Tracy Worcester, founder of Farms Not Factories and producer of the film Pig Business which exposes the dangers of intensive pig farming, has just returned from filming in Chile. Her visit corresponded to the brutal suppression of a local protest against a mega factory farm.
In Freirina, a town of 6,000 people in the Huasco valley in Northern Chile, local protesters have been battling to close a huge factory pig farm which uses the community's precious water and sickens townspeople with its stench.
Last March the conglomerate food producer Agrosuper opened a complex of pig buildings just above the town in the Atacama desert. If filled to capacity it would intensively house 2.5 million pigs making it the largest in the world. A referendum last month showed that 90 percent of the inhabitants of the valley want the farm to be closed down.
A blockade of the site by local protestors last May drew a violent response from the riot police. A woman lost her eye to a rubber bullet and another young woman broke her hip when a policeman pushed her over a bridge.
Because the blockade prevented workers getting to the site and the pigs began to die, the Minister of Health declared a health hazard and ordered Agrosuper to remove the pigs by November 25. However, Agrosuper threatened the Chilean government with a legal action to assert its rights to keep the farm open. The government backed down and announced that the plant could operate with a limit of 1.5 million pigs.
Mock funeral for Freirina
Local residents, not consulted at any stage, felt the government had betrayed them by reneging on their promise. On the night of the 25th, with 270,000 pigs still in the complex, several hundred people staged a funeral for the death of their town and the valley. A coffin followed by a candlelit procession was carried to the main square and set on fire. At midnight the main road was temporarily blocked by burning tires and the night sky glowed red from a fire started in a eucalyptus plantation.
Then in the early morning on December 6, demonstrators blockaded the Agrosuper feed mill. The special forces, waiting on Agrosuper's property, attacked with military vehicles equipped with high volume teargas canons. Before dawn Yahir Rojas, a schoolteacher and one of the spokespersons for the community movement, was illegally abducted and beaten unconscious by Agrosuper guards. He was transferred to intensive care. The locals wait for news of him, shocked by the brutality of a company that resorts to violent crime to punish its opponents.
Many blame the outgoing mayor of Freirina who followed the government's pro-business agenda and supported Agrosuper's huge project. He was defeated in last month's election by Cesar Orellana a disciple of Salvador Allende, ousted as President of Chile in 1973 by a U.S.-backed coup in favor of August Pinochet whose military dictatorship killed or disappeared over 3,000 people.
Now the successors of Pinochet's hated regime, aided by his unaltered constitution, are the owners of Agrosuper which benefits from its historic connection with Chile's elite to avoid regulation, to ignore local voices of protest and which relies on the brutality of Chile's 'special forces' to suppress dissent.
Before his election, Orellana campaigned against the Agrosuper giant and now says he will demand that the government forces it to obey the law and allow inspections, to stop using the precious surface and groundwater, and to stop sickening the townspeople with toxic stench.
Traces of mercury in Agrosuper meat
Agrosuper's Achilles heel is that waste from local copper and iron mines has contaminated the river with mercury which can cause kidney damage. They have no permits to extract groundwater as an alternative supply for their pigs and must legally only use river water which has 17 times the permitted level of mercury for human consumption. Now traces of mercury have been found in Agrosuper's meat.
Agrosuper has been repeatedly fined by the Environment Ministry because of improper waste procedures and in 2008 Japan and Korea suspended pork imports from Chile because of high levels of dioxins. Ten factory farms were quarantined and thousands of pigs were slaughtered.
From strawberry fields to scrub
The Freirina movement is fighting to prevent what has already happened to communities in the San Pedro region 1,000 kilometers to the south where for the past 17 years Agrosuper has been operating a similar sized complex of factory farms, slaughterhouses and feed mills. There the company's deep wells have lowered the water table below the level that local farmers can afford to dig and the area is covered with abandoned farms and the carefully ridged farrows on the hillsides that once grew strawberries have now returned to scrub.
I climbed over a barbed wire fence to film rows and rows of mother pigs, trapped in steel cages, too narrow for them to turn around and squealing with distress. Although these cages are banned in the UK, 50 percent of our pork is imported, often raised in conditions like this. Neighbors are asphyxiated by the stench and their wells deprived of water by the much deeper more expensive wells dug by Agrosuper to supply their thirsty, industrialized factory pig farms.
We interviewed the widow of a farmer who died trying to deepen his well to reach the dwindling water table, and heard many tragic stories from farmers who pay the cost of the 'cheap' Chilean pork that ends up in UK supermarkets.
Agrosuper, having caused local wells to dry out, now distributes drinking water to local residents as a gesture of 'good will.' However the water truck misses the houses of people who speak out against the company, echoing the Pinochet years when to criticize the power base was a crime.