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.

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).

Health Surveys

With the onset of winter, the health teams have been conducting surveys of their camps. Residents identified garbage, fire hazards and preventing respiratory illness, especially among children and seniors, as their top concerns.

Pamela Monsalve is one of the health representatives. After the tsunami, she says she lived in a tent for three months with her two infant children, waiting for emergency shelter. She has a high school diploma, but says that hasn’t protected her from poverty.

Earlier this year, a seminar organized by the SUR Corporation for Social Studies and Education, another nongovernmental group, studied women’s "resilience and participation" in rebuilding the Bio Bio region of southern Chile.

Participants discussed various activities and strategies, including the construction of community clay ovens and the purchase of a megaphone and banners for women to lead marches.

In some places, women are putting their ravaged communities back together.

Elizabeth Ramirez, 38, and her neighbors earn a meager living gathering and harvesting seaweed in Gente de Mar, or "People of the Sea," an enclave of 30 fishing families in Penco, a city in southern Chile. Families here have refused to leave their homes and livelihoods despite the damages from last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

Along the shoreline, partially repaired houses share the beach with a few wooden dinghies and a carpet of soggy seaweed. Ramirez says that frequent rain has caused the seaweed she recently harvested to rot.

Demand Hurt by Japan’s Earthquake

Ramirez and her neighbors sell their seaweed crops to a local agent who ships them to Japan. But after the March earthquake in Japan, demand has withered.

"The police came to tell us that the ola japonesa [Japanese wave] was on its way and to leave our homes," she says.

She says the waters washed across the beach and up to her door. But the sea pulled back, and, undeterred, women ventured out to the rocks to hunt for shellfish.

"I wasn’t buying the hype about another tsunami," says Bellamira, who declined to give her last name, one of Ramirez’s neighbors. "I have a family to feed. I went straight to work."

Few, if any, families here hold titles to their plots, and residents say that the city wants to take possession of this beachfront property for real estate development and tourism. But residents say they have lived and worked here for two and three generations and see no reason to abandon their boats, nets and expertise.

"There’s still pelillo and luga along the coast here," Ramirez says, referring to two types of edible seaweed. "We don’t need handouts–we need wetsuits, wheelbarrows. And we need to work together with other communities in the same situation."

Fundacion EPES has held workshops in Gente de Mar to help Ramirez and her neighbors develop skills in community organization and conflict mediation.

In May it conducted a Mother’s Day fundraising drive, collecting enough to provide the women with what they said they wanted most: 12 wheelbarrows and 12 pairs of rubber boots.

The organization is planning to provide workshops with the women in Gente de Mar on protecting their health while collecting seaweed, including how to prevent back pains and arthritis.

"The sea took everything from us," Ramirez says. "But it will also return to us everything we need, as soon as we have the means to return to our work."

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ATTRIBUTION: Adapted from original content published by the Global Press Institute. Read the original article here. []All shared content has been copyrighted by Global Press Institute.

Lezak Shallat reports for Global Press Institute’s Chile News Desk. She has lived in Chile since the mid-1980s.