Consequences of the “Chilean miracle”: The salmon farms and the privatization of the sea

Consequences of the “Chilean miracle”: The salmon farms and the privatization of the sea

By Raúl Zibechi

The so-called "Chilean miracle" is based on three pillars: high copper prices, cellulose production promoted by the Pinochet dictatorship, and the salmon industry, expanded in full democracy. But the overexploitation of the salmon industry has caused a serious health, environmental, social and economic crisis.

Just over a thousand kilometers south of Santiago, passing Puerto Montt and after crossing the Chacao Channel by boat, the fantastic island of Chiloé appears, where wide plains and gentle hills compete for the various shades of green germinated thanks to the copious rains australes. In spring the symphony of greens is dotted with countless yellow, purple and red wildflowers, while myrtles, oaks, hazelnuts and pangues stand out on the hills.

These forests, on which 2,500 millimeters of rain fall each year, are covered with ferns and mosses, which together with the native trees make up an almost mysterious environment. The great biodiversity of the island and the existence of its own animal and plant species, impressed Charles Darwin in the 19th century, who believed that the potato had originated in Chiloé. Although it was later shown that it originated in southern Peru, 400 varieties of potatoes are preserved on the island, from which most of those that are consumed in the world today have been obtained.

But the island's isolation not only allowed the birth and conservation of an impressive diversity of lives, among which the Chilote horse, only 1.25 meters high, and the pudu, the smallest deer in the world, stand out. It also made it possible for the Chilotas to maintain their linguistic twists, their handicrafts, artisanal fishing and a peculiar architecture that uses wooden tiles. The churches, inspired by those of Bavaria, and the stilt houses, indicate that the traditions lasted longer than in other places.

This paradise nestled in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, is one of the five most productive marine areas on the planet. "Although it has less than 1% of the surface of the oceans, its fishing catches represent 25% of the total world landings", says the report by the environmental organization Ecoceanos (1). Such productivity could not fail to attract entrepreneurs from all over the world, whose investments promised hefty returns.

Some 15 years ago, the island of Chiloé and the Puerto Montt area experienced vigorous growth in aquaculture, and in a very special way in salmon production. The large investments of businessmen from northern Europe and Japan made salmon farming grow in Chile at a rate of 15% per year, or 13 times in just 15 years.

Chile exports some 2.5 billion dollars worth of salmon to the United States, Japan and the European Union. In this way, salmon joins copper and cellulose, accounting for 70% of the growth in exports from the "Chilean miracle" (2).

Chile has become the fifth country in the world in landings of marine products, the seventh exporter of fishery resources and the second exporter of farmed salmon behind Norway. The reason for this impressive growth is only one: it is the country with the lowest salmon production costs in the world.

The Achilles heel

On March 27, 2008, The New York Times published an article entitled "Virus in salmon reveals fishing methods in Chile" (3). The scandal was greater. The article called attention to the fact that millions of salmon were dying from the ISA virus (infectious salmon anemia) and that the health crisis had caused the dismissal of thousands of workers.

"Raising salmon in crowded underwater pens is polluting what were once pristine waters and producing potentially unhealthy fish," the report added.

Professor Felipe Cabello, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology of the Medical College of New York, pointed out "lack of sanitary control" and explained that parasitic, viral and fungal infections "are transmitted when the fish are stressed and the centers are very close to one another. others". He also assured that in Chile high levels of antibiotics are used in fish, some of them banned in the United States.

Considering that 30% of Chilean salmon exports go to the United States, the Times complaint was very heavy. The Norwegian company Marine Harvest, the largest producer of farmed salmon in the world, which exports 20% of Chilean salmon, acknowledged that it was in its farms that the ISA emerged as well as the high use of antibiotics in Chile.

"Biologists and environmentalists claim that salmon and pellet feces are depleting oxygen from the water, killing other marine species and spreading disease," the article noted.

What is striking is the response of the largest company in the world to the observation of the environmental and health problems it has caused. "As they have been making a lot of money and everything has gone well, there has been no reason to adopt stricter measures," said Arne Hjeltnes, spokesman for Marine Harvest in Oslo (4).

