Chilean Women Rebuild Lives Smashed by Tsunami

Monday, July 4, 2011

Some give up traditional livelihoods and do something new. Others stay put and rebuild from within devastated towns. Throughout the shoreline communities of southern Chile hardest hit by the 2010 tsunami, women are driving a long, hard recovery.

COLIUMO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)--The all-women Seaweed Gatherers Union No. 2 in Coliumo, a coastal town in southern Chile, is preparing for a new venture.

Before last year's devastating earthquake and tsunami, the women earned their living by gathering seaweed. The chicorea del mar, or sea lettuce, grown here is also sold primarily to Japanese buyers as a source of agar, a gelatin used in Asian cooking.

"Seaweed can be planted and harvested sustainably," Ana Garrido, union spokeswoman, says. "From October to March, we would harvest every 15 days. But since the tsunami, the seaweed banks are full of debris, and we can't depend on a quality crop."

Almost everyone here lost homes or boats last year, and now they are increasingly convinced that the oceanic upheaval also destroyed the seabeds they have long relied on for income.

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Instead of giving up, union members are redirecting their energies from seaweed farming to processing the seafood that their husbands and brothers catch.

With the help of local development organizations, the union has rebuilt its one-room community center and is getting ready to prepare frozen, vacuum-packed crab meat and fish filets.

"One of us has a freezer; another has the sealer," Garrido says. "Our dream is to train ourselves in aquaculture, then process the products we produce."

The union showcased some of its new products earlier this year when it prepared appetizers for an event organized by the regional authorities in charge of local development funding.

'All We Need Are the Tools'

"We did a great job," Garrido says. "The tsunami hit us, but it didn't break us. We're hardworking and united. All we need are the tools."

A Chilean living abroad recently donated new freezers to the women in the union and new fishing nets and wetsuits to the men. Most of the women in the union say they are excited to begin this new business venture as seaweed becomes increasingly scarce.

The union is just one example of numerous ways in which women, with help from local nongovernmental groups, are helping their communities recover.

The seismic jolt and tidal wave that rocked the coast of southern Chile on Feb. 27, 2010, washed away the homes and livelihoods of entire communities. In inlets where men went to sea as fishermen and women harvested seaweed for generations, thousands of families were relocated into emergency shelters far from the coast, where most still live today.

In camps like Bosque Mar and Eben Ezer, located in the town of Penco near Concepcion, the provincial capital of the Bio Bio region, 100 families share outdoor latrines and cold showers. No one has running water. During the winter months--June to August in the Southern Hemisphere--freezing temperatures, daily rains and a penetrating wind are unrelenting.

The two-year waiting period for permanent housing that the government originally announced has been pushed back by another several years. A sense of limbo for families hangs heavily in the fog here.

Several hundred women from the flood zone gathered in the chandeliered ballroom of an elegant Concepcion hotel earlier this year to mark the end of the emergency relief funds that had been coming from an international consortium of churches during the previous year.

At the event, four women stepped up to receive diplomas on behalf of 17 women who graduated from a first aid and emergency health course offered by a local nongovernmental group, the Foundation for Popular Health Education (Fundacion EPES).

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