Frederico Füllgraf, Santiago de Chile

Pichilemu and Bucalemu - "Little Forest" and "Big Forest" in the Mapuche language Mapugundún - are coveted beach-resorts in the region O'Higgins, 200 to 240 kilometers south-west of Santiago de Chile. Because of its break points in Punta de Lobos Pichilemu is a particularly hot surfer-tip.

But the time-honored fishing villages are also strongholds of Chilean seaweed fisheries, a nondescript, extractive industry, which counts as part of Chile's aquaculture. At least 35,000 fishermen and gatherers are employed in the production of approximately 700,000 tons of algae per year composed of some 18 different species - including Chascón (giant kelp) (Macrocystis pyrifera), Luga Negra (Sarcothalia crispata), Luga Roja (Gigartina skottsbergii) Chicorea del Mar (Chondracanthus chamissoi) and Luche (Porphyra columbiana). The seaweeds are collected from shallow waters or the beach or actively bred in the sea. Up to 500,000 tonnes are regularly exported to Japan, the US, China and Spain. With annual sales of around 300 million US dollars (Subpesca, 2013), it's a thriving business for the traders and exporters, but not as lucrative for algueras, the seaweed collectors.

This is a chronicle of a collection economy, which should mutate into a biotech business.

A few hectares of sea

From September to March, when the damp cold winter withdraws from central Chile, the land- and seascapes change on the beaches of Pichilemu and Bucalemu. Hundreds of algueros pour in from the hinterland to the Pacific and pitch their tents which will be their homes during the spring and summer season. They conquer the shell-covered, slippery rocks in the surf in time to take advantage of the growth of fresh seaweed colonies springing up from the seabed and all suitable surfaces.

After boozy summer nights, tourists stumble late from their beds in Pichilemu and Bucalemu. On the beach it's a different story. Fishermen return at sunrise with their catches and the algueras head for the surf after a lean breakfast.

A few hundred meters into the silvery sea you note the silhouette of sporadic surfers. Early birds, the algueras love waving and greeting occasionally. Around eight clock in the morning there are about thirty algae and shellfish gleaners, with their cheap backpacks Made in China walking towards the surf, the backpack containing little more than a thermos of warm, milky tea.

Although the sun is shining, a cold wind blowing over waves and dunes. The women dip their unprotected legs and feet into the frosty sea. Like supple cats or experienced seabirds they jump and climb the slippery rocks, washed by the waves and covered with razor-sharp mussel colonies, at whose feet the algae colonies are rocked back and forth by the waves.

The icy Humboldt Current comes up from Antarctica. It flows in parallel to the Andes towards the Galapagos Islands and lowers the water temperatures near the coast by some 7-8 °C compared to the high seas. The Humboldt Current is considered "the most fertile uterus" of the oceans. All kinds of sea creatures are thriving here and many get eventually washed up on the rocks of Pichilemu and Pucalemu: green algae, Cochayuyos, black armored, delicious Chorito mussels (Mytilus chilensis), red tunicates (Pyura chilensis) sea urchins, Locos (large Chilean abalone, marine snails of the genus Concholepas, not to mention the crowd of tiny ocean dwellers recognised only by the sharp eyes of gulls and herons.

Sometimes the algueras climb a high cliff and gaze down to the glittering Pacific, hands at their forehead to create some shade and not be blinded. What they see commands their gratitude and awe, as if they were whispering: "All this belongs to us, the seaweed gleaners".

All this” refers to an área de manejo especial (a special area for sustainable economic activity) for sea bottom resources, a concession assigned indefinitely by Subpesca, which measures generally some 7.6 hectares of marine area.

The algueras of Pichilemu

Until 2002, seaweed fishing was an exclusive men's business. The men dived into the water fishing for the seaweeds and their girlfriends and wives did the collection and pooling, so one could admire especially the stacked cochayuyos (Durvillaea antarctica), similar to sea monsters so typical for Chilean fish and vegetable markets.

The women did not earn a penny for their work. They lived in family circumstances akin to Hispano-Chilean machismo, which meant the women were systematically humiliated by their lovers and husbands and beaten regularly. This degradation was put to an end by Lidia Jiménez, a seaweed stacker and wife of a diver, who appealed to the women to establish a union of algueras and shellfish gleaners.

