Moral Courage

A Day with the Environmental Protectionists in La Higuera, Northern Chile

de Choros Point, January 17, 2010

Moral CourageEverything is still gray -- the sea, and the islands of Choros and Damas. A new day. It's very quiet in front of our hut, the only sound coming from the Pacific rolling against the coast. Just yesterday everything looked like vacation at de Choros Point. Plenty of sun, the restaurants attracting guests with their fresh seafood dishes from Reineta, Congrio, or Locos … happy tourists as they come back from to the Humboldt Penguin Natural Reserve, the divers coming back from their diving courses; the small houses with an abundance of flowers in the front yard, the unexpected beauty of the Chilean desert. In just a few hours we met many sympathetic people - Jan, Jose, Silvia, Gabriel, Yvonne, their families, and of course Rosa, our host. A cup of coffee here, a glass of juice there, a tasty menu from the brand "homemade", a hike over the unending and empty beaches; we are in a small piece of paradise.

This paradise is now in dispute. The sympathetic people are fighters. They are battling against the plans of the overpowering corporations Codelco, Suez Energy, and Compañia del Pacifico (CMP), that want to build three power plants in their community. These fighters have organised, have entered petitions, have demonstrated, given interviews, and, and, and. They have become a people's movement, comprised of small and very small companies, fishers and farmers, senior citizens, and young union members, conservatives and liberals. All of them have joined together to form MODEMA. Many of them, as Jan describes, wake up and fear for their existence. And the thoughts of their threatened paradise, a hotspot of nature with world-renowned biodiversity, have been following them into sleep the last three years.

Jan, Gabriel, and other members of MODEMA have been threatened with death via SMS messages. They were stiff with fear. Suddenly, with one fell swoop, all safety was gone. Still, they stood together and filed suit. Suez Energy distanced itself from the threats. The cell phone from which the threats were made has been located. It belongs to an older woman from Los Hornos. She did not send the messages. Perhaps it was her son? Or her daughter? Proof is not possible. The threat has remained however, and MODEMA has found new support. Internationally active environmental attorneys (Environmental Defender Law Center) will represent MODEMA's case pro bono.

As has been heard, money has also been spent in Los Hornos. There are now also supporters of the power plants there. The supporters and objectors now stand irreconcilably against each other. Should a corporation be allowed to destroy the peace?

At the beginning, most of the people of the community of La Higuera did not know what contamination was, and even explanations did not help much. These things were too abstract. Now many there know the names of other coal-fired power plants that have been built in Chile, and how they have contaminated the communities of Las Ventanas, Los Robles, Huasco … many have communicated with citizens from those towns. They have seen films that show how smoke blocks out the sun, have seen how soot and coal ash have choked the plants and turned the lakes as black as the coal polluting them. Years-long contamination in these places has led to some quarters in Chilean cities looking like just after a war.

Yesterday evening, because of our visit as members of Sphenisco, MODEMA had a meeting. We met with four members who respect each other, and treat others with respect, and were told some good news. The Chilean Defense Minister confirmed the Navy's decision against the building of the power plants. Suez Energy attempted to influence the Undersecretary of the Navy's decision, but was unsuccessful (see report from November 12th). Withouth permission from the Navy, the company cannot pull water from the Pacific, and cannot unload coal from a ship because they will not be allowed to build a port. That means that should Suez Energy obtain a building permit, they might build a power plant, but they could never use it. This is another big success for the common man shortly before the presidential vote in Chile.

As the sun sets behind the island of Choros, a day of work and a day of vacation comes to an end. Then voting day also comes to an end. When Sebastián Piñera becomes President there will be a change among the membership of differing public authorities and regional political posts. At that point Rosa, Jan, and the others will need to start all over again and will have to convince the new powers of the need to prevent the building of the power plants. Sometimes they get tired, but they will not give up.

Werner Knauf translated by Erich Greiner


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