Monday, May 28, 2007

Eco-Warriors Return to Chile

Almost one year ago, Will Henry and James Pribram met each other for the first time, at a secluded surf spot many hours south of the capital of Santiago. On the original trip in 2005, Pribram and Henry joined hundreds of local Chileans and international conservation groups to protest the construction of a new pulp mill on the Rio Itata, which threatened to pollute a pristine watershed and harm local businesses and industry. Hence, exactly one year ago in the exact same place, the eco-warrior project was set into motion. The initial trip led Save the Waves Coalition to hire Josh Berry as their Chile Program Director, and for the organization to begin formulating a long-term plan that will they hope will eventually lead to better environmental stewardship along Chile's vast and desolate coastline. The new mill at Nueva Aldea, then nearing completion, was seen by many environmental groups as a giant step backward for Chile's future reputation as a favorite location for outdoor enthusiasts. Surfers and fishermen who enter the waters along this coast on a daily basis see it as a threat to their very lives.

Now one year later, the mill at Nueva Aldea is operating at 50% capacity, and local residents have begun lose hope of stopping the new mill's operations. The company behind the mill, CELCO, is owned by the Angelini Group, which was listed recently as a Fortune 500 company, and controls 49% of Chile's fuel industry. Needless to say, their formidable political clout has allowed them a great deal of leniency from CONAMA, which is Chile's equivalent to the EPA. CELCO operates numerous pulp mills which have been blamed for many of Chile's most heinous environmental disasters, including the poisoning of a UNESCO biosphere in Valdivia in 2005 that killed thousand of black-neck swans. (Read more about their Valdivia disaster by going to Their new mill in Nueva Aldea is the largest in Chile. Currently CELCO is constructing a pipeline that will bring mill effluent directly to the sea - both for the Nueva Aldea mill and for the one in Valdivia. While the plan is placating some residents of the Rio Itata river valley and those near the plant in Valdivia, fishermen and other ocean enthusiasts are vehemently opposed. Mill pollution carries numerous toxins and carcinogens that threaten sea life and human health.

The eco-warriors added to their numbers in May, this time bringing together a group of professional surfers and activists, to work on new film project for Save the Waves Coalition, entitled All Points South. This documentary surf film will highlight the natural wonders that exist along the Chilean coastline, world-class surfing talent, and the industry that threatens to destroy it all. Joining Pribram and Henry were filmmakers Vince Deur, Jeremy Koreski and Timmy Turner, as well as surfers Keith Malloy, Raph Bruhwiler, Ramon Navarro and Brett Schwarz. The film hopes to bring international attention to the harm that the pulp industry is bringing to the landscape and ocean environment in Chile's south.

At the start of the trip, the crew visited Ramon Navarro in his home town of Pichilemu, surfing a heavy beach break one day, and then scoring a good day at the world-famous Punta de Lobos. Ramon comes from a family of fisherman, and treated the boys to a dinner of locally-caught delicacies at his family's home, including fresh corvina and raw sea urchin, as well as a rare Chilean treat: a crab that lives inside the urchin, which is eaten alive. Josh Berry, Save the Waves Chile Program Director, was the first to take the challenge, holding the squirming crab in his hands before tossing it in his mouth. Henry went second. Both claimed it was one of the best things they've ever tasted, but many of the others in the group didn't trust their word.

The trip moved further into the deep south, where the crew visited the town of Constitucion. This small city has five great waves at its doorstep. At one point in the not-so-distant past, it was a hugely popular tourist destination, with a massive bay and beach. Now the beach is trashed, and a mill operated by CELCO fouls the air and water. The crew surfed anyway, but at one of the better waves, in the rivermouth near the mill's effluent pipe, the pollution was overwhelming. Henry nearly became sick to his stomach, and the filmy water burned the skin. No wonder the town has so few local surfers.

Filming continued further south to the region where the Nueva Aldea mill is set to heighten the disaster to all-time levels. The surf was good, but the spirit of the local people seemed a bit downtrodden. All we can hope is that the film will revive their hope.

If all goes well, the film All Points South will put extra pressure on CELCO, CONOMA, and the government of Chile to clean up its act. Chile is at a crossroads in its future - choose between sustainability and a healthy balance of industries, or favor one at the expense of all others. More to come from the eco-warriors as they continue to rally for change across the globe.