Nueva Aldea"Celco's latest watery disaster in South America. The Itata River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean 30 kilometers away, can be seen in the background. Photo Will Henry
I returned to Chile on June 13, 2006; this triumphant return was after supposedly being gone from Chile for one year: a year in which I ended up traveling to Chile four times, a year in which I had promised myself to swear off Chile for good. But in 2003 I helped found and still sit on the board of Proplaya, a Chilean non-profit corporation wholly run by volunteer surfers and lovers of the ocean. And they needed me. So back to Chile I went, four times in 2005 - 2006, and back in Chile I am again, helping to publicize and prevent the latest debacle from Celco. I can’t seem to get rid of this South American land of dark-eyed, black-haired passionate beauties, long left pointbreaks and deep-pocketed credit-fueled cowboys.

Going RightSometimes I have to go right in this land o lefts.
Celco is truly a dinosaur in this country. A very ugly dinosaur backed by a small army of well-paid publicists, lawyers, politicians and scientists to make it seem like a well-mannered poodle. Junk science. Local doctors in Constitucion, a coastal surf zone essentially ruined a decade ago by yet another Celco mill, are fearful of publicizing the state of public health in that coastal city. Why? Because Celco funds most of the hospital’s budget. The doctors and city officials I spoke with refused to be named nor quoted. Why, I asked again. Because Celco is a veeeery powerful company. End of official conversation. But an off-the-record casual conversation continued, and in that conversation we spoke of a local public health crisis; of skyrocketing cancer rates downwind of the Constitucion mill; of midnight payoffs and ex-military henchmen. Do you still believe that Chile is the economic miracle of South America? Because sometimes it seems like we need a miracle when it comes to the global paper pulp industry – why do you think it’s nearly outlawed in Europe and Scandinavia? The cleanest part of all this is the foul-smelling pulp mill effluent that is pumped out by the millions of gallons every day here.