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How the Kawésqar Suffer From The Patagonia Oil Spill

PUERTO NATALES – The 40,000 liters of diesel oil that leaked into the remote waters of Patagonia are threatening the cultural existence of the Kawésqar people. The leak occurred on an island that forms part of the ancestral territory of the indigenous people. They claim they warned two years ago about the dangers of mining activity in the pristine area.

Although according to authorities between 15,000 and 20,000 liters of spilled diesel has been cleaned, the oil spill on Saturday is feared to have large consequences for the untouched nature off the coast of Patagonia. But not only marine flora and fauna suffer. For the Kawésqar, a threatened indigenous people in the far south of Chile, the consequences of the oil spill could be even worse.

After the oil spill, the Kawésqar community on Puerto Eden issued a statement, demanding persecution of those responsible for the spill on Guarello Island, an island that forms part of their ancestral territory. According to the Kawésqar, the spill threats “the fundamental bases of their culture”, from natural resources to ancestral spiritual spaces. The community says they warned two years ago for the possible dangers of industrial activity in the area.

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Living From the Sea

Most Kawésqar people in the southern areas make a living from (shell)fishing and see those natural resources threatened by the oil spill. The indigenous people move by canoe and see themselves as protectors of the Patagonian seas.

In 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) interviewed Carolina Huenucoy, the President of the Kawésqar community in Puerto Eden. In the interview, she mentions the importance of the sea and its resources for the Kawésqar people. “Everyone in the community practices nomadic hunting and gathering; we know the places where animals breed and nurse, the areas where we can hunt, fish and harvest.”

Another Blow for the Kawésqar

The oil spill is another blow for a people that has suffered since it came in contact with Western colonists. Until the late 18th century, the Kawésqar people were with around 4,000 people living in the southern area. During that century, Chile began to intensify its colonization operations.

The Kawésqar people, who were not immune to diseases brought by colonists, saw their numbers decrease rapidly to 500 at the beginning of the 19th century. 25 years later, there were 150 native Kawésqar left.

It took the Chilean government another 15 years to approve the Kawésqar Protection Law, enabling the remaining population to relocate on Puerto Edén.  ChilePrecolombino writes that, “the Kawésqar population continued to decline: from 100 in 1946 to just 60 in 1953 and by 1971, a mere 47 had survived.”

Nowadays, most people with Kawésqar ancestors live in Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. Both the indigenous peoples in the city and on the remote islands work in fishing and still see large parts of the Patagonian marine areas as sacred, exactly the reason why they demand justice for the oil spill.

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