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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Town of Alhue Goes Green

Daniela Estrada

ALHUÉ, Chile, Jun 19 2007 (IPS) - Time seems to have stopped in Alhué. The dirt roads, colonial history and low-key activity in this sleepy Chilean farming town of 4,500 make it hard to remember that downtown Santiago is just two hours away.

“I always say this town is like a bottle: you go in at one spot and have to go out the same way. That has helped us maintain many of our traditions,” Yoonitt Sepúlveda, mayor of this town located 236 kilometres southwest of the capital, told IPS.

The rhythm of life in Alhué, which in the Mapuzungun language of the Mapuche people means “Place of Spirits”, is slow. “Things are done here at an ox’s pace,” said Sepúlveda.

He said that the local people’s strong Catholic faith and belief in the devil are manifested in many local customs.

“There are records in the National Library showing that during the time of Spanish colonialism, a resident of Alhué brought a lawsuit against the devil, which was sent to Spain, but the sentence never arrived,” says the mayor of this town, the most distant and rural and least populous of the municipalities that make up the Santiago Metropolitan Region.

“Most of the Alhué labour force works in temporary jobs. Seventy percent work on farms and plantations and 30 percent in mining, municipal jobs, and health and education,” said Sepúlveda.

A decade ago, the main crops were wheat and corn, but today the surrounding fields contain mainly vineyards and fruit trees.

A human development report published last year by the Chilean Ministry of Planning and Cooperation in coordination with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked Alhué 43rd out of the 52 municipalities making up the Santiago Metropolitan Region, in terms of health, education and income.

Despite its deficiencies, the area around the town boasts a natural treasure: the Altos de Cantillana mountain range, a natural area threatened by private as well as public sector economic activities, including agriculture, mining, livestock raising, firewood gathering and the collection of humus (the nutrient-rich earth formed when plant material decays).

The mountain range, which includes deep valleys and ravines, is so rich in flora and fauna that it is considered the lungs of the metropolitan region, which is known for its high levels of air pollution.

In the Altos de Cantillana is found the Florida gold mine, which local communities blame for polluting the air with dust. The mine is operated by Canadian mining giant Meridian Gold. Also in the area is the tailings dam of the El Teniente division of the state-run National Copper Corporation (CODELCO), which leaked in 2006, polluting surrounding wetlands.

Thanks to its specific socioeconomic, cultural and environmental characteristics, Alhué is the setting for several sustainable development, recycling and ecotourism projects.

The city government and the environmental organisation Nexo, which later changed its name to Casa de la Paz, refurbished a large old house in 2003 known as Casa Polulo, which now serves as a cultural, educational, environmental and tourist centre.

Two years later, Casa de la Paz presented the “Alhué Sustainable Town” project to the UNDP’s Small Grants Programme, which provided 25 million pesos (roughly 50,000 dollars), to which were added 10 million pesos (20,000 dollars) from CODELCO. The initiative was carried out from September 2005 to December 2006.

Winco Franz, who was in charge of the project, told IPS that Alhué had the right conditions for an initiative of that kind, as a low-income area marked by enormous biodiversity, that needs to learn how to better exploit its natural and cultural wealth.

A team of Casa de la Paz activists practically installed themselves in city hall, and have carried out a broad agenda of activities with the support of government bodies like the National Commission on the Environment (CONAMA) and the National Forest Corporation (CONAF), as well as private firms like the Minera Florida company.

They have cleaned up public spaces, refurbished neighbourhood centres, planted 300 trees of native species with groups of students, held chats on the environment, launched a radio programme on environmental education, and taught dozens of women to make an “olla bruja”, a kind of thermos or pot made of expanded polystyrene that is used to save energy in cooking.

In addition, they opened Casa Polulo, which has specimens of native trees, a greenhouse, a renewable energy section, and a compost area where fertiliser is produced from organic waste. The products of a group of five craftswomen who work with recycled paper are also sold there.

The city government also presented a project to federal authorities last year aimed at promoting Alhué as a tourist destination, Juan Ignacio Banda, the head of the Casa de la Paz Foundation, told IPS.

In April, Casa Polulo received a group of 20 elderly tourists from the upscale eastern Santiago district of Las Condes, with very satisfactory results.

Mayor Sepúlveda said that one of the most important initiatives by the Casa de la Paz was the construction of a small waste storage and sorting facility and the installation of containers for local residents to deposit plastic, glass and cardboard, to be sold to recycling companies.

The town does not have a solid waste dump, and whatever is not recycled ends up in the nearby Alhué wetlands.

Today, 80 families separate their household rubbish. The first sale of recyclable materials was carried out in November 2006, and a second was recently held.

Eulalia Lizama, chairwoman of the La Vuelta de la Piedra neighbourhood council and a member of the recycling centre’s management committee, waxes enthusiastic when recalling the start of the project.

“For a long time we had wanted to recycle. That’s why we thank God that the Casa de la Paz arrived. We have cleaned up our houses and our neighbourhood,” she told IPS.

She said the recycling centre was no longer big enough, because people from other neighbourhoods had been caught up in the enthusiasm and had begun to bring in their waste.

Lizama called for greater support from the city government to build bigger installations, in order to keep the area clean.

The mayor, however, told IPS that the plan is to expand the garbage sorting and recycling initiative to the entire town, with financing from the Minera Florida mining company. “We are going to consult local residents about the best way to do it. But we believe that if we build a recycling centre in each neighbourhood, the system can finance itself.”

City officials are also in conversations with the neighbouring town of Melipilla to transport non-recyclable waste to a sanitary landfill.

“Not long ago, Alhué didn’t care about environmental issues. But now we notice that people are concerned about this and are defending their surroundings,” said Sepúlveda, although the activists at Casa de la Paz and several Alhué residents said that sometimes it is hard to get the local people involved.

In addition, two schools in the town have been granted “environmental certification” by CONAMA. “They serve healthy foods, grow their own gardens and have incorporated environmental activities in their curricula,” said the mayor.

The latest sustainable development initiative carried out by the city government, which built on progress already made by Casa de la Paz, is the “Biodiversity Conservation in Altos de Cantillana” 2005-2009 project, financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Chilean government.

The project’s main objective is to establish a public-private partnership for the co-management of the area’s natural wealth by carrying out sustainable productive activities. As part of the project, CODELCO, Minera Florida and other companies have committed themselves to adopting cleaner operating methods.

The Alhué city government, which forms part of the project’s executive committee, is also helping local property and business owners apply for licences to establish a tourist route in the Altos de Cantillana, in order to attract more visitors to the town.

Diego Urrejola, a UNDP consultant and project coordinator, says the public-private partnership must be strengthened, to include, for example, the area’s vineyards, in order to develop Alhué’s great tourism potential.

“But tourism is not our salvation. It’s an alternative that has to be exploited as far as possible, but as part of a spectrum of options,” said Urrejola, who stressed the need to foment sustainable production by small farmers.

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matthew frisbie