A complex situation of protest and social unrest in the Southern Chilean region of Aysén this summer was undoubtedly brought about by a slew of contributing factors including dissatisfaction with the current right-wing government lead by billionaire Sebastian Piñera, ecological concerns over hydro-electric dam projects and the student protest movement. However, the protests, which saw roads and docks blocked and clashes with armed police (Carabineros) were largely driven by the isolation and poor access into the Patagonian region; Coihaique, the regional capital of Aysén, is over 1000 miles from the Santiago and couldn’t be more different geographically and culturally. Such differences coupled with the vast distances from where decision making occurs has lead some to call for a change to Chile’s centrally governed state apparatus (regional governors are still appointed not elected). Mayor of northern desert city Calama Esteban Velásquez has argued for decentralisation, saying without it there will be 100 fires to combat up and down the country.



Among the demands of protesters have been the following:

  • Fuel subsidies
  • A regionalised minimum wage to reflect the local cost of living
  • The establishment of a regional  university to allow local youth to stay in the area
  • Support for local fishermen
  • A greater say in the construction of hydroelectric plants
  • More control over the proposed large scale hydroelectric plants

A lack of transport infrastructure has caused high living costs for ayseninos where wages have not kept up with this inflation. For example, it was reported that a kilo of peaches cost 10,000 pesos (about £13 today) in Aysen, whereas they are usually under 1000 pesos elsewhere in the country.

The reality of life in Southern Chile today, los ayseninos might argue, is somewhat removed from the idyllic and often romanticised buena vida of the popular imagination

It was against this backdrop of unrest during the Chilean summer this year, where some protesters attracted attention by calling for adoption by Argentina, Dr Alberto Salas Nicolau, a psychiatrist who has spent some time in Aysén working as a G.P. commented on the situation in Patagonia.


 by Dr. Alberto Salas Nicolau

It has become common these days to hear ayseninos [inhabitants of Aysén] discrediting their opponents saying that they don’t know what it’s like to live there. Although it is absurd to literally put yourself in someone else’s place in every exercise in empathy, (although I couldn’t work as a psychiatrist if I hadn’t personally experienced every vicissitude that results in a consultation), and yet with the perspective given to me through working in Puerto Aysén for a year as a G.P., I can’t help but find a certain truth in the phrase.

Moreover, the conditions that make Patagonia different have much to do with the mental health of its inhabitants. The weather conditions are extreme.

The rainfall in Puerto Aysén is approximately 4000 mm per year [London = 650mm], triple that which falls on Valdivia and its famous forest. As is obvious, these rains fall from clouds, which close the sky most of the time, making the city even darker. Sometimes the day is a greyish colour between ten and three in the afternoon.

The road to Coyhaique is relatively short, but the trip depends entirely on the weather conditions, ranging from easy to impossible.

The great economic force -later to fall from grace- in development was the salmon industry, which employed nearly everyone who wanted work. This caused low unemployment, but, unlike mining, with a majority working on the minimum wage.

The work itself is very hard, with mechanical repetition of movements and the cold and wet conditions; at the height of the salmon age, Aysén had the highest rate of occupational diseases, most of them musculoskeletal in the upper extremities.

They live there much more at the mercy of nature. It is not the south of küchen [sweet deserts introduced by German immigrants in the 19th Century] and the Germans, it is not the south of drinking hot chocolate around the fireplace.

It’s the South of clothes smelling of smoke and fish, making sure the wood is dry for the night, where they freeze the food in the pantry and where one must speak loudly to be heard above the noise of the rain on the roof. Where isolation is the rule. Social housing cannot be the same in Calama [warm northern city in the dessert] as it is in Aysén.

The minimum wage is not enough when most of the food costs more than the average shopping basket.  The least populated region in Chile is also one of the largest, so is the big challenge to support our comrades living there.



Se ha vuelto común escuchar por estos días a los ayseninos descalificar a sus interlocutores diciendo que no saben lo que es vivir allá. Aunque es un absurdo pedir a cada ejercicio de empatía el hecho literal de ponerse en el lugar del otro, (no podría trabajar de psiquiatra si no me hubiese sucedido personalmente cada vicisitud que provoque una consulta), y con la perspectiva que me da el haber trabajado en Puerto Aysén por un año como médico general, no puedo dejar de encontrar cierta razón en la frase.

Por lo demás, las condiciones que hacen a la Patagonia diferente, tienen mucho que ver con la salud mental de sus habitantes. Las condiciones climáticas son extremas.

La lluvia en Puerto Aysén es aproximadamente 4 mil mms. anuales, el triple de lo que cae en Valdivia y su célebre selva. Como resulta obvio, esas lluvias caen desde las nubes, que cierran el cielo la mayoría del tiempo, haciendo aún más oscura la ciudad. A veces el día es un aclarar medio gris entre las diez y las tres de la tarde.

El camino a Coyhaique es relativamente corto, pero el desplazamiento depende totalmente de las condiciones climáticas, variando de fácil a imposible.

La gran fuerza económica -caída luego en desgracia- de desarrollo fue la industria salmonera, que daba trabajo a casi todo el que quería. Eso generaba baja cesantía, pero –a diferencia de la minería- con una mayoría de sueldos mínimos.

El trabajo en sí es muy duro, por la repetición mecánica de movimientos y las condiciones de frío y humedad; en la época del auge del salmón, Aysén tenía la tasa más alta de enfermedades profesionales, la mayoría osteoarticulares de extremidad superior.

Se vive mucho más a merced de la naturaleza. No es el sur del küchen y los alemanes, no es el sur del chocolate caliente junto a la chimenea.

Es el sur de la ropa con olor a humo y pescado, de secar la leña como sea para pasar la noche, donde se congelan los víveres en la despensa y hay que hablar a gritos por el ruido de la lluvia en el techo. Donde el aislamiento es la regla. La vivienda social no puede ser la misma en Calama que en Aysén.

El sueldo mínimo se hace más escaso cuando todos los víveres cuestan más que donde se calculó la canasta. La región más despoblada de Chile es también una de las más grandes, como grande resulta el desafío de apoyar a nuestros compatriotas que viven allá.


Dr. Salas’ article was originally published in Spanish at www.diarioeldia.cl


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