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All Rivers Lead to the Sea

ISSUE:  Summer 2011
An iceberg sits in the fjords of Patagonia, in the Southern Ice Field.
An iceberg sits in the fjords of Patagonia, in the Southern Ice Field. As the fields recede, many worry what will happen to them if development continues to move into the region.

As a child, Oridia Paredes dreamed of walls. For the daughter of itinerant fishermen in Chilean Patagonia, daily life was built not around a house or a neighborhood, but the sea—and for Paredes, walls became a symbol of the life that her parents were never able to attain. Instead, the family hopscotched from islet to islet, piling possessions into their boat, and motoring to the next spot near where the fish were running. Once more, they would set up a shelter of tarps and blankets, make a cooking fire, and hang up the laundry line. That was home. In a few months, they would do it again. And again. Paredes didn’t have a real address until she was in her late teens. A few years later, she had a chance to work at a salmon packing plant in the town of Puerto Chacabuco—and she took it, because the job meant being able to own a home with its foundation set firmly in the ground, and walls, real ones, that didn’t billow in the wind or let in rain.

Today Paredes’s house in Puerto Chacabuco is snug and low-ceilinged with thin lace curtains and an enormous woodstove in the kitchen. She is always drifting toward the stove. During our visit, her daughter, Camila, heats bread on a wire wrack, and her mother warms her hands, double- and triple-checking the toast, wandering away, then drifting back. But while Paredes still relishes living here, she misses life on Patagonia’s fjords more than she ever expected to.

“It’s a sacrifice out there, don’t misunderstand me,” she says. She pushes a mass of dry, tea-colored hair away from her face, frustrated at being unable to describe just how cold a person gets while living in the open air, in Patagonia. “The rain soaks you, your feet never dry out or get warm,” she says, and trails off.

“Sweaters,” she finally says. It sounds almost like an apology. “You exist soaked, cold, and always in layers of wool sweaters. But living in the fjords is also to be at peace. The factory is four walls, and inside those walls, there’s a lot of noise. You miss the light in the winter, and the warmest sun in the summer months. A person gets shut in.”

Outside Paredes’s house sit rows of other houses just like it. They are defined by skinny metal fences, more lace curtains, and tendrils of wood smoke floating skyward, dissolving into a single, permanent smudge that never goes away. The yards are filled with roses. Here, in one of Patagonia’s many microclimates, the flowers flourish, red and tangerine and yellow, making such a contrast to their surroundings that they almost seem tawdry. A few blocks away, the town opens to the fjords in a long sweep of cliffs covered in evergreens, framing a stretch of cold water the color of zinc. From here, the Pacific will wrap around islands and islets and rocks until it becomes the open sea, which ebbs and swells toward Asia and the Antarctic.

While this territory and its remote waters are increasingly prized resources, just a century ago, this part of Patagonia—known as Aysén—had only been visited by canoeros, the indigenous groups that lived by paddling canoes up and down the coast, camping among prehistoriclooking stands of cypress and giant ferns. It was the very last part of Chile to be settled, and even after settlement, distance and geography kept Aysén sparsely populated—mostly by woodcutters, sheepherders, and itinerant fishermen, like Paredes’s parents. But industry is now flowing in, and Aysén has become a contradictory, hotly contested place. Still a frontier, it is also the symbolic center of Chile’s growing conflict over water—from enormous dams slated for its rivers, to the salmon farms that dot its fjords. In the end, it’s a conflict over what development should mean—essentially, how human beings should live—and who gets to decide.

The morning I visit the factory where Oridia Paredes works, Puerto Chacabuco’s characteristic fine drizzle has turned to downpour. I run to get inside the salmon factory and find its floor slick as the parking lot—but instead of rain, here, it’s salmon entrails mixed with sterilizing solution, tracked around on the white galoshes of plant employees. Waiting to be checked in, I gaze through a plate of glass into the factory below, a cavernous white room filled with hundreds of human forms wrapped and hooded in white plastic and rubber. Everything is white, save a silver line of machinery and the pink slabs of salmon that glide along a conveyor belt like widgets of flesh. Somewhere, beneath one of those white hoods, Oridia Paredes is wearing layers of sweaters, her hair bound back, sorting handfuls of icy salmon fillets that will end up vacuum packed in exact portions, boxed, and shipped to places like Sam’s Club.

Oridia Paredes, and her daughter, Camila, at home in Puerto Chacabuco.
Oridia Paredes, and her daughter, Camila, at home in Puerto Chacabuco. Paredes grew up on a fishing boat; her job at a salmon processing factory allowed her to buy a house, but she also misses the freedom of working on the water.

