Drought, earthquakes and forest fires cause concern as the Van Rysselberghe inquiry continues and the courts dismiss the attempted prosecution of Rapa Nui protesters.
Chile’s volatile natural environment has given the government cause for concern this week as earthquakes, droughts and forest fires disrupt life across the country – just two weeks before the anniversary of last year’s catastrophic earthquake on 27 February. Over the weekend, a series of earthquakes shook the south-central regions, reaching up to 6.9 on the Richter scale. In total, 36 tremors of varying strength have been registered since Friday, although no material damage has so far been recorded.
Further north, in the Valparaíso region, three forest fires remained ablaze as of Sunday evening in the communities of La Ligua, San Antonio and Villa Alemana. The ONEMI (National Emergency Office) stated that although the fires had been brought under control, over ten hectares of woodland, scrubland and grazing land had so far been destroyed by the flames.
This week also saw the declaration of an ‘agricultural emergency zone’ as Chile’s worst drought for 50 years hit its northern and central regions. Government agencies have estimated that sheep, goats and cattle in the affected regions will not survive more than 48 hours without sufficient water and farmers have been urged to ‘adapt to the situation’ by ensuring that they maintain livestock numbers ‘appropriate to the availability of food and water resources’.
Meanwhile, the inquiry into the alleged compensation fraud by Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe, the governor of the Biobío region of southern Chile, continued to dominate the national press this week. Van Rysselberghe is accused of having ‘used’ the earthquake which struck the region on 27 February 2010 in order to obtain housing subsidies for residents of Concepción who had not actually lost property in the disaster.
The controversy came to light following the examination of an audio recording in which the governor appeared to suggest that the neighbourhood of La Aurora de Chile might be included in the reconstruction plans, despite not having sustained particularly severe damage.
This week, Van Rysselberghe admitted that her choice of words in the recorded conversation had been ‘unfortunate’. However, she also claimed that the Undersecretary for Housing, Andrés Iacobelli, had supported and presented her collective claim, despite the fact that less than the required 80% of the compensation was being claimed for housing made inhabitable by the earthquake.
As the investigation continues, Van Rysselberghe has attracted criticism from both government and opposition politicians. Mario Desbordes, National Renewal Secretary, said that ‘the UDI [Independent Democratic Union] and the governor must not continue to cause controversy, nor must they pressurise the government’s decision’. Socialist Party secretary Fulvio Rossi argued that it would be damaging to the UDI if Van Rysselberghe were to remain in office, claiming that the party would appear opportunistic and hypocritical in its condemnation of corruption.
In further domestic news, a case brought against Rapa Nui islanders evicted from an occupation on Easter Island on Sunday has been dismissed by the courts. Judge Nora Barrientos rejected the charges of misappropriation and violation of dwellings which were made against 17 islanders arrested for participation in the occupation of the Hotel Hanga Roa, on the grounds that the ownership of the land had not been established.
The protesters, who are mainly from the Hito clan, claim that the hotel built by the Scheiss family in August 2010 stands on ancestral land that was expropriated in the 1980s. Spokeswoman Marisol Hito said that the ruling demonstrated that the Rapa Nui were beginning to be treated with justice by the Chilean state and also praised the support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the islanders’ claims.