Chile: Pinochet, the environment and salmon

A sleek, white yacht cruised into the harbor at Puerto Williams, Isla Navarino, February 19. The Edwards, the richest family in Chile, were visiting this hard-to-reach island for vacation purposes and business. And that business was salmon.

Navarino Island of the Cape Horn Province of Chile is famous for the visits of famed biologist Charles Darwin, Yamana Native People and pristine old-growth forests. Resident biologists, some in the Yamana community and a local environmental group, are working hard to conserve the biological and cultural diversity in the forests and rivers of this island at the end of the peopled world (55 degrees south latitude). One of the biggest threats to all this is ... salmon.

Salmon are predator fish. When introduced to nonsalmon ecosystems, they aggressively feed on the eggs and young of wild fish. This can be especially harmful on islands because local native species did not co-evolve with the newcomers and they are not part of existing food webs. It can reduce wild species to the point of extinction.

When hundreds of thousands of fish are raised in close proximity, the chance of infectious disease by fungi and bacteria are great. Because of this, pesticides are used that can have detrimental effects on people and the environment. These farmed fish, Salmon salar, are grey, not the pinkish red most people associate with salmon. Artificial colorants are then used, which, in turn, are a threat to chemically sensitive individuals.

The Edwards family fled to New York during the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende (1970-73). Why? Popular Unity was composed of an array of left groups including the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Radical Party and other smaller parties. Part of Allende’s message was that large corporations, including transnationals, were stealing the wealth of Chile.

For example, the government revealed that Anaconda and Kennecott Copper, both U.S.-based, had culled $771 million in superprofits. In other words, these profits were above the 12 percent profit rate made by these companies elsewhere in the world. Thus copper companies, along with banks and insurance companies, were bought out and placed in government hands.

This drew the ire of wealthy classes both within and outside Chile. They began plotting against the constitutionally elected Popular Unity government. They called on the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which began working with elements in the Chilean military, particularly with the head of the air force, Augusto Pinochet.

Pinochet helped plan and carry out the overthrow of the Popular Unity government. Allende was murdered as well as tens of thousands supporters. It didn’t stop there. The Chilean secret police were then used to hunt down Chileans who were Popular Unity supporters, both within and outside the country. The CIA facilitated a secret intelligence-sharing arrangement with Nazi groups in South America and Europe.

A 1999 report by the Chilean government shows 3,197 people were murdered by the secret police during the Pinochet dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Fervent supporters of Pinochet, the Edwards family returned to Chile after Popular Unity was drowned in blood in 1973.

The union representing small fishermen, who harvest wild marine plants and animals, was disrupted during the dictatorship. Its 30,000 artisan fishermen have only regained legal status since 1990. They are fervently opposing salmon introductions and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would only accentuate the environmental damage and inequities. Their view is that those controlling global markets and recreational salmon fishing will be the only big winners, while generating ecological problems and social inequities.

The problem goes beyond the borders of Chile. A further complication is that some families in rural Alaska, including American Indians, are going bankrupt as Chilean-farmed salmon flood U.S. markets. Distributors and markets are locked into buying Chilean fish. Consequently, the wild salmon industry can’t find markets for their fish. The FTAA will only make these problems worse. It is through the World Forum of Fishermen and Fisherworkers, a new worldwide association of fishermens’ unions, that international cooperation to oppose FTAA is being attempted.

In January, the local fisher community of Puerto Williams, along with the participation of the international research organization, EarthWatch, helped thwart a salmon introduction proposal earmarked for the Omora Ethnocultural Park on the Island. However, the arrival of the Edwards family in February was an ominous sign. A proposal to have the Cape Horn area included in the United Nations Biosphere Reserve program is under discussion and would make salmon introductions difficult.

Those wishing to help can contact: www.earthwatch.org or e-mail info@earthwatch.org





Nick Bart is a reader in Connecticut who recently returned from Chile. He can be reached at pww@pww.org