By Nicolas Recordon
Our pristine Chilean ocean is in danger due to an archaic, egotistical, and underdeveloped environmental norm forced on its citizens by an entrenched political machine. The government bureaucrats of Chile see the ocean as a bottomless receptor of industrial waste, and the local mining, forestry, and manufacturing industries take advantage of this national weakness to produce at full speed and lowest cost. Historically, we as Chileans have not been sufficiently involved in the political process to be able to demand that our public authorities – and the world at large – must remedy the problem. Our global competitiveness as a nation is largely indebted to the vile practices of environmental abuse.
In effect, we are being dishonest with the earth. In general, we have been too carefree with our ocean and its environment, not merely polluting its waters with industrial waste, but also defacing our shoreline with garbage and poorly planned cities.
But all is not lost. The ordinary citizens of Pichilemu creatively and peacefully reclaimed the art of political wrangling and harnessed the power of the press to succeed at rejecting the sexily misnamed development project “The Underwater Outflow for Pichilemu Wastewater” (more commonly known as a raw sewage pipeline emptying into the ocean). The activists, surfers, fishermen, and common citizens of Pichilemu were able to unify and demand the construction of a modern tertiary sewage treatment facility, hence avoiding an ecological disaster for Chile’s Surf City.
Chile’s central coast is often referred to as the California of the Southern Hemisphere. It’s an endless coastline of points, bays, rocky cliffs, and gray beaches fed by sand from large rivers that drain the mountains.
The Humboldt Current bathes the entire length of Chile in cold water from the Southern Ocean, and the added force of constant swell from the Roaring Forties is a potent vehicle in the transportation of enormous volumes of sand that constantly feed the points and bays of Chile, resulting in continuously changing sandbanks and forcing the local surfer to be a nomad, searching for the best waves. This perfect union of sand, rock, and point attracts thousands of local and foreign surfers to ply the cold waves of Chile.
Pichilemu, Chile’s surf capital is a small city of 12,000 permanent residents with three excellent waves: La Puntilla, Infiernillo, and, the most famous, Punta de Lobos. In the summer months thousands of Chilean and foreign tourists invade Pichilemu, and its population reaches 100,000. The outdated sewer system collapses every summer, and the sewage overflow gets dumped into the Laguna Petrel, a small wetland rivermouth that empties with rain storms into the shorebreak directly inside of La Puntilla and the town’s most popular tourist beach.
Worried more with the image this creates than with water quality, public health and aquatic life, the authorities and the water company decided to construct a sewage pipeline to bypass the mess on the beach and dump everything into the ocean less than a mile offshore. The government’s environmental “regulation” allows this to happen, so construction of the pipeline was begun. But local citizens reacted with outrage and excellent organization, making authorities and government understand that the future of this beach town is in its coastal beauty, its waves, and the friendliness of its people. As a grassroots union of citizens, we demonstrated that waves cannot be environmentally mitigated, and thatthey are an irreplaceable inheritance for humanity. The proponents of the pipeline could not prove that the pipeline wouldn’t pollute the water and the health of local fishermen, tourists, and surfers. Pipeline proponents also failed to demonstrate that the sand bottom and the wave would not be destroyed by the pipeline construction. The battle was won. Indeed the water company, ESSBIO transformed itself, offering a truly environmentally friendly alternative that not only improves ocean and freshwater quality but also generates more local employment than a brutish pipeline. It was, in short, a politically correct decision.
But can we as Chileans stop the myriad other pipelines being built? Can we eradicate this corporate environmental blackmail that declares, “if we don’t build polluting industries, your people won’t be able to make a living?”
Up to date environmental rules and a system to oversee developments is urgently needed in Chile. Are transnational companies interested and capable of supporting this rapid change?
We need help.
Nicolas Recordon is a Chilean surfer activist. To assist, go to firstname.lastname@example.org (translated from the Spanish by Josh Berry)