Entrepreneurial Women in Seaside Villages Reclaim Lives, Rebuild Livelihoods in Chile

Publication Date

Publication Date

GENTE DE MAR, CHILE – 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.

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.”

Although Ramirez never finished high school, she has the magnetism of a natural leader. Aiming to identify and empower leaders, Fundación Educación Popular en Salud, Fundación EPES, a local nongovernmental organization, NGO, has held workshops in Gente de Mar to help Ramirez and her neighbors develop skills in community organization and conflict mediation.

In this way, local NGOs in southern Chile have been transitioning from disaster relief to reconstruction with social justice.

As families made homeless by last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami brace for their second winter in emergency housing, women are taking the lead in rebuilding their houses and livelihoods. Women like Ramirez are reclaiming their futures in ways as unique as their personal stories and as universal as the instinct to survive. Women are also pursuing other community initiatives, such as in public health, thanks to the support of local NGOs, which are focused on rebuilding. The government promises permanent housing to families who have lost their homes but admit that reconstruction will take years.

A seismic jolt and tidal wave rocked the coast of southern Chile on Feb. 27, 2010, washing 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 Concepción, 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.

But yesterday’s tragedy is today’s springboard for change, as ordinary women have shown extraordinary determination to recover their dreams, take stock of untapped potential and move forward.

Thirty minutes up the coast from Gente de Mar in Coliumo, home to about 1,500 residents, the all-women Seaweed Gatherers Union No. 2 is doing just this.

Most of its members were born and raised here. While 90 percent of their husbands work on fishing boats, they’ve earned their living 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.

But like Ramirez, the women seaweed farmers say that last year’s earthquake and tsunami ruined their livelihood. 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.

“From October to March, we would harvest every 15 days,” Garrido says. “But since the tsunami, the seaweed banks are full of debris, and we can’t depend on a quality crop.”

Instead of giving up, now the union is redirecting its 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 set about preparing for a new venture: 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 had a chance to show its potential earlier this year when it prepared the canapés, or hors d’oeuvres, for an event organized by the regional authorities in charge of local development funding.

“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.

Women are also taking the lead in other community initiatives, such as public health.

Several hundred women from the flood zone gathered in the chandeliered ballroom of an elegant Concepción hotel earlier this year. The occasion was not an auspicious one, as the event marked the end of the emergency relief funds channeled to their communities from an international consortium of churches during the previous year.

But for four women from Eben Ezer and Bosque Mar camps, future uncertainties were momentarily set aside when they stepped up to the podium to receive diplomas as representatives of new Health and Environment Committees. They represented the 17 women who graduated from a first aid and emergency health course offered by Fundación EPES and will now serve on committees supported by the NGO.

“This makes me feel important,” one of the women, Sara Gayozo, of Bosque Mar, says, “and I know that I am important in safeguarding the health of my community.”

Even before the course ended, the health promoters were putting their skills into practice – even saving the life of a neighbor.

With the onset of winter, the health teams are taking preventative actions based on house-to-house surveys that they themselves conducted. Residents identified garbage, fire hazards and preventing respiratory illness, especially among children and seniors, as their top concerns.

“People are fragile,” says Pamela Monsalve, one of the representatives from Eben Ezer, “but the body has its own intelligence to survive.”

After the tsunami, Monsalve 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.

The report card on government reconstruction efforts is mixed, with roads, ports and municipal infrastructure largely back in operation one year after the quake. But thousands of families remain homeless and jobless.

In Penco, a city of 46,000, municipal authorities are promising that 400 families will receive permanent housing by the end of 2013. The Housing Ministry is working with coordinators from each camp to usher residents through the bureaucracy, but the process is fraught with competing interests inside and outside of the camps.

Most emergency relief funds from international groups have expired. Funding for local NGOs is also scarce, but they are committed to reconstruction.

Earlier this year, a seminar organized by SUR Corporación de Estudios Sociales y Educación, another NGO, examined 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.

“Each one of these experiences proposes a new component to the diverse possibilities of women organizing to activate agendas,” according to SUR.

Fundación EPES plans to do a workshop with the women in Gente de Mar on protecting their health while collecting seaweed, including how to prevent back pains and arthritis.

And last month, thanks to a Mother’s Day drive organized by Fundación EPES, the dozen women who won’t give up their homes on the shoreline there received exactly what they said they wanted most – 12 wheelbarrows and 12 pairs of rubber boots – so they could press on with their livelihood and rehabilitate themselves.

“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.”