Chile: Indigenous Group Besieged By Salmon Industry

Fransisco Vera

Fighting for years to preserve the last, tiny plot of land it has left following years of state and more recently industrial encroachment, a small Mapuche-Huilliche indigenous community near Puerto Montt, Region X is now resting all of its hopes on a group of strangers in far-away Washington, DC.

Fransisco Vera

Fighting for years to preserve the last, tiny plot of land it has left following years of state and more recently industrial encroachment, a small Mapuche-Huilliche indigenous community near Puerto Montt, Region X is now resting all of its hopes on a group of strangers in far-away Washington, DC.

This past February – out of legal options here in Chile – the Pepiukelen community sent its case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). An autonomous branch of the Organization of American States, the IACHR examines accusations of human rights violations, referring more egregious cases to its sister body, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

Nine months later the IACHR has yet to rule on the case. And, with the latest in a series of recently arrived salmon industry factories now beginning to operate quite literally on their doorsteps, hope springs far from eternal for the eight large families that make up the Pepiukelen community.

"At this point there’s still a chance the Inter-American Commission could rule in our favor, but honestly, we’re disappointed with what’s happening up there. I’ve spoken with lawyers from different parts of Latin America who have presented cases before the Commission, and it’s never taken this long before," said Francisco Vera Millaquén, the werken (spokesperson) for the indigenous community.

The Pepiukelen community has resided in the area near Pargua, a launching point for ferries traveling between mainland Chile and the island of Chiloé, for as long as anyone can remember. Maps dating back to the time of Chile’s independence suggest the community once possessed some 11,000 acres of land. Two centuries later, mostly as a result of expropriations by the state, the community has seen that vast property reduced to just 8.5 acres, land on which Vera and his family members continue to support themselves through farming.

But it’s not just the size of the property that has changed. Thinking back to the years of his youth, Vera recalls the sloping, seaside plot with its then crystal-clear river and easy access to the beach as a magical playground.

"It’s difficult," said Vera, struggling unsuccessfully to contain his emotions. "Years ago, right here, there was a school. And we’d play all over this area. We’d always swim in the river. Every summer we used it as a natural swimming pool. It was the same thing here on the beach…And now that’s all gone."

The most notable changes have taken place over the course of the past 15 years, a period of time that corresponds precisely with a regional boom in farmed salmon. With exports increasing more than 10-fold since the early 1990s, the now US$2.2 billion-per-year farmed salmon industry has transformed southern Chile’s economy and now employs an estimated 45,000 people, principally in Regions X and XI.

Considered by many a godsend for the mostly rural southern region, for Vera and his family the salmon boom has been more like a living nightmare. The start with, the "farms" – offshore raft structures where salmon are raised in pens by the tens of thousands – have polluted area waters and thus driven local artisan fishermen and shell fish harvesters out of business.

"It’s not a coincidence," said Vera, noting that over the past two decades local shell fish have disappeared, red tides have become increasingly common, and native fish have simply died off. "It’s all a chain that began approximately 20 years ago when people still thought these companies were setting up operations that wouldn’t be harmful to the environment. Today it’s finally being shown that’s not the case."

The industry has also spawned a host of satellite businesses, such as processing plants, fish meal and oil factories, and salmon feed plants: precisely the kinds of factories that because of Pargua’s proximity to Chiloé (one of the most concentrated salmon farming areas in the country) have one by one set up shop in the immediate vicinity of the Pepiukelen community. Vera’s farm is now surrounded by four large plants.

"What we have now is a landscape that is completely, absolutely horrible," said Vera. "Besides painting their facilities ugly colors that don’t at all fit the surroundings, the companies are also causing tremendous harm to the environment."

In the late 1990s, when the first of the factories moved in, members of the unprepared Pepiukelen community had little idea what was taking place. But in 2001, when a salmon company called Long Beach managed to acquire land directly abutting Vera’s property – just meters from his front door – the community took direct action.

Over the next three years the community fought tooth and nail with Long Beach, which planned to build a fish meal/oil factory. Eventually, a combination of pressure from the Pepiukelen community, which threatened to send the case to the IACHR, and market factors convinced Long Beach to give up the plan.

For the Pepiukelen community, however, the victory turned out to be short lived. Long Beach soon sold the property to another company, Los Fiordos (owned by Agrosuper Holding), which starting in early 2006 began construction of a salmon feed factory. The community took legal action, and in May of that year a nearby appeals court ordered the project be halted pending investigation. But in October, the court ruled in favor of the company, allowing construction to continue. Vera then took the case to the Supreme Court, which earlier this year declared his complaints inadmissible.

