The future of Chile hangs in the balance

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

“I awoke when the ground of dreams gave way

beneath my bed.

A blind column of ash was staggering in the middle

of the night,

                 I ask you: have I died?

Give me your hand in this rupture of the planet

while the wound of the bruised sky makes stars.

Aye!, but memories, where are they?, where are they?

Why does the earth boil, filling with death?

Oh, masks under curled dwellings, smiles

that fright had not yet reached, beings torn

under the beams, covered by the night.”

       -Pablo Neruda

“Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world. At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground and coiled up like animals. Their country is a broken mass of wild rock, lofty hills and useless forests. Nature, by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted Fuegians to the climate and productions of his country.”

      -Charles Darwin

An earthquake has indeed taken over Chile and her inimitable landscape that boasts the longest chain of mountains in the world. Her inimitable landscape was formed according to indigenous Mapuche cosmology when Xeg Xeg filu and Kai Kai filu, serpent of land and sea, warred. Xeg Xeg controlled earth and earthquakes. Xeg Xeg helped humans move to higher ground during a tsunami caused by Kai Kai. Kai Kai yelled, causing the ocean to rise and taking all beings with it.

Chile has been in an uproar lately. We were fortunate enough to visit this most elongated of all countries on Earth before Santiago went up in smoke a year ago. Young people led protests by the hundreds, decrying the poverty abounding in Chile, a country Pablo Neruda loved for its majestic snowy peaks in the south, astounding fjord land and the phantasmagoric volcanic red desert up north in Atacama. Lack of healthcare, low wages and bad pensions have conspired to create an uproar among her population, a long time coming. The illusion of a model Chile has been shattered. That should sound familiar to those of us living in the U.S. Chile astounded us with a journey unlike any in the world. A major part of the spine of the country in the Andes, over 10 million acres was preserved by the remarkable conservationist Douglas Tomkins and his wife Kris of the company Patagonia, one of the largest gifts of its kind in the world. This fantastic generosity helped Chile expand its national park system by 40 percent. “If anything can save the world, I would put my money on beauty,” wrote Doug years ago.

How Chile has changed since Darwin first encountered the Tierra del Fuego natives in 1832, so called because of the countless fires the locals lit to guide them through the frigid nights. The glaciers, volcanos, the tsunami and earthquake he experienced molded Darwin’s imagination about geologic history and ultimately the genesis of species and their uncanny evolution over time. Chile, where he spent longer than any other geographical location, moved his spirit like no other region on Earth. When Darwin met its first inhabitants he wrote, “Few if any of these natives could ever have seen a white man; certainly nothing could exceed their astonishment at the apparition of the four boats.”(from “The Voyage of the Beagle”) But Darwin continued, “Nor is it easy to teach them our superiority except by striking a fatal blow. Like wild beasts, they do not appear to compare numbers; for each individual, if attacked, instead of retiring, will endeavor to dash your brains out with a stone, as certainly as a tiger under similar circumstances would tear you.” But Darwin also admitted that there “was something very attractive in the simplicity and humble politeness of the poor inhabitants,” people who had inhabited the southernmost tip of the continent for more than 7,000 years migrating without clothes in chilling rain and cold in conditions that must have shocked the European mind. “These Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full grown woman who was suckling a recently born child, came one day alongside the vessel, and remained there whilst the sleet fell and thawed on her naked bosom, and on the skin of her naked child.”

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Jacques Yves Cousteau met some of the last members of the Yaghan peoples in his sojourns in South America in the 1970’s. We had the occasion, with half broken heart to buy a small leather toy canoe from one of the Yaghan back at the beginning of this century, but who can doubt that this remarkable population had irreducibly changed and lost so much of their world since seeing the first white man? Peddling their wares before those who had come to see their breathtaking world, made us feel like aliens and strangely unwanted in a region of such stark, sublime beauty.

The Mapuche we met, one of the million strong first peoples of Chile, were struggling with recuperating usurped lands and getting constitutional recognition. The invasion of Mapuche land by lumber companies continues to this day and as in the Amazon and elsewhere in the world, comprises the most serious violation of their sovereignty as a people. In Mapudungun, Mapuche means people of the land. Mapu means people and Che -earth. Waters for the Mapuche are the “veins of Mother Earth.” They acknowledge that they cannot “cut the veins or intervene in the veins of Mother Earth to build hydroelectric plants.” Like the dams that Colbun, a Chilean Energy company belonging to the Matte Economic Group, owned by some of the wealthiest people in Chile, are planning to build on the San Pedro River, part of the Central Hidroelectrica San Pedro Project. The Mapuche are fighting for their land and water, having fought battles against the Europeans for centuries, both in Chile and Argentina. 

“All places are sacred to the Mapuche,” says Mapuche elder Mario Neihual. “Every place that you see, to a certain extent, has a level of sacredness, including rivers.” Mapuche cosmology consists of spirits in which humans and animals co-mingle. Damming a sacred river means damning a people, and like the dams that have displaced millions of native peoples the world over, this struggle is far from over. The Chilean regime maintains that the Mapuche were not the original inhabitants and are acting like bankrollers arming themselves with repression to take whatever they can from Chile’s first peoples. But today the Mapuche are better organized than ever before and maintain a voice the government is being forced to listen to. Despite the killing of many activists including Mapuche leader Camilo Catrillanca in 2018, today the tribe have a new found strength and movement behind them they did not have before.