In 2005 the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) had issued a report with strong criticism of the Chilean salmon industry, for the escape of a million fish per year, the use of fungicides such as malachite green, which is a carcinogen banned since 2002 and the excessive use of antibiotics. Dr. Cabello estimated that Chile uses between 70 and 300 times more antibiotics than Norway, and that there is a black market for salmon antibiotics in that country (5).

In the following days, the government of Michelle Bachelet supported the salmon industries, concerned about the business climate and a possible drop in exports (6). Despite everything, production fell between 30 and 50%, 20 thousand workers were laid off (out of a total of 50 thousand), the industry went into a serious crisis as it became indebted to the bank that began to demand the reimbursement of the debt, something impossible precisely because of the drop in production.

However, everything that has happened in the last two years (the ISA virus was discovered in July 2007), had been anticipated by various works and investigations.

The lowest costs in the world

The first explanation for the low production costs of salmon in Chile is the poor working conditions of the 50,000 employees in the sector. Salmon farming registers the highest accident rates in the country and it has been found that between February 2005 and June 2007, 42 workers in the sector have died or disappeared at sea according to data from the Navy and the National Labor Office. Between 2003 and 2005, 572 pre-scheduled inspections were carried out, and even so, fines were applied in 70% of the cases (7).

The main problems are hygiene and occupational safety, both in the farming centers (huge underwater cages) and in the processing plants. Two thirds of salmon companies violate labor legislation, with high informality due to outsourcing of many functions, especially the most dangerous. Women, who are 70% of the workers in the sector and 90% in the plants, suffer from the cold, the humidity, the overcrowding and obstacles to going to the bathroom. These practices have also been detected with pregnant women, some of whom have been fired.

Divers do the riskiest work. Of the 4 thousand divers working in 2007, only 100 had had certified training according to international standards (8). Outsourcing and the difficulties posed by employers have meant that only between 13 and 15% of salmon farm workers are union members.

Not only the workers present their complaints. So do tourist entrepreneurs and artisanal fishermen. Until 2005, almost 5,000 hectares had been granted to salmon companies (the Norwegian Marine Harvest alone had 1,215 hectares) on the edges of lakes, fjords, canals and estuaries. In other words, in the same places where tourists go and where communities fish.

The complaints are due to contamination and massive escapes of salmon (in 2004 there were two million), which contribute to the spread of contagious diseases to other species and to humans, and threaten the survival of wild species. But it is the massive use of antibiotics that is most worrying and scandalous.

Dr. Cabello maintains that the use of antibiotics in fish culture can stimulate bacterial resistance, causing the generation of resistant strains that affect humans and fish (9). Japan and the United States have repeatedly detected antibiotic residues in Chilean salmon. One of the purposes of the use of antibiotics is to control salmonid septicemia, for which they use quinolones, since bacterial resistance to these substances is increasing alarmingly in the world.

At the seminar organized by Ecoceanos in March 2007 in Puerto Montt, the Director of the School of Chemistry and Pharmacy of the Austral University presented convincing evidence on the increase in bacterial resistance in hospitals in Puerto Montt and Castro (in Chiloé). In the first city, between 1999 and 2003, resistance to ciprofloxacin increased from 2.6 to 9% and in Castro it went from 4.4 to 8.3% (10).

The decision of the salmon farms to reduce their costs and work to the maximum of their capacity has led them to "a negligible contribution to scientific research, very high concentrations of salmonids in the cultivation lines, the indiscriminate use and non-rotation of antiparasitics such as benzoate amemectin and antimicrobials, together with the lack of respect for basic aspects of environmental and sanitary management "(11).

Other serious environmental problems are related to network workshops and spills. In the Aysén region, more southern than Chiloé, the Chilean environmental authority fined 100% of the salmon net workshops in 2005, and in the Los Lagos region (to which Puerto Montt belongs), it fined more than 50% by sea treatment of industrial liquid waste. In 2006, none of the industrial landfills in Los Lagos met the standards, which led to the closure of 30 of the 49 existing ones.

