My first day at the University of Valparaiso, all the new exchange students were sat down and shown a video: “Chile, en seis minutos” (Chile in Six Minutes, for those of you with absolutely no powers of deduction. Sneak Tip: if you don`t know the word in Spanish, just use the English one with an O on the end. It often works, and if not, you will sound like a country singer, which is also cool.) The clip began with sweeping shots of Chilean scenery, which despite the tacky music were pretty impressive: the joke here is that when God was creating the world, he picked up all the leftovers from everywhere else – desert, glaciers, snowy mountains, jungle, temperate forests – whacked them all together in a kind of geographical bubble-and-squeak, and called it Chile. Several mini-interviews with enraptured binocular-ed Germans in walkshorts raving about the country`s incredible natural heritage later, however, the video changed its tone. It began to display, with equal passion and pride, the vast new highways, clogged with vehicles, which Chile has constructed in the past few years. “It´s unbelievable, there are so many more cars on the roads!” enthused mini-interviewee Carol from Ohio. Next up, “Chile has laws that protect foreign investment!” intoned the voiceover, as sombre shots of huge factories pumping smoke into Chile`s atmosphere (and, implicitly, cash into some happy gringo`s pocket) filled the screen.
This pretty much sums up the problem with Chile and its attitude to its environment. Since colonial times, the country has more often than not been up there with the best of them at exploiting its resources and allowing others to do the same; in recent years, its urgent embrace of Modernisation in all its shiny wrappings has compounded the problem. Like so many “developing” countries, the invasion of the plastic and disposable in Chile has not been accompanied by any substantial facilities for recycling, so it just doesn´t seem part of the general mindset to think about what happens to rubbish after you throw it away. The streets, the beaches, the forests, even the highway-side desert where there´s no other sign of life, are consistently lined with litter. In New Zealand, if you buy something and tell them you don`t need a bag, you might get a strange look; in Chile, they tend to just laugh sympathetically and give you one anyway (although maybe that’s more due to my country-singer Spanish than anything). However, this apparently disinterested attitude towards the environment isn´t so hard to understand, when you consider Chile´s place in the great international food chain… if you lived in a country to which New York City was regularly shipping a good deal of its waste, you probably wouldn´t feel like your decision to find a bin for your Coke can counted for much either.
But that`s not to say that no-one cares, or that no-one is taking any action. Up behind my flat is an old prison (yup, all the other exchange students live in romanticsounding spots like Cerro Alegre (Happy Hill), Cerro Mariposa (Butterfly Hill), Cerro Bellavista (Beautiful View Hill) or Cerro Placeres (Pleasures Hill) … I live in Cerro Carcel (Prison Hill).) Several years ago it closed its doors (or more accurately opened its doors, being a prison and all). The locals painted it up pretty and turned into a cultural centre, and some small-scale recycling systems for glass, plastic bottles, paper, cardboard, old furniture and so on are being established there. On a broader scale, in the past year, there`s been a series of protests regarding environmental issues in several Chilean localities. The latest big issue is Pascua Lama, a proposed mine in the north of Chile, which aims to extract gold and silver deposits that lie under two glaciers which feed the rivers of the Huasco valley: you might have got the dodgy petition email about it which was doing the inbox rounds a couple of months back. In addition to the immediate environmental impacts of removing the 300,000-800,000 metres of ice from the glaciers to start work, the project will severely affect the water supply of the 70,000 farmers in the valley, releasing cyanide and mercury into their rivers. What`s worse, turns out the company is owned by, you guessed it, grandaddy Bush. Unfortunately, it looks like the mine is going to go ahead regardless of the multitude of demonstrations and petitions opposing it which have been presented to the Chilean government. But increasing public pressure on issues such as these has prompted the government at least to agree to designate, for the first time, a Minister for the Environment. Whether this new position can help bridge the obvious gap between national government, and local initiatives – which consistently seem to be realised in spite of, rather than in collaboration with, the ‘Powers that Be’, remains to be seen. It`s well known that Presidenta Bachelet is a bit of a greenie at heart, but hostage as she is to the powerful conservative lobbies of big business (in reality, six families who seem to own just about all of Chile), the military and the Church, she`s pretty limited in the steps she can take in this direction without someone crying Communist (still a dirty word here).
This weekend, I pushed my fears of Aro-Hippy accusations aside and followed Sachi, the long-haired broken-toothed raggedy-handsome Latino man mentioned in the previous episode, to a Mayan sauna ceremony in a park on the outskirts of Vina del Mar, the city adjacent to Valparaiso. A kind of tent had been constructed from branches covered with blankets, and we all kissed the ground, got nude and filed in. A pile of stones which had been heating in a fire outside was placed in the centre of the tent, and we sat around it, crosslegged, and sweated until I felt really quite amphibious. We emerged eventually to dry around the fire, and began to play music – drums, berimbau, jew`s harp, and sing about the Madre Tierra (Mother Earth). The next day the group returned to plant trees.
Goodness me, I thought hazily, as we danced naked around the fire, this is all very different to our Kiwi breeds of environmentalism (granted, I thought a lot of other things too). However, it was clear that many Chileans are looking for, and finding in a multitude of places, new ways to understand and celebrate their connection to the dirtied, battered but still-vital Tierra. Cultural inappropriateness notwithstanding, I propose a similar outing with Gecko to the Botanic Gardens upon my return. Anyone for getting nude and sweaty and public?