Mystical islanders divided over Chile's giant bridge project

CASTRO, Isla de Chiloe, Chile (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - People who live on Chile’s island of Chiloe in the deep south of the continent, where it rains ten months of the year, have long seen themselves as distinct from mainlanders.

The islanders were the last bastion of Spanish loyalists in Chile’s 19th century wars of independence and have clung to their unique culture, often putting them at odds with the rest of the nation.

“Change here came slowly,” said local historian Armando Bahamonde Vera.

In coming weeks, the island, which is roughly the size of Corsica, faces a new challenge when construction begins on Latin America’s longest suspension bridge that will link Chiloe to the mainland 2.5 km (1.5 miles) away.

“We’re fighting for survival,” said Bahamonde one of many islanders who oppose the plan.

Proposed in 1972, but canceled and postponed several times since, the $740 million project is set to be completed in 2020.

Advocates hope for better access to healthcare and schools and an economic boost for the 150,000 residents of Chiloe, the largest in an archipelago of more than islets, 1200 km south of the capital Santiago.

Opponents, who have festooned the island with banners and graffiti declaring their objections, fear a loss of their culture rooted in the Huilliche and Chono indigenous groups.

“We don’t want these investments. They are synonymous with invasion,” Bahamonde told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“They damage our communities by destroying our natural and cultural heritage.”

A fusion of indigenous and conquistador religions created Chiloe’s unusual heritage, brimming with warlocks and ghostly galleons. Chilotes believe their world was created in a stalemate of battling serpent gods of the sea and the land.

“We were left with islands like whales in the sea, the channels and the bays, everything we needed in harmony,” said Bahamonde. “We will defend this harmony until the end.”

The Chilotes join the Mapuche groups and Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island also seeking greater autonomy and indigenous rights from Chile, including more say over territory and resources as well as recognition of cultural differences.

Chiloe’s population has been declining for decades. It does not have a university, and young people head to the mainland for education and jobs.

Newly re-elected conservative president Sebastian Pinera has a personal stake in Chiloe where in 2004, the billionaire businessman purchased 118,000 hectares (291,584 acres) of land to create a biopark, a type of zoo where animals roam freely.

He has recently faced pressure to cede eight hectares to 16 indigenous families living on his property.

For now, the island and mainland are linked by a 30-minute ride on a ferry that carries roughly 2,600 vehicles each day.

Residents of Chiloe tend to be poorer than those in the rest of Chile. A 2015 government survey showed nearly one in seven Chilotes live in poverty, while overall in Chile the ratio is closer to one in nine.

“The bridge is a pole for development, providing access to schools and medical centers on the mainland,” says Rene Garces Alvarez, governor of Chiloe.

Some local business owners also anticipate benefits, such as Chechi Guerrero who hopes it will bring more tourists and higher quality fruit and vegetables to her coffee shop.

Her store sits on a street of wooden houses on stilts, or palafitos that, along with 16 UNESCO World Heritage churches, are architectural icons of Chiloe.

“It’s the people that make the culture,” she says. “The mysticism, I make that myself. The bridge won’t take that away.”

Some residents fear the bridge could bring unwanted development, such as mining, that could accelerate environmental degradation. Concessions for gold and iron exploration have been awarded to companies seeking to work on the island.

Strings of buoys crisscross the bay, marking off areas where fishing is not allowed, in an effort to recover waters damaged by large-scale salmon farming.

Other coastal spots have been hit by marea roja, an algal bloom associated with industrial dumping that poisons shellfish.

Locals who have organized into the Defendamos Chiloe argue money would be better spent on health, education and transport infrastructure on the island itself.

Fisherman have blocked major island roads with burning tyres to protest the marea roja three times in recent years.