The coal-fired power plants in Las Ventanas in Chile look like something out of science fiction. They loom larger than life over the bay, their pipes extending like the legs of some huge prehistoric spider out into the water where they deposit contaminated waste into the ocean.
It was already dark when we arrived and as I ran my eyes upward along the hulking framework of lights that outlined the interconnected towers and building of the power plants, I realized there were no stars to be seen. Even when I look directly upward I couldn’t see any, as if someone had placed a blackout curtain as far as the eye can see. This is not an illusion, nor is it the result of cloud cover. It is the pollution that is made up of coal dust, smoke and the two billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted from these power plants each year.
Alex Muñoz, the executive director of Oceana in Chile, took me with him to Las Ventanas to sit in on his meeting with local townspeople. He told me that they release most of the pollutants at night, when they think no one will notice. I was reminded of scenes from apocalyptic movies, right before the end-of-the-world occurs. We all recognize the plotline: after pushing each other and the earth to the limits, humans have to be punished in the form of alien invasion, natural disaster, or nuclear fallout.
These power plants have been pushing the bay of Las Ventanas to the limit for 40 years, a limit established for both environmental and humanitarian protections — the oceans are almost completely devoid of un-poisoned marine life, while on land, heavy-metal contaminants are sickening the local population. In fact, as my evening in Las Ventanas progressed, it began to feel more and more like the beginning of a movie. In this town, as in Hollywood, or in Dr. Seuss, there seem to exist separate forces for good and for evil. The name itself, Las Ventanas (The Windows), feels like a symbol for the aperture it provides into the heart of the familiar struggle between ordinary people and large corporations, powerlessness and exploitation.
The force for good appeared in the form of four men that Muñoz had travelled to meet with. They invited us into a friend’s home, and immediately served us tea and cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches. It was about 7pm and most had just come from their day jobs as fishermen and municipal employees. Now began their real work, the work that no one pays them for, the work of doing what they can to ameliorate the situation in their town.
In the living room, a decorative fishing net was hanging along with brightly colored oil paintings of small fishing skiffs. The fishing paraphernalia evoked the true identity of these people, which has been stolen by the companies that have poisoned their oceans and driven the fish away. Muñoz told me that everyone here remembers what it used to be like before the plants were built, everyone here is nostalgic for what they used to have. Some told him how deeply ashamed they are that whereas once they used to make their living fishing, now they are employed by the mining companies to clean the waste pipes that jut into their ocean. This nostalgia, however, has not, as one might expect, crippled these four men. While we drank our tea, they set up a laptop and a projector and turned on the wood stove, joking and laughing with Muñoz and me as if we were old friends. They all seemed to be in very good moods, excited about the discussion we were about to have.
Oceana has been working in Ventanas, and four other similarly affected areas in Chile since 2009. Their campaign is called No Más Zonas de Sacrificio, or No More Sacrifice Zones, an apt name for these seemingly forgotten corners of Chile. Oceana has successfully stopped power plants from being built in La Higuera, in Northern Chile, saving those towns from the fate that is the reality of places like Ventanas and Huasco. Muñoz emphasized that it is not only a problem of energy use and environmental contamination; it is also a human rights issue. Because these people are poor, they have no voice. Although Las Ventanas is small, it is not located in the middle of nowhere. Around the corner in the town of Concón, urbanites from Santiago own beach homes, and just 40 kilometers down the coast are the towns of Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, celebrated worldwide as choice tourist destinations. People have chosen to ignore this stretch of coast, however, because it is easier than facing down the mining and energy companies that are a huge part of Chile´s industrial economy.
At the house, the men presented a 100-plus-page document about the levels of fossil fuels emitted in Las Ventanas each year. They referenced facts and figures off the top of their heads, and argued about the significance of each red line on the graphs, demonstrating how closely they have studied the document in minute detail. As Muñoz called them, they are “anonymous heroes” committed to the attempt to make their lives better, even if no one else is. One man handed me a postcard with a picture from what looked like the 1950s of an old wooden boat with two fishermen standing and waving from the bow. On the back, a small quote at the bottom caught my attention. It embodied the grace and fortitude of these men from whom so much has been taken away. It read, “The dream that the mussels will embed themselves once again in the bay of Las Ventanas and that the crabs will no longer carry coal on their backs, is the hope of the fishermen in this area…They say everything can be banned, except dreaming.”