What would seem to be a simple object, a staircase, is transformed into an inspiration for reflecting about the surrounding southern Chilean extractive landscape, who has access to it and who receives its impacts. These realities are connected through Chilean history and the everyday stories of its inhabitants.
Several months have gone by, but I still remember the day when the rain finally stopped and I could leave the Mapuche community I was visiting, in the Gulf of Arauco, southern Chile. I jumped onto a pickup with four other youngsters living in the area, all of us somehow related and supporting in various ways the Mapuche struggle for sovereignty of their ancestral lands and uses. On our way south, we stopped to collect cochayuyo seaweed (Durvillaea antarctica) from the Lebu seashore. According to the CASEN 2009 survey, Lebu was the second poorest commune in Chile, where 39% of inhabitants live in poverty.
These are the new stairs of the building where the Committee held their meetings for the past four years. Intense rain had destroyed the former cement-made ones, and for several days the Committee’s members could only enter through a precarious balancing act on a stick. The staircase is itself the expression of the experience of inequality embedded in the extractive landscape: “we are surrounded by wood but we needed a councilor to support us through a lot of bureaucracy to access these 20 sticks that form the staircase”, one of the participants explains to me.
The Committee, mostly formed by women, has met for four years with the intention to mobilise and train people in order to try and reverse the local lack of employment. In June 2014, over a hundred women organised for the double task of claiming municipal job positions and collectively feeding themselves and their children. They aimed to receive some bags of food, nappies and medical care for those who were sick. But it wasn’t just about asking and waiting. Many of them, for the first time, were inspired to block the motorway, making visible their despair and hoping to call the attention of the recently instituted supposedly socialist government in Chile, with the arrival of President Michele Bachelet in March 2014. Some women planned to build a sewing or recycling cooperative in an abandoned factory building.
The relationship between the forestry extractive model and the dictatorship, its impacts in time, in the individual and collective economic and socio-environmental impacts and above all, in life, came to be all expressed in the history of these stairs. The stories of persecuted and “disappeared” parents, the memories of militant mothers, the anecdotes of the land occupations, the tears shed for children that had to migrate for employment or those who decide to escape through drugs, the memories of fathers who are always absent due to eternal working days in the forestry industry. All of these are gathered in the steps of that staircase. In each of its fibres that, instead of being exported to Japan or China, served to tell this story and the daily stories of all the people in the Committee, who met together in the search of recovering, little by little, the sovereignty and autonomy of their own lives.
You could read this story also in Spanish, at Verdeseo
Podrán leer esta historia en castellano, en el sitio web de Verdeseo