Valparaiso: It’s Navy Day in Chile, and especially in the port town of Valparaiso. This is not as I suspected a big gay parade of boys in sailor suits, but in fact a serious public holiday marking the death in battle of one of Chile’s naval heroes, Arturo Prat – how very Australian to commemorate big national defeats.
Chile lost the battle against Peru that day, but won the war, the War of the Pacific. This war, in which Chile took land from Peru and Bolivia – to the extent that Bolivia lost access to the Pacific and became land-locked – was instigated and funded by Britain, which wanted a unhindered access to the northern nitrate fields.
During their time here, the British created quite an industry, with port and transport construction, introducing administrative and legal systems and generally helping develop the area. Everyone was happy, apart from the Peruvians and Bolivians of course, who still aren’t on great terms with their neighbour.
Come World War I and an affordable way of manufacturing nitrate was invented. Suddenly nobody was interested in travelling halfway across the world for the chemical, and the nitrate industry collapsed, impoverishing all involved in it.
To complicate things further, in order to pacify its other large neighbour, Argentina, and prevent it from taking the ‘wrong’ side during the War of the Pacific, Chile gave Argentina large tracts of land, including most of Patagonia. And that, it discovered belatedly, is where most of the oil and gas is.
Chile has no oil (the only South American country to have none) and no gas – just a little, fast running-out coal. Buying gas from Bolivia’s massive reserves, was obviously not an option.
Then, the nitrate-rich lands of northern Chile began to be exploited for other minerals that still can’t be manufactured, like copper, gold and silver. Mining requires a lot of energy and water, neither of which is available in the northern deserts.
Chile is now trying to resolve this energy issue – looking for ways to provide power for its mining industry (only half of which is publicly owned), and its small remaining slice of undisturbed land in Patagonia might be its answer, through hydropower transported thousands of kilometres north. But not if Patagonia’s conservationists get their way.
We are heading north today, in a lengthy detour to avoid the marching bands of Navy Day, to La Serena.
And our friends at the World Wildlife Trust have asked those of you in the UK to help with a survey on wetlands there. Please follow this link to help.