Today Chilean society sides with the Mapuche people against state terrorism. The student movement and the environmental movement have also found solidarity with the once much more marginalized Mapuche. University strikes have become one with the Mapuche struggles and with those of society as a whole over the last three decades, since the end of dictatorship. One can only wonder what Pablo Neruda would have said to what seems like an unrecognizable Chile since his poems and odes to his beloved country first enchanted the world. 

Still, fracking now has become a serious issue in Chile, most oil being on Mapuche land. One Mapuche wrote that, “The oil companies entered our land without permission and we had goats born without jaws, without mouths.” Among the enormous environmental contamination were resulting respiratory problems, skin lesions and bone decalcification. Blockades started in 2014 and continue to this day.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

In the far north of the country lies what some people believe is the oldest desert on Earth, although that credit should still belong to the Namib in southwest Africa. But whatever its age, the Atacama Desert shared by Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, is certainly one of the driest places on the planet. It rarely if ever rains in this part of Chile. It is a Dantesque landscape personified. The last time it rained was three years ago. In the old days it was copper that was targeted from the sands of this richly endowed world. Large open pit mines disfigured the ground of this geologic wonderland where volcanoes thrive with the memory of prehistoric upheaval. Under its vast salt beds lies an element all electronics use, including cell phones, computers, mobile devices and even cars — lithium. Since 1993 lithium mining in the Solar de Atacama has greatly expanded. Rows of gigantic holding ponds and roads scarring like veins of industrial blight bleeding onto hills gouged from formerly pristine soil. Parts of the land seem like sacrificial zones, the equivalent of open heart surgery on what were once geologic marvels. This area holds more than 50 percent of the world’s known supply. The largest single supply source anywhere. 

“I have shivered in those solitudes when I heard the voice of the salt in the desert,” wrote Neruda in his “Ode to Salt.” If the great minstrel were alive today, he would be aghast and would shudder. Lithium also used in nuclear fission is being mined elsewhere as well. In neighboring Argentina and even far away Australia. Chile’s market share is ebbing but what has been done to the land cannot be undone. The underground reservoirs need to be replenished by rainfall and snow from the Andes, but mother nature is not being generous with this priceless commodity. Sergio Cubillos, the head of the Atacama Indigenous Council, has said his peoples will block any attempt at new mines. So far they have been successful stopping one new lithium project. Canada’s LiCo Energy Metals decided to pull out of its Purickuta project due to immense opposition from the local peoples. Other places may have to be found to make up for loss of revenue from Atacama, places that may be more expensive to mine, but at least here local resistance has paid off. A blockade of Chile’s top lithium producer SQM has seriously limited the company’s production. A major victory for indigenous peoples who makes up 10 percent of Chile’s population.

The damage to the land will remain for generations to come but President Pinera has begun to listen, especially after the October 25, 2019 march of one million strong protesters, including thousands of Mapuche decrying the president’s policies and past genocides and the killing of 15 Mapuche since 1990. It seems society and indigenous rights are finally converging, after decades of turmoil in that small country at the bottom of the world. The new constitution of Chile does not include the Mapuche and the first people of Chile. There is still a ways to go before the fires of the indigenous people Darwin saw over two hundred years ago make a lasting, enduring impact in the political scope of the country. There is still a long path before indigenous people become a legally recognized and indispensable part of Chilean law as opposed to just having cultural rights. The same could well be said for native peoples all over the planet, they who are the true conscience of the environment in this enormously fragile time.

Even today if one goes to the desert one will hear Neruda’s “broken voice and a mournful song,” for the sufferings of Chile’s people and her land, an ode which honors the salt, “the mountain of light buried under earth, transparent cathedral, crystal of the sea, oblivion of the waves.”

Chile would do well to listen to her great poet. The Twin Metals Project slated on Lake Superior, near the town of Ely in Minnesota by the Chilean mining Company Antofagosta PLC would utterly desecrate the Boundary Waters Canoe Areas Wilderness, where leases were drawn up 50 years ago, but the land never mined. Beyond the town of Ely lie stretches of forest where wolves and moose wander on land, vast and pristine.  The Obama administration turned down the mine but the present administration seems hell bent on making the 4.4 billion ton nickel and copper bearing ores available. An ore crushing facility, a waste storage pit and miles of rail, roads and pipelines would shatter the beauty of this incomparable area.

Mining everywhere is gouging out what remains of the planet. It would be generous and kind for Chile, with all her own political and environmental concerns of late to let this wonderland be and remain free of toxic waste for future generations and for Earth’s sake above all. Globalization everywhere has wreaked unrest, socially and ecologically over the last few generations. Copper and nickel are used in wind turbines and solar cells and much water and power infrastructures worldwide. But in the green revolution that we seem to need, the mining company would be leaching sulfates all across the waters of the world class recreation area where thirty lodges are situated. The ore would supposedly be smelted in faraway China and Russia and other destinations. The sacred sites of the Ojibway and other native groups would be trampled. Across the globe, not a single copper mine has been able to be non-polluting. Seventy percent of Minnesotans oppose the mine, which would employ 2,000 people as opposed to the 12,000 employed in recreation.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

The Chilean mining giant should rethink and redirect its priorities before this area is lost forever. Chile has already enough battles in its own country. Laying waste to an irreplaceable gem in North America is criminal beyond measure and one can only hope that a new administration will agree to preserve what is left of this part of the country fast losing ground to polluters and big industry. If this kind of “business” from a faraway foreign country is allowed to ruin a paradise right in the middle of the U.S., people will have nowhere to turn. No technology on Earth can make the practice worthwhile.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.