"Here the authorities have always just shut their eyes. And when I say authorities, I mean all of the authorities: starting with the president and her cabinet, the regional government, the judges who’ve sold out, and finally the members of Congress who have simply looked past the problem. They haven’t wanted to help," said Vera.

The community leader did note one exception: Sen. Alejandro Navarro of the Socialist Party, who has tried to exert some influence on behalf of the Pepiukelen. According to Navarro, the problem in Chile is that both the courts and government environmental authorities have a built in bias toward "mega-projects," i.e. business ventures involving substantial amounts of capital investment.

"In this particular case, and despite a host of irregularities, the project was allowed to go ahead because of the law’s passion for development and production and because of the intolerance of Region X’s regional authorities," said Sen. Navarro.

By the time I visited in late October, the factory was more or less completed. Manager types in hard hats circulated in an out of the building, inspecting the new facility and testing its mechanics. At one point steam began surging from a vent – one of six that jut out of the plant’s roof. The noise level, even from just that one vent, was incredible.

One of Vera’s children began crying. I grabbed my camera to snap a few photos of the factory. Turning the tables on us, one of the company mangers then took out his cell phone and began taking pictures of Vera and me. On impulse, Vera flashed the man his middle finger, a gesture that was somehow less surprising given the madness of the moment. For several minutes I could hardly think it was so loud. Vera told me the company sometimes tests the vents at night, making sleep absolutely impossible. It’s hard to imagine what things will be like once the factory begins operating at full capacity, 24 hours-a-day.

After the case was thrown out by the Supreme Court, the Pepiukelen community decided to play the final card in its depleted hand. With the help of a Santiago-based lawyer named Diego Carrasco, Vera filed an official complaint with the IACHR. The suit alleges that the Chilean state, in failing to protect the Pepiukelen community and its ancestral property from the ongoing industrial siege, violated the group’s human rights.

"Not only have they been discriminated against by the authorities, which haven’t wanted to accept the information (the community) has filed, but they’ve also been discriminated against in the courts, which won’t accept their cases. They don’t have access to justice. There’s no due process," said Carrasco. "In this sense the state is forcing the Pepiukelen community out. They’re what we call ecological immigrants, environmental refugees, because at the end of the day they’re being forced from their historical lands, territory that belonged to them."

In the suit Carrasco sited several international treaties Chile has signed and is, legally speaking, obliged to respect. Those treaties include the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights and the U.N.’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, which Chile signed just this past September. Among other provisions, the Declaration grants indigenous peoples the right to self-determination and self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs.

"This is about Chile following through on its promises. We’re not asking for a revolution, just that the state live up to its obligations," said Carrasco. "When it comes to human rights, we need to be very clear. Human rights aren’t negotiable. They’re not for sale. And (the Pepiukelen) community has a right to its ancestral lands. They have a right to free determination."

In August, seven months after receiving the suit, the IACHR sent a letter to Chilean government authorities demanding an account of "measures taken by authorities to protect members of the Pepiukelen Community." A month later, in a letter dated Sept. 26 but not made public until just last week, the government – via its Foreign Affairs Ministry – finally responded. Arguing that the disputed territory is not considered "indigenous" land under Chilean law and was thus legitimately acquired by Agrosuper Holding, the letter also questions the community’s claims that the new factory been both environmentally and emotionally harmful.

Sen. Navarro for one is convinced the IACHR will eventually rule in favor of the Pepiukelen Community. "We’re going to take this all the way to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights," he said. "And I think Chile’s going to lose. Just like what happened in Ralco, with the Pehuenche community, Chile’s going to be convicted and the state’s going to have to shell out a lot of money to pay for the damage caused by this private venture."

Vera, however, appears less and less convinced. With the Los Fiordos factory now basically completed and the IACHR dragging its feet, hope is certainly running thin. "Although we still have some faith, bit by bit we’re losing it, because we haven’t yet seen any clear, concrete result. Up to this point the Commission has just done things to prolong the process," he said.

The salmon companies, meanwhile, "want this land at any price," Vera added. "It doesn’t matter to them what they have to do to get it. That’s the final objective. If they have to eliminate people, they’ll do it. If they have to remove people, they’ll remove them. They don’t have a problem doing any of that."

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