Chile’s ‘green gold’ al­gae un­der threat

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

COIHUIN, Chile: Farm­ers in south­ern Chile still re­mem­ber when they could make a liv­ing just by pick­ing up seaweed at the beach. Not just any seaweed, but the red al­gae used to make agar-agar - a jelly-like sub­stance used in a plethora of prod­ucts from ice cream to di­etary sup­ple­ments to cos­met­ics. Chile is one of the world’s largest pro­duc­ers of the al­gae, which it ex­ports mostly to Asia - China, Ja­pan and Thai­land.

But de­mand for this “green gold” and pres­sure on the ecosys­tem have grown so great that now it is un­der threat. To­day, in­stead of gath­er­ing what­ever seaweed Mother Na­ture pro­vides, farm­ers plant and har­vest it in care­fully reg­u­lated quan­ti­ties. On Coihuin beach at low tide, farm­ers with horse-drawn carts sow their seeds in the sand as the cold wa­ters of the Pa­cific lap the bay, the snow-capped An­des moun­tains tow­er­ing in the back­drop.

The chilly wa­ters are per­fect for the species, Gracilaria chilen­sis, which Chileans call “pelillo”. Once the seeds grow into tan­gles of red al­gae, it will be har­vested and pro­cessed to make agar-agar, a ver­sa­tile sub­stance whose many uses - tex­tile dyes, plas­tics, cos­met­ics - in­clude act­ing as a gelatin sub­sti­tute. That has cre­ated boom­ing de­mand in re­cent years from veg­e­tar­i­ans, ve­g­ans and peo­ple avoid­ing meat for re­li­gious or health rea­sons. Chile, Spain and Ja­pan, the world’s top pro­duc­ers, ac­count for 60 per­cent of agara­gar out­put, ac­cord­ing to the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion. Chile ex­ports 1,800 tons a year.

‘Dan­ger of Ex­tinc­tion’

At Coihuin, farm­ers grow the al­gae old-school, plant­ing it by hand, with no ma­chines. “In fif­teen days it will be ready to har­vest,” says one, Car­los Leiva. “Af­ter that we’ll har­vest two or three more times be­fore Fe­bru­ary or March.” But de­spite the speed with which it grows, the al­gae is in­creas­ingly scarce. Leiva, who started har­vest­ing al­gae as a boy, re­mem­bers when all he had to do was pick what grew nat­u­rally at the beach. “Years ago, all this was full of seaweed. It came to my knees - my waist, even,” an­other farmer, Pe­dro Soto, told AFP with nos­tal­gia. “Not a sin­gle patch of beach was bare,” he said. “This year there’s less.” Ale­jan­dro Buschmann, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Re­search and De­vel­op­ment of Marine Re­sources and En­vi­ron­ments, echoed the farm­ers’ claims. “Nearly all the (nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring) al­gae has dis­ap­peared,” he said. Last year, a study by the bi­ol­ogy depart­ment at Catholic University of Chile with French re­search in­sti­tute CNRS warned Chile’s red al­gae was in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence shows na­tive Chileans have been eat­ing foods made from the al­gae for some 15,000 years. Over-ex­ploita­tion is not the only thing threat­en­ing it. A worm that feeds on the al­gae has also hit the re­gion. Waste from nearby sal­mon farms is like­wise threat­en­ing the plants, and the 2,000 peo­ple who de­pend on them for a liv­ing.


PUERTO MONTT, Chile: Work­ers col­lect pelillo (Gracilaria Chilen­sis) seaweed dur­ing a low tide har­vest south of San­ti­ago on Oct 19, 2016.

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