The island of Chiloé, off the coast of Chile, is known for its misty beauty, quaint architecture, and distinctive cuisine. Now Chile’s government is proposing to build the longest bridge in Latin America to connect Chiloé to the mainland. Islanders aren’t sure they want to be connected.
Few human constructs are as innately graceful and pleasing as bridges. Literally and metaphorically, they connect us. Yet natives of Chiloé, an island the size of Puerto Rico off the coast of southern Chile, wonder lately if there may be such a thing as too much connection.
Isolated from the mainland by a turbulent channel, Chiloé developed its own proud culture, whose music, myths, and charming architecture today entice thousands of tourists each summer. However, Chile’s government now wants to celebrate its 2010 bicentennial by building the longest bridge in Latin America, joining Chiloé to the continent. Many islanders fear this would replace the romantic sea change that visitors undergo during the twenty-minute ferry passage with a non-eventful, three-minute car ride.
Worse, they claim, it would also end their uniqueness. They reject the rationale that a bridge means they’ll now have quicker access to emergency medical services on the mainland, arguing that it would be far cheaper simply to build Chiloé a decent hospital. The real reason for turning their island into a peninsula, they say, is development: The government has proclaimed that the bridge will make Chiloé the gateway to vast, hitherto inaccessible stretches of southern Chile, to extract lumber – and, especially, to cultivate an exotic fish.
Chile, which has no native salmon, is now the world’s second biggest salmon producer; with this bridge it could become number one. Marine biologists, already worried over the environmental strains of intensive fish farming, have further doubts about turning Chile’s entire southern coast into a giant salmon factory. Local stocks of sardines, mackerel, and anchovies used to make feed for farmed salmon, they warn, are already dangerously overdrawn. What, they ask, is the sense of building more fish farms, if there’s nothing left to feed them?
Chilean President Ricardo Lagos has promised that no public funds will be spent on the bridge. Instead, the first forty years’ toll revenues will go to the bridge’s private financiers. Industry projections, however, suggest that tolls could take more than a century to recoup construction costs, so no one is yet willing to undertake the $300 million project without guaranteed government subsidies. In turn, President Lagos, a former Minister of Public Works who won’t abandon the dream for this grand national monument, keeps postponing the construction bidding until a financing plan emerges.
Opponents say that a bridge makes no cultural, fiscal, or ecological sense—that it no longer symbolizes connection, but a profound disconnect between human pride and human wisdom. Yet many fear the president will renege on his promise not to subsidize, and build it anyway. Chiloé lore tells how local mythic spirits have dealt with hubris in the past: vanquishing the perpetrators with the likes of floods and earthquakes. In such an act of revenge, a legendary sea serpent named Quaiquaí originally separated Chiloé from the mainland. Since the bridge, if built, will be anchored to a notoriously unstable sea bottom, a question heard on Chiloé these days is: Might Quaiquaí strike again?
– Alan Weisman