Juan Carlos Cárdenas, veterinarian and director of Ecoceanos, maintains that "European multinationals do in Chile what they are not allowed to do in their countries" (12). He believes that the south of Chile is one of the last areas of expansion for multinationals, fishing, mining and forestry. The area of ​​Puerto Montt and Chiloé has comparative advantages over northern Europe because the waters are less cold and therefore the productivity of salmon is higher. Concentration is the great problem that has caused continuation: "Here in 300 kilometers we have 600 farming centers with 120 million fish, which produce the same amount as in a thousand kilometers in Norway," explains Cárdenas.

Salmon grow in circular cages 30 meters by 60 meters deep. Intensive farming brought salmon exports from 190 million dollars in 1991 to 2.4 billion in 2008. The prices are unbeatable: Chile produces salmon at 2.9 dollars per kilo, while in the international market the price is 7.9 dollars. "But here in Chile the kilo in the supermarket is sold for 10 dollars, more expensive than in New York," says Cárdenas.

Now that the Puerto Montt and Chiloé regions are contaminated, salmon companies are looking to expand south, towards the Aysén and Magallanes region. But the contamination follows the same steps to the point that the ISA virus has already been detected in those regions, indicating that it expanded 2,000 kilometers in ten months, according to Cárdenas. And he adds that "none of this would have happened if the State was not absent and there were no high levels of corruption."

This seems obvious just by knowing one piece of information: according to the company Marine Harvest itself, in its last annual report, in 2007 it used 0.02 grams of antibiotics for every ton of salmon produced in Norway. For the same year, it used 732 grams per ton in Chile. In 2008 the figures are 0.07 in Norway and 560 grams in Chile (13). That is, 36 thousand times more in 2007 and 8 thousand times more in 2008 at its plants in Chile, without any authority asking questions.

Last July the government declassified a 2008 report at the request of the Oceana organization, which indicates that the Chilean salmon industry used 325 tons of drugs while Norway, the world market leader, used only one ton. The report assures that almost 40% of antibiotics belong to the quinolone family, a drug prohibited by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States (14).

Dr. Cabello maintains that it has been proven that the ISA virus was probably introduced to Chile from Norway in 1996, and that its dissemination "was probably facilitated by the large virus populations generated by the pernicious sanitary conditions present in salmonid farming in Chile." (fifteen). From a biological point of view, he compares what happened in Chile with swine and poultry influenza.

The privatization of the sea

The law "privatizes the sea by giving the salmon companies aquaculture concessions in perpetuity and mortgages."

"Common goods are being transformed into financial capital", points out Lucio Cuenca of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (16). This has been done for years with the full approval of the authorities. An example: in April 2007 the Chamber of Deputies voted on a report by the Fisheries and Aquaculture and Natural Resources Commission in which it stated that the Chilean salmon industry "works with world standards (including environmental ones) of high levels of demand. , determined by the modern markets to which it reaches ".

The report obtained 67 votes in favor, one against and one abstention. Three months later, the ISA virus epidemic was declared, although there are many who say that it had been hidden for some time. Be that as it may, the Chilean parliament's omission is evident.

Recently there was an event that shows all these problems. Felipe Sandoval was undersecretary of the Ministry of Fisheries during the government of Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), a position from which he promoted the privatization of the state fishing industry. He currently serves as executive secretary of the Salmon Board and the Aquaculture Cluster, which brings together the business sector and the State to reposition the salmon industry, acting as the representative of President Michelle Bachelet for salmon matters.

On February 5, 2009, the Valparaíso Regional Comptroller's Office accused Sandoval of having inflicted the principle of administrative probity by having used 740 thousand State dollars with false or adulterated service tickets while he was undersecretary of Fisheries. The accusation of the control organism took place while a new Law of Fishing and Aquaculture drafted to the measurement of the industralists was discussed. The Bachelet government issued a supreme decree on July 21 by which it acquits Sandoval of the charges, arguing that his responsibility is extinguished by the time that has elapsed.

According to a Ecoceanos News report of August 3, from his position Sandoval has managed loans of 450 million dollars for the salmon industry, which have a 60% guarantee from Chilean taxpayers. This is a case in which the State plays in favor of the industry despite the fact that it demonstrated its inability to perform in compliance with labor, environmental and health legislation.

