The coastal village of Mehuin is located in the Northeastern zone of the Province of Valdivia, on the borders of the ninth and tenth regions of Chile. It is a small bay, fed by the river Lingue, and surrounded by the mountains of the coastal cordillera. It has a population of approximately 1,700 people, but co-inhabits with 13 communities comprising some 3,000 Mapuche-Lafkenche indigenous peoples who come down to the village to sell their products and to get supplies. Some very well defined sectors also exist in Mehuin, with their own cultural characteristics. One of these is that of the artisan fisher-folk who inhabit the sector of the village known as “la Caleta”, near the Lingue River, where most of the daily life of the village takes place.
Some 10 years ago, the Chilean Pulp Company, Celco S.A. began to carry out some secret studies with the idea of installing a mill and building a pipeline to take 900 litres per second of liquid industrial effluents to the bay. The project was approved in May 1996 and the environmental resolution granted Celco the possibility of choosing between two alternatives for its effluents: dumping them in the river and installing a more modern system or, dumping them in the sea some 35 kilometres away.
For the company, the cheapest alternative was to dump its effluents in the sea, but there they came across opposition to the project from the community of Mehuin. Right from the start the people of Mehuin opposed the implementation of the necessary studies, convinced that they would only ensure the approval and implementation of the project and consequently pollute the sea. A campaign was organized to reject the use of the sea as a dump for polluting chemicals, known as NO TO THE PIPELINE.
Faced by this opposition, Celco reacted with the same arguments that had been used in other conflicts in the country. The first thing was to impose the project as something already decided by the authorities and to try to frighten the community by telling them that opposition was a crime. Abuse of power and authoritarianism were used as strong and valid tools by the company. The second step was to convince people of the benefits of the project, discrediting any argument or group opposing it, particularly environmental groups that were accused of being terrorists and manipulators. The third step was to offer money, an easy task for a project investing US$ 1,400 million. A new school was offered, working implements to the fisher-folk, even a wharf to cover the pipeline as it entered the sea. The company also offered money for some of the leaders if the conflict was ended. Furthermore, Celco relied on the power of some of the media aligned with the company and the Valdivian local newspaper became the strongest defender of the project.
The government attempted to impose the project as a decision taken by technical teams and any opposition by the community had to be made in the framework of existing legislation. For the government, what was important was to reaffirm its policy of economic growth and this meant supporting all private investments and the forestry/pulp model was part of this process.
Celco attempted entry by land and by sea into Mehuín in order to carry out the studies, but found an organized community that had managed to make a major part of public opinion aware of the issue. The Government’s action was laid open to the country and part of the international community, which looked on with concern at what was going on in the environmental and indigenous conflicts and that was able to witness the strong repression carried out in some Mapuche areas. Faced with imminent defeat, the company and the Government negotiated a way out of the conflict: to approve the project with the initial alternative proposed in the first project, that of discharging effluents into the River Cruces using a more modern treatment that would ensure minimal pollution.
However, shortly after the pulp mill started its activities, the Valdivians started smelling dreadful odours, which led to a series of complaints. Worse still, a silent threat descended down the River Cruces. It was a chemical mixture comprising heavy metals, sulphates and organochloride compounds, fed daily by one million litres of liquid industrial waste, flooding the waters of the Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary (30 kilometres down river from the pulp mill), causing the death and migration of thousands of black-necked swans.
The environmental crisis was brought to the attention of thousands of inhabitants of the province and of the country. After months of mobilisations, the then President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, suggested the “solution” to the crisis: dumping the effluents from Celco into the sea.
Once again, – having won the first hand over the country’s most powerful economic group and over the idea of national development which, in a simplistic way, considers that the country’s growth requires the sacrifice of a few, although this may imply the death of some of the country’s small ecosystems – the inhabitants of Mehuin are ready for resistance. Their objective is still that of avoiding pollution of their waters and thus saving their sole source of subsistence. They are convinced that the submission of an Environmental Impact Assessment by a large economic corporation such as Celco, is enough to achieve its approval, and therefore they are prepared to prevent it being implemented in their area. The principle of prevention and the possibility of reversing a decision taken by the authorities using mechanisms of citizen participation are nil. Historically, only 4 per cent of the projects submitted to that management instrument have been rejected and of those approved, only 25 % are submitted to very minor control. It is therefore not overbold to conclude that Environmental Impact Assessments only contain declarations of intention that in most cases will not be fulfilled.
It is in this context that the community of Mehuín awoke on 17 August with the siren set off by the observers on the hills, announcing the arrival of the vessels to the place where Celco was to start its studies. Two tugs hired by the company arrived in the proximity of Punta Chanchán, escorted by the patrol vessels “Chiloé” and “Antofagasta” of the Chilean Navy and a warship, with over one hundred marines on board and among them, some hooded men and zodiac boats, ready for action.
Twenty minutes later the fisher-folk’s boats had arrived at the site to face this threat. Thirty more launches from Queule, at the south of the Ninth Region also arrived, opposing the pipeline. The public agents shot at the fisher-folk’s boats on several occasions, all of which has been duly recorded on film. In the afternoon, following the staunch opposition of the fisher-folk, the two tugboats retreated to the north and the Navy ships returned to Corral and Valdivia.
The president of the Mehuin Fisher-folk’s Association, Joaquín Vargas, stated that they were defending the source of employment of over 400 families who were making a living from fishing. “We are defending the right to work in a pollution-free environment. As is set out in the Constitution, the State is responsible for safeguarding the heritage of all the Chilean people.”
According to Vargas, the environmental impact assessment does not involve any guarantees for the fisher-folk as the State always ends up by approving it. “Where pulp mills are in operation with Environmental Impact Assessments, the results are there for all to see. Nearby we can see this in Valdivia in the Cruces River. There, there used to be swans that could fly, we fisher-folk do not have wings to fly.”
Article based on information from:“El conflicto de Mehuín”, José Araya Cornejo, http://www.wri-irg.org/nonviolence/nvse23-es.htm; and information sent by Vladimir Riesco Bahamondes, Acción por los Cisnes, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and by Lucio Cuenca, Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales, e-mail: “Segundo intento de la empresa por iniciar estudios en la zona. Con presencia de buque de guerra y marinos encapuchados Celco no pudo iniciar estudio para ducto al mar”, Eliab Viguera, OLCA.
(Video in: http://www.mehuin-celco.blogspot.com/)