Editor's Note: Fuerza Atacama – After the flood, a view from the mud

April 17 , 2015

By Fresh Fruit Portal editor Matthew Ogg

Matt Ogg column photoSeptic water puddles and great piles of caking mud were my first impressions of Copiapó, the political and economic hub of a Chilean region three weeks into recovery from severe floods. Released by broken sewage pipes, a toxic dust floated in the air prompting the odd person here or there to wear a mask, but only when it rained the first night could I truly smell it; a smell of feces, reeking again the following afternoon as wastewater was discharged into the river on the government’s orders.

A desperate move in desperate times.

Frustration is mounting over the state’s response to the situation and Chile’s seemingly systematic lack of preparedness for natural catastrophes, but the people of Atacama have proven resilient and the country’s charities and private donors have rallied in support.

More help is needed however. Almost 30,000 people have been made homeless by the event, 28 people were killed and 59 are missing, including fruit worker Jennifer Novoa for whom the authorities have given up their search. Her colleague, Peruvian national Sandy Bernal, perished at the hands of an unprecedented avalanche of water and debris that demolished a worker camp run by Fruticola Atacama.

As grower Jaime Prohens said, materials like irrigation pipes and agricultural machinery can be recovered, but there are no words for the human side of this tragedy. In a part of Chile where sentiments of class struggle run deep (Communist Party Deputy Lautaro Carmona represents the districts of Copiapó, Chañaral and Diego de Almagro), business leaders from the fruit industry have been instrumental in helping lift up communities in distress.

Prohens himself offered his grape warehouse and refrigeration facility to be used as a distribution center for relief supplies, while Fruticola Atacama’s managers had already contracted their own helicopters to rescue stranded workers when state emergency agency Onemi told them their valley was not a priority.

These are just some of the tasks undertaken by fruit producers up in the valley, which it must be noted are far upstream from the sewage problems of the city. Copiapo Valley Agricultural Producers and Exporters Association (APECO) project manager Luis Morales said his organization had distributed water, gasoline, clothes and machines to the most damaged areas, while organization members, including the likes of Agrofruta and Fresh Del Monte, have also been active in areas of corporate social responsibility.

Morales said he would like to see our coverage of the disaster spark a greater response from international importers, distributors and retailers, and I hope it does too. That’s why I’ve decided to dedicate the entirety of today’s newsletter publication to the slogan “Fuerza Atacama”, which can be seen scribbled on brown-tainted adobe walls and battered flags throughout the region. At the end of this note you can find links to today’s stories, as well as a page with all of our coverage since day one.

APECO president Lina Arrieta, whose group represents growers big and small in the zone with around 90% of them producing table grapes, said Copiapó’s fruit industry had flourished since the boom was kicked off in the 1980s with a credit line from the Inter-American Development Bank.

“The growers have a lot of heart and a lot of strength. They are risk-takers and can have pride in what our Atacama industry has achieved in the efficient use of resources, to have farms in the desert and not reduce the level of production during a drought,” she said.

“This flood practically leaves us with all the progress we’ve made in irrigation technology under mud. So we have to invest again to be able to be as efficient as we were before March 25, when practically 99% of our channels had flow meters with the latest technology so you could always know immediately what was happening with water use.

“This is one of the driest deserts in the world, so if we could make it grow in this way, imagine how much effort, work and cost was made to bring this sector for the benefit of the country and international markets. We are selling our product in more than 30 markets worldwide,” she said, adding there were other crops in the area too, such as pomegranate trials from Unifrutti and olive production for both fresh and olive oil markets.

Based on surveys of the valley, Arrieta said 2,000 hectares were at risk of loss along with a further 1,500 hectares if growers can’t gain irrigation access in time; the sector representative has been highly active in lobbying, meetings and site visits with government ministers to secure not only funding but on-the-ground support.

If the funding promised is not quickly applied, there will likely be a carry over effect on the Copiapó Valley’s 18,000 workers during the peak season from September to mid-February, as well as around 2,000 more in the Huasco Valley.

“If we don’t manage to irrigate in our fields, there will be a great amount of people who will be out of work,” she said.

“That’s a problem that brings other complex variables, like labor reconversion, family problems and even violence between families…there are a lot of risks.”

Morales has had to deal with his fair share of crises over the course of his career, such as his time working for the regional government managing a pig industry contamination scandal in Freirina, and a period managing salmon operations in the south when the ISA virus was killing off fish left, right and center.

When the virus came, Morales was forced to fire 200 employees including very good friends. But he said the current disaster has been a worse experience, and like many who have the means he’s moved his family outside the city for health reasons.

“At least then when people lost their jobs they had homes to go to.”

For readers wishing to lend a helping hand however they can, we’d recommend contacting ‘Desafío Levantemos Chile’ (Loosely translated as the ‘Let’s lift up Chile Challenge’), ‘Un Techo Para Chile’ (A Roof for Chile, which has an English version website) or simply send me an email at mogg@freshfruitportal.com and I will put you in touch with the relevant people.

And, as promised, here is our coverage of what is being lived out by the Atacama horticultural industry at the moment:

Prohens: Out with the grapes, in with the emergency supplies

Fruticola Atacama: In the eye of the storm

Chile: Atacama has ‘lost 90% of its capacity to deliver vegetables’, says Ghiglino

Chile: Export olives bear brunt of floods during peak harvest

Historical Thompson Seedless rootstock survives Chilean flood

Photo Gallery: Atacama after the floods

For further background, be sure to visit our Chile Floods 2015 homepage.

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