Mujeres del Mar

A coalition of women work to advance their rights—and sustainable fishing—along Chile’s southern coast

A fisherwoman speaks to 2 men on deck

Carola Barría strolls down a dock in Dalcahue, a bustling port city on the island of Chiloé, and chats with the grizzled fishing crews who’ve just hauled shellfish into the harbor on wooden boats. She listens to a litany of problems and racks her brain for solutions, clearly comfortable with the kind of gruff men who are accustomed to a fraternal life at sea.

Barría is the granddaughter, daughter, and sister of fishers—and none of them, she says, wanted her to follow in their footsteps. But, she adds, she never cared much about what they thought. Like many women, the 41-year-old helped support her family by collecting shellfish and seaweed from the shore