The factory is full of women like her, usually from old Patagonian fishing families: women gutting salmon with hooks, women cutting salmon with slender knives, women caressing salmon fillets to double check for bones. Over and over. A few men do heavy lifting. Occasionally, they all take breaks for exercises: wrist rotations and finger flexes done in unison, following a woman on an elevated platform, who counts in a slow monotone that echoes off all the metal. Enormous salmon too big to be cut into fillets of the proper dimensions lay splayed out on rolling metal racks, waiting to be sold whole. Most have their mouths flung open, but a few are locked shut, having overdeveloped the hooked snout called a kype. Here, it seems stupid and pointless, a sad anomaly—yet in the wild, males start to develop kype around the time they travel upriver to where they were born, where they’ll quickly spawn and die, making a perfect circle. But here the fish must wait to be harvested in order to die, and some kype grow so curved the fish can no longer eat.

Farmed salmon too big to be processed into standard fillets wait to be frozen and sold whole.
Farmed salmon too big to be processed into standard fillets wait to be frozen and sold whole. In the wild, male salmon develop hooked snouts called kype, then spawn and die, but in farms, some kype grow so large the fish are unable to eat.
Oridia Paredes after suiting up for a shift at the Acuinova factory.
Oridia Paredes after suiting up for a shift at the Acuinova factory.

In Ireland, where my mother’s people were fishermen, the salmon is an ancient symbol of wisdom. In Chile, where Atlantic salmon is not native and was formally introduced just a few decades ago, the animal stands only for industrial growth; until 2007, it was a multi-billion dollar industry, with Chile providing about three-quarters of all the salmon consumed in the United States. But the industry grew too fast, even according to people like factory manager, Victor Soto, for whom farmed salmon is a sort of gospel. Sitting in his clammy office above the factory, he insists that salmon is what has saved this area—not just economically, but culturally, too. “Before we came, this place was nothing,” he tells me. “They had no good schools, no cultural life. They didn’t go to the movies. These people were going nowhere.”

About twenty years ago, a private foundation figured out that, like Norway, Patagonia’s fjords have the cold, clean, sheltered waters that salmon thrive in. They pushed ahead with a business model to farm the fish on an industrial scale. The foundation was affiliated with the government of military dictator Augusto Pinochet, and thanks to the neoliberal philosophy of his administration, salmon farming was allowed to grow unchecked and largely unregulated, until a virus arrived in 2007. Because the rules were slack, the cages and fish had been crowded together, creating perfect conditions for any illness to spread across the sea like a fisherman’s net. This virus—known as ISA, a type of salmon anemia—killed millions of the fish. For over a year, it seemed the entire industry might collapse, but now it’s back on the rise.

César Barros is the head of Chile’s national salmon producers organization, known as SalmonChile. The position is a bit like being head of the National Cattleman’s Association in the United States. Barros is stout and flushed, and he is forceful in a way that almost feels staged. He insists that we talk in English, and at one point, when I ask about accusations that salmon farming—with its antibiotic-laden food, animal waste, and coastal dead zones—is environmentally unsound; he responds in the style of a Hollywood Mafioso, raising one fist, leaning close, and saying, “Bullshit! That’s bullshit! Next question!”

Barros believes that the only way to keep salmon farming strong is to spread out across the sea—and to do so aggressively. Chile has always given salmon farms wide berth, but after the 2007 crisis, legislation was passed to effectively give them carte blanche to operate in the waters of Patagonia.

“We’ve divided the sea into neighborhoods,” says Barros, as if talking about a housing development, rather than the Pacific Ocean. He says these neighborhoods stretch for thousands of square miles. I ask if salmon farms effectively control Chile’s coast, and Barros says, “Mainly. But we do have to give some room to tourism and fishermen, too.” I gape. “Hey, it’s a big ocean,” he says, and smiles.

Of the new rules, Barros is proud that the salmon industry had a heavy hand in them. “This is a unique case in which we asked the government for regulations and change. If you look at the banking industry, for instance, after a crisis, it’s the government that pulls them by the hair, screaming, into new regulations. In this case, we held the government by the hair, and pulling and screaming and shouting they came to help us.”

Workers at the Acuinova factory pack boxes of canned salmon for shipment around the world.
Workers at the Acuinova factory pack boxes of canned salmon for shipment around the world.