The cooperative was founded in 2001 by 35 women seaweed gatherers in Pichilemu. It was the first of its kind in all of South America. But until that time, it was a nine-year constant, thorny path, paved with discrimination and tough battles against the machismo of husbands and colleagues, mostly fishermen and divers.

At the beginning, even the Fisheries Surveillance Authority (Sernapesca) rebuffed the women - a typical men's club, where speaking "to the point" in snotty insults was the norm for men completely inexperienced in dealing with women as equals. In private, some women confessed that they had been beaten by their husbands to keep them away from founding the cooperative. It took some persuasion of the Managing Director, to encourage her colleagues to take action against the physical abuse. According to official information (Encuesta Nacional de Victimización por Violencia Intrafamiliar y Delitos Sexuales, 2012) 32% of all Chilean women between 15 and 65 years still fall victims to the violence.

The women were given crucial support from an unexpected source, namely the Navy, which is responsible for the regulation of sea area allocations. The Armada presented them with 35 rubber diving suits and fishing tools, as well as plastic tarpaulins for protecting the collected and stacked seaweeds against the rain. Unforgettable to this day is the gesture of the Navy captain in 2008, who even gave them a container which they fitted out themselves as a dressing-room and bedroom with kitchen.

But from the part of the fishermen on the beach, the women gained nothing but harassment, abuse, insults. Could that have been an expression of envy for their small successes?

Previously, they worked for free for their husbands, now they earn at least 250,000 pesos in the summer high season - in October 2015 that was equivalent to Euro 330. In winter, they earn no more than 70,000 pesos, just Euro 100. That's one reason why the seaweed gleaners try to supplement their income with the resale of crafts or as cleaning ladies and mushroom gatherers.

What they can not control, is the final prices of their seaweeds. These increase at least fourfold between the loading onto the trucks of middlemen and the discharge in the international port of San Antonio.

Over-exploitation by the market is a nationwide complaint of the seaweed collectors.

Víctor Águila, trade unionist leader of the Federación Rivera Norte, complained in Chilean media about the low fares offered by middlemen who rarely pay 20 pesos - about Euro 0.7 - per kg. Felipe Ojeda, President of the Asociación Algas Chile, raised the alarm: As the highly indebted algueros could no longer repay their debts, 400 management concessions were withdrawn in 2013 because of the seaweed fishermen's insolvency.

Subplot: the biotech government plan

While the alguera cooperative scored their first small successes governmental technocrats forged new plans for Chile's seaweed-stocks. In connection with the Fisheries Act "Ley Longueira" adopted by the Piñera government (2006-2010) end of 2012, but opposed nationwide by artisanal fishermen, reflections started in Chile on how the country could take advantage of the global boom in biofuels. The first decisions concerned reforestation and promotion of seaweed breeding. Seaweed exports hiked in 2012 already by 12.2%. A working group was established in the Secretariat of State for Fisheries Affairs (Subsecretaría de Pesca), which declared seaweed cultivation and industrial processing as a target. Two forums were organised with scientists and entrepreneurs, who developed a strategy concept. The result of these forums was the new realisation of the business potential of seaweed cultivation for further processing in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and food industries. But the highlight of the strategy paper was the development of an seaweed fuel industry.

Bucalemu: overfishing and collapse

On 27 February 2010, Central-southern Chile was hit by a devastating combination of earthquakes measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale and tidal waves. The tsunami reaching the coast a few hours later piled more than 30 m high waves onto the coast of the Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins region and swept streets, houses and fishing boats in front of it, as if they were children's toys. When the ocean subsided again, Bucalemu resembled a battlefield. Nothing but rubble.

Hardest hit were the artisanal fishermen and seaweed collectors, about 1,000 men and women, who generate almost 40% of the seaweed shipments for the domestic market during the summer season.

Since then, the algueras wait mostly still in vain for the reparations for the tsunami damage promised by the government Piñera. To date, their legitimate claims for compensation are not even paid out by the successor government in an appropriate manner. The algueros feel generally abandoned by politicians and government of whatever stripe. It slowly dawns on them that they are "the last link in the production chain". And the weakest and most interchangeable.

Luis Cordero Godoy, descendant of a family that for 50 years fished seaweed on the beach village La Lancha of Bucalemu is pessimistic: While good money could be earned in the trade during a few months of the year, the seaweed gleaning has not been recognised as a profession and was denied even such minimal social protection, as sickness and pension insurance.