The Fisheries Law seeks the reactivation of the salmon industry through the perpetual transfer of rights over maritime territory to companies (17). According to the Minister of Economy, Hugo Lavados, the law allows the "right of use and enjoyment" of the maritime and coastal space by companies, which in this way appropriate a mortgageable asset, a decisive issue for banks to grant loans and refinance debts. Juan Carlos Cárdenas maintains that articles 81 and 81 bis allow "debtor salmon companies to mortgage national assets for public use, such as aquaculture concessions, with creditor banks."

The candidate for president in the December elections, Senator Marco Enríquez-Ominami, like other parliamentarians, maintains that the law "privatizes the sea by giving salmon companies perpetual and mortgable aquaculture concessions," for which he considers it "unconstitutional" (18). At the end of July the Senate filed 160 observations on the Fisheries Law that have excited environmentalists who did not expect such significant opposition. "What happened in the Senate is an important step against unconstitutionality, impunity and the attempted theft of our national assets for public use," said Cárdenas.

Meanwhile, there are those who do business in the middle of the salmon crisis. Marine Harvest announced that despite the losses it is having in Chile, it is preparing to buy Chilean salmon farms as part of the industry restructuring process, since each crisis opens up "opportunities" (purchases, sales, mergers) as Jorgen Andersen acknowledged, financial president of the company (19).

To the extent that Chile has signed FTAs ​​with 24 countries and the elites propose, in the words of Lucio Cuenca, "a strategic projection that will lead it to become a food power", everything indicates that salmon farming will continue to grow. The southernmost regions, where entrepreneurs are moving, can be seen in the mirror of Chiloé. 15 years ago the island was a society of small agricultural producers, ranchers, artisanal fishermen and shellfish. "Now they are workers dependent on the transnational industry", point out the members of Ecoceanos.

"Unless," Lucio adds, "the ongoing politicization process promoted by dozens of small struggles against mining, salmon and cellulose contamination, which has already managed to put strategic issues such as water on the public agenda, continues to grow until starting a social movement ". The criticisms that are heard in the Senate largely reflect this new politicization of Chilean society.

Raul Zibechi, "Consequences of the" Chilean Miracle ": Salmon farms and the privatization of the sea," Americas Program Report (Washington, DC: Center for International Policy, August 17, 2009). Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, a teacher and researcher on social movements at the Franciscan Multiversity of Latin America, and an advisor to various social groups. Writes the "Zibechi Monthly Report" for the Americas Program.


1. "Radiography of the salmon industry in Chile", ob cit p. 5.
2. Idem.
3. Barrionuevo, Alexei, "Salmon Virus Indicts Chile’s Fishing Methods," The New York Times, March 27, 2008.
4. Idem.
5. Idem.
6. Reuters, April 2, 2008.
7. "Radiography ..." ob cit p. 10.
8. Idem, p. 14.
9. Felipe C. Cabello, "Heavy use of prophilactic antibiotics in aquaculture: a growing problem for human and animal health and for the environment", Environmental Microbiology, 2006, cited in "Radiografía", p. 28.
10. 30.
11. Idem.
12. Personal interview.
13. "Marine Harvest Sustainability Report 2008", p. 16, at
14. Sergio Jara Román, ob cit.
15. Felipe Cabello, ob cit.
16. Personal interview.
17. Xinhua Agency, July 31, 2009.
18. Ecoceanos News, August 5, 2009.
19. La Tercera, July 15, 2009 at


- Ecoceanos:
- Interview with Lucio Cuenca, from the OLCA (Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts), Santiago, July 15, 2009.
- Interview with Juan Carlos Cárdenas and Patricio Igor, members of Ecoceanos, Santiago, July 15, 2007.
- Felipe Cabello, "Deputies, salmon, antibiotics and ISA virus", July 30, at
- Marine Harvest:
- Patricio Igor Melillanca and Isabel Díaz Medina, "Radiography of the salmon industry in Chile", Ecoceanos, Puerto Montt, 2007.
- Sergio Jara Román, "Abuse of antibiotics in salmon farms complicates the government and approval of the Fisheries Law", in Invertia, July 27, 2009.

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