Officials from Chile’s National Fishing Service (Sernapesca) told the Santiago Times Thursday that efforts by the Committee of the Defense of the Sea and Mehuín’s indigenous community to block a controversial waste duct project in Region XIV face an uncertain legal future.
Gabriel González, the chief of staff for Sernapesca’s undersecretary, visited the Mehuín area last week to hear the group’s concerns about coastal water pollution. The fishing village has been at the center of a bitter conflict since forestry company Celulosa Arauco (CELCO) first tried to build a waste disposal duct into its bay in 1996.
That question is the heart of the issue. The new amendment, entitled the Law of Maritime Areas for Original Populations, stipulates that unclaimed waters be reserved for Chile’s indigenous fishing communities. Presently, the country’s fishing waters are parceled into “Areas of Use” that are assigned to a particular zone’s independent fishermen. According to Sernapesca regulations, the Areas of Use are reserved for the activities of Chile’s nearly 60,000 registered artesian fishers – and are non-transferable.
Eliab Viguera, president of the Committee for the Defense of the Sea, believes that Mehuín’s fishermen’s unions forfeited their right to the zone’s Area of Use by agreeing to cooperate in CELCO’s project, which opponents claim would destroy the area’s marine life and thus deprive the region’s fishing communities of their source of livelihood.
Consequently, he claims that the new provision should “automatically reserve the Area of Use of the Mehuín sector to the Lafquenche community fishermen, whose wish is to preserve their traditional way of life, not convert themselves into CELCO employees.”
The Lafquenche community is not the only group that believes it has a valid claim to the area.
CELCO maintains that it reached a mutually-beneficially contract with the fishermen of Mehuín that will allow their waste duct project to move forward. The agreement, announced in October, paid the village’s fishermen’s unions US$8.9 million in exchange for their cooperation in the project, prompting accusations the company had “bought the conscience” of the local community.
CELCO, for its part, has consistently justified its strategy, despite recent demonstrations against the company in neighboring villages (ST, Dec. 3).
“We have reached an important long-term agreement with the fishermen of Mehuín, and we will not accept people taking advantage of the company’s willingness to engage in dialogue and reach agreements,” said Angel Romano, CELCO head of public relations for the Los Ríos region.
The company has until April 2009 to submit its Study of Environmental Impact for the project. The Committee for the Defense of the Sea and allied organizations hope to prevent CELCO from realizing even that initial step towards building the duct.
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