The 2012 Fisheries Act, which privatised the Chilean sea from the border with Peru to Tierra del Fuego, exacerbated conditions by confining the tens of thousants of artisanal operators to a narrow 1.0 km wide coastal strip. At the same time, the vast majority of Chilean national waters are being shared among just seven major shipping companies on the assumption that artisanal fishers were pursuing a dying craft.

The Fisheries Act has opened the floodgates of overfishing, because if the algueros deploy equally excessive harvesting methods as the industrial operators to meet demands under the export pressure it is estimated that in little more than 20 years the boom will be over. That would spell an end for seaweed harvesting and the algueros.

3,000 km of coastline for seaweed-fuel

The idea to process seaweeds for fuel is from the consortium Bal Biofuels SA and the University de los Lagos. Biofuels is a US American company, which – the ink was barely dry under the neoliberal Fisheries Act - received a management concession from Chile's government of considerable extent in the Patagonian Sea.

The Consortium defends itself against the charge it would produce only fuel in the ocean. It refers to the use of its seaweed as a raw material with diverse applications. Even if that were so, Biuofuels has already achieved the first step to privatise the traditional seaweed industry. It has planned a water plantation system, in which the formerly independent algueros only have a future as cheap labour.

The seaweed fuel programme is still domestically in its infancy. But is is already a lucrative deal, because the companies involved don't pay a penny. For the pilot project phase, the Chilean government invested US$ 31.6 million. The main objective of this stage is the technology development for seaweed processing for fuel.

The next to take advantage besides BAL Biofuels, were the consortia of private enterprises Desert BioEnergy and AlgaFuels. According to the guidelines of the National Energy Commission and CORFO, the Programme to promote corporate companies, a private Chilean university is always available for support.

Researchers and entrepreneurs hope to create a miracle: macroalgae have a sustainable and inexpensive power potential of 2,300 liters of ethanol per hectare per year, ie twice the performance of the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol (1,200 liters).

Three thousand kilometers of coastline with high solar radiation, ideal for photosynthesis. The Chilean government used this description to launch the advertisements for the seaweed fuel programme.

So Biofuels set up shop in Patagonia and Desert BioEnergy went north, in the opposite direction, starting in Tocopilla, on the coast of the Atacama Desert. Biofuels initially received 40 hectares (400,000 square meters) of sea area for algae exploration along the coast of the Chiloe Island. Once the still immature processing (pressing and distillation) technology is tested successfully, the expansion of seaweed farms can get into gear.


On a beautiful weekend, something quite unexpected happened in the premises of the public school Liceo Insular de Achao, on Chiloé: The mayor, local authorities and the management of Biofuels called fishermen and seaweed collectors to register for a "Programme for Environmental Education and Training". According to the company spokesperson, it was necessary that "environmental education and training includes all actors that might have a future home in this new industry."

"Unfortunately, the conventional algae processing industry is supplied solely on the extraction of natural water area with very low yields of those seaweeds that are relevant for industrial cultivation, such as Gracilaria chilensis". The summoned algueros looked at each other in surprise. The retraining had already begun.

Chile's marine renewable resource economy once again at a glance

With its approximately 6,500 kilometers of coastline - including the Juan Fernández archipelago and Rapa Nui - the cold Humboldt Current and its rich biodiversity favouring biological processes, Chile is ideally placed for sea food production. It ranks among the ten largest fishing economies in the world.

According to FAO (2014), the fisheries of the Andean country employed 90,000 people in the extractive sector. Catches amounted in 2012 to 3.6 million tonnes. The corresponding export revenues totaled US$ 4.337 billion.

Due to overfishing of food fish species (mackerel, anchoveta, sardine, South Pacific hake and skates), however, the Chilean fishery experienced since 2013 its most threatening crisis, with a drastic slump in sales. With 3,200 operating concessions, aquaculture has a considerable share of the value chain the Chilean marine food production. Of course, one must not add fisheries and aquaculture production, particularly because a major component of the Chilean aquaculture consists of salmon production. Salmon are predators. Their feed contains a large proportion of fish meal produced by the capture fisheries. The seaweed extraction is the latest addition with approximately 700,000 tons per year. In Chile, 18 different species of seaweeds are cultivated, including chascón, luga negra, luga roja, chicorea de mar and luche.