It was on the island of Chiloé, in the southern part of Chile, that I first started to notice the differences between the countryside and the city in Chile. I´ve spent most of my time in Chile thus far in Santiago (where 1/3 of the population lives) or Valparaíso, which, while not a big city, has many of the perks (in terms of interesting events, life and energy) that a much larger place would have. It´s easy to forget that not all merchandise is moved by US-based monopolies, that not all sidewalks are strewn with dog droppings, that not everywhere sports either a liquor store or a farmacy on every streetcorner.
I really started to notice this difference between country life and city life talking with the people of Chiloé about a bridge that the government is planning to build from the mainland to the island. As it stands now, you have to take a 45-minute ferry, which costs about $25/normal vehicle and much more for a bus, in order to make the crossing. So, it´s slow and expensive to bring stuff or take stuff away from the island. From the outside, a bridge seems like a great idea. A lot of the local economy is based off of tourism, and if it´s easier to get there, doesn´t that mean that more people would come and the tourist industry could boom even more? Well, turns out that´s not necessarily so. Actual people working in the tourist industry talk about the magic of Chiloé, a magic that they say, in part, survives because the place is just a little bit hard to get to. A little bit off of the beaten path. The residents like the magic, and the tourists do, too. Plus, it´s really not that expensive to get to the island. And doesn´t actually take that long. What DOES take a long time is waiting for and then spending hours bumping around in the tiny regional buses you have to take to actually get anywhere if you´re not a car rental type. It turns out that the REAL people behind the bridge aren´t people at all…. wait for it… they´re corporations. Big companies that want to sell stuff on an island that looks suddenly lucrative. Big companies that want to decentralize and outsource a pretty local economy. It´s gross. When you talk to people on the island, when you see the graffiti spray painted on billboards and bus stops, it all rejects this bridge. And then you go to the mainland and the opinion changes.
People I talked to in Puerto Montt, the city just across the sliver of ocean between the island and the mainland, were mostly in favor of the bridge. “It will be good for Chiloé”, they said. “They need the international investment. They just don´t know that´s what´s good for them.” There´s a couple of points here. First, it´s interesting to see how city people, Puerto Monteños, seem to think that they know better than the actual people who will be affected by the change, what´s good for them. This is a pretty common thing to happen, I´m pretty sure. And it doesn´t help that the media seems to portray things very evenhandedly, i.e. that the split pro and con for the bridge is a lot close to 50/50 than my conversations with Chiloeans unearthed.
The second point is that, in the past, international investment hasn´t always been good for Chiloé. I am a little hazy on some of the details, but the girl I was traveling with and I had a conversation with the owner of the cabin we stayed in in Cucao, close to the national park and a big lake. He had worked for the salmon fisheries for years, which was hard work, but paid enough to get by. However, the lake got really polluted (it´s a weird reddish color now) and the fisheries shut down. Already well into his forties and without a lot of education, the only option he saw was to head into tourism. He still relies on the complexities of international economic trends (because people don´t travel far away quite so much when their stocks aren´t looking to do that great), but at least he can be his own boss. I am guessing, although I don´t know for sure, that the salmon fisheries had something to do with the pollution. And it´s not just international companies that are at fault. Talking to our hosts in Tenaún, our last stop on the island, originally, norwegian fisheries came to the island offering locals very fair wages for their work with the harvest and catching of salmon. I guess norwegians were used to having to pay norwegians, who expect and need a much higher salary than chileans are used to. But then Chilean companies came and started paying muuuch less. And the norwegieans had to cut their labor costs or get out. So they cut, and the people got a little bit poorer, and had less and less fish.
These experiences in Chile (as well as some in Bolivia that I´ll talk about later) have hammered home a point that I learned, for the first time explicityly, in my political organizing class spring semester at Wellesley: good directions must have local roots. For organizing to work, it has to be people from a specific place coming together to address their own specific problem. Sometimes, like with presidential political campaigns, those specific problems can be scaled up to a national level. You get people talking about their very dire healthcare needs, and use that to motivate their help with the Obama campaign. On the economic front, international grocery store chains, or farmacy chains, funnel money out of communities. They also make the communities more vulnerable to the ever-shifting winds of the global economy, so distant and incomprehensible. But once that dependence is wrought, like with the cabin owner in Cucao, it is hard to disentangle oneself. Better to stay like the tourism cooperative on the Island of the Sun, where all the guides are local, and every community along the trek from North to South charges an entrance fee and splits the resulting cash. It may be less efficient. It may not result in the most informative of guided tours. But at least I know that when I buy a sandwich, some rich european or american didn´t just get 50 cents richer.