QUINTERO-PUCHUNCAVI, Chile – Long before the coming of COVID-19, children on the shores of Chile’s Quintero-Puchuncavi bay began wearing masks as protection against the toxic effects of emissions from the area’s 17 factories and coal-fired power plants.
Dubbed by Greenpeace the Chilean Chernobyl in the wake of the still-unexplained poisoning of more than 2,000 people – many of them youngsters – on Aug. 21, 2018, the towns of Quintero, Puchuncavi and Ventanas constitute one of Chile’s five officially acknowledged “sacrifice zones.”
The area lies on the country’s central Pacific coast, not far from the metropolis of Valparaiso and the resort city of Viña del Mar.
Besides the threat to health from toxic emissions, youngsters in the area are subject to psychological trauma, according to the office of the children’s ombud.
On March 4, Chilean television began airing a children’s series about the situation in Quintero-Puchuncavi, “Respirantes: les niñes del nuevo viento” (Breathers: the children of the new wind).
Based on an investigation by journalists, the program puts the actual words of kids and adolescents into the mouths of puppets, while two fictional characters, Nube (Cloud) and Gaviota (Seagull) provide historical background.
Nearly three decades after the Chilean government declared the area “saturated” with sulfur-dioxide and particulate pollution, residents are still awaiting action to alleviate their plight.
One of the journalists behind the show, Greta De Girolamo, described to EFE the “terrible situation” endured by children in Puchuncavi.
“They are at risk of developing cancer, they can’t play like other children, they’re afraid if they go to the square, they spend recess shut up inside their classrooms,” she said.
Di Girolamo and her colleagues, Pia Becerra, Francisco Parra, Rodrigo Mendoza and Javiera Luna, decided to tell the story from the perspective of the kids in the hope that it would have greater impact.
Taking part in the project along with the journalists was Katta Alonso, a leader of the Resistance Women of the Sacrifice Zone of Quintero and Puchuncavi, who recounted to EFE how residents first became aware of the health effects of the pollution.
“We noticed many years ago that the children were not learning, that there were many grave neurological problems,” she said.
Members of the Resistance Women were joined by Greenpeace activists for a protest in Santiago in October 2019 as Chile was preparing to host a United Nations conference on climate change.
“Even today we still don’t know what intoxicated more than 2,000 people in 2018, the majority of them children, women and older adults. The situation here is super serious and we are very, very worried because cases of breast and uterine cancer in women have increased a lot recently,” Alonso told EFE.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the bay was a popular destination for beach-goers, the coastal waters were rich in fish and the area’s fertile soil produced abundant harvests.
All of that began to change 60 years ago with the groundbreaking for the industrial park.
“The boats are idled,” fisherman Juan Carlos Berrios told EFE. “Before there were a lot of clams here, there were a lot of resources, but the industries destroyed the fields, the ashes fell on the fields and the earth died.”