I spent yesterday morning walking around Valdivia, discovering some of the city’s unique qualities. There’s a bustling, but very manageable downtown area, a shady central park, river walkways and outdoor markets, a university campus with a beautiful botanical garden, and much more I haven’t gotten to explore yet. The city is heavily influenced by the Germans and you can see it in the architecture, with lots of modern buildings, brightly painted wooden houses, pubs and at least one brewery. Chino, (Juan Eduardo Henriquez) the General Manager of Apicoop, explained to me over dinner last night that many of the buildings are made with wood, not only because forests abound, but because wooden structures sway and can therefore survive earthquakes better than other materials. After the 1960 earthquake (the largest earthquake ever recorded) which destroyed the entire city and the economy for the following twenty-five years, no one’s taking any unnecessary chances.
In the afternoon, I treated myself to a one-hour boat ride down the River Valdivia, to the River Cruces, and back, via the River Cau Cau, Chile’s shortest river. Diego, our tour guide, pointed out the sea lions which hang out behind the open-air fish market, some fancy houses, eucalyptus forests, and the dramatically changed landscape resulting from the flooding which occurred after the earthquake and tsunamis in 1960. He told us that Valdivia was shaped by four competing, sometimes clashing, economic forces: the university, industry, forestry, and tourism.
Last night over dinner, I asked Chino and his wife, Anabella about Diego’s comments. Chino explained that Valdivia is certainly a university town with one of the best universities in South America, the University of Austral. He told me how the students were staunch opponents of Augusto Pinochet and well-respected (in certain circles) for having held the country’s longest strike (45 days) against his military dictatorship. However, while Valdivia is fortunate to have some of the cultural, social and economic benefits that universities bring, there are definite causes for concern. The cost of education is exorbitant and students can expect to graduate with debts equivalent to a home mortgage. Two graduates who want to get married, each carrying a burdensome debt – now equal to two home purchases – will never be able to repay their loans.
Furthermore, the universities are turning out “professionals” in such numbers, that there aren’t enough jobs for them all. “There are more veterinarians here in Chile than there are cows,” Chino commented, “and no one wants to be a tradesperson”. He went on to tell me that 70% of the university students are the first in their families to receive a higher education. On Friday Lily had told me that the average age of the beekeepers at Apicoop is about 55, and that while their greatest pride and success is that their children are now able to go to school, the downside is that the youth no longer want to return to agriculture to make a living. Instead, they migrate to the cities, where there are no jobs to support them. As Chino said, “In the countryside, at least one can have chickens. In the city, there’s only poverty.”
We continued our conversation, over some highly-awaited Chilean Cabernet, into the late evening. The rest of my colleagues from Equal Exchange arrive tonight and I’m looking forward to seeing them and eagerly awaiting tomorrow when we make our first visit to meet Apicoop’s honey and blueberry producers.