As development sweeps the country, more Chileans might have access to light, television, and cheap tennis shoes, but their nutrition and, some would argue, their overall quality of life have worsened. The problem is particularly striking among those who make a living producing food for Westerners.

In this case, the so-called new regulations mean free rein for salmon farming. It’s not hard to see why the industry wasn’t kicking or screaming. Not only have salmon farms divided the sea into “neighborhoods”; they are also allowed to use their gigantic plots of ocean as collateral for bank loans, which means that the sea has effectively become their property. Today, if you fly low over the coast of Chile between the city of Puerto Montt and Puerto Chacabuco, you will see wilderness on land—dense forests and grasslands reminiscent of Alaska, pressing against a rocky coast—and in the water, you will see thousands of salmon cages, usually painted bright red, floating in the water like discarded bath toys.

Oridia Paredes and her daughter Camila don’t actually eat salmon, or fish in general. Farmed salmon has always cost too much, and it’s shipped out of Puerto Chacabuco anyway. Most fish caught commercially in nearby waters goes to the fishmeal that serves as salmon feed; about three pounds of wild fish are needed to produce one pound of salmon. And unless something changes radically in the next few years, traditional small-scale fishing is on its way out, so the local markets that might have offered affordable alternatives frequently have empty coolers. One rainy afternoon, I wandered around Puerto Chacabuco, and found only one fishmonger with fresh catch to sell, a single tub of conger eels on ice. The two customers who came in from the rain deemed the congers out of their budget and left empty-handed.

“Fish is too expensive,” says Paredes, who admits that it used to be one of her favorite foods. “We hardly ever cook it anymore.”

She invites me to share their once, the evening teatime that, as of the last few decades or so, doubles as dinner for working class Chileans. Rosy-cheeked Camila has carefully laid the kitchen table. The white tablecloth is set with white plates, and across it are placed half a dozen dishes of food. A pile of hot sopaipillas, traditional fritters made in Patagonia using white flour and mashed potato. Plates of creamcolored alfajor cookies, made with cornstarch, flour, and sugar, then stuck together with a paste made of sweetened boiled milk. An overflowing basket of toasted white bread. Bread—specifically, white bread—has long been a daily sacrament in Chile, a staple for precarious times. It’s cheap, and no matter what else happens, it’s guaranteed to fill bellies. But ten or fifteen years ago, a piece of white bread would have been eaten to tide a person over until the evening meal, full of vegetables and local eggs or meat or fish. Yet as so-called development sweeps the country, bread consumption has only increased. While more Chileans might have access to light, television, and cheap tennis shoes, their nutrition and, some would argue, their overall quality of life have worsened.

The problem is particularly striking among Chileans who make a living producing food for Westerners, who, in turn, frequently choose a dish like salmon over beef or pork because they’re concerned about their health. Salmon are often marketed as a smart alternative to stereotypical American gluttony. But such luxury foods have become just another consumption fetish, a slightly less in-your-face expression of the voracious appetites we’ve ap plied to consumption at large—food, clothing, accessories, pets, media, energy, technology, and space. These appetites can blot out the very quality of life that we hunger for—not to mention the hidden costs for other people when our cravings demand, for instance, cheap salmon from a place like Patagonia.

A handful of boats near Caleta Tortel, a remote village in Chilean Patagonia.
A handful of boats near Caleta Tortel, a remote village in Chilean Patagonia. Unable to make a living from small-scale fishing, most residents use their boats to cut cypress from the surrounding islands.

When we finish eating, Camila and Paredes gather up the plates. While Camila washes them, Paredes again drifts towards the stove, then to dry dishes, then back to the stove. It isn’t neurotic pacing but more a kind of rocking, like a boat adjusting to the sea around it. It’s hard to imagine such a person standing before a conveyor belt for over two decades.

We go into the living room to say goodbye. Paredes looks up at the ceiling and notices a leak. “Another thing to spend money on,” she says.

“Sometimes I think about getting a boat, getting back on the water. Not all the time, just sometimes, to get out in the open air. I know Camila would like to learn to fish. But a person has a job and a house, and one depends on the other. Once you’re part of that, can you do anything else?”

Paredes smiles and shrugs. I kiss her and Camila on the cheeks, thank them for the meal, and run through the rain to the truck. Paredes’s door shuts, and her home blends into its surroundings, another somber tract house with roses in the front yard.

A dock juts out into the Baker River.
A dock juts out into the Baker River. The Baker is the largest river in Chile and empties into the Pacific Ocean near Patagonia’s Southern Ice Field. Megadams slated for the region would change the ecology of Patagonia’s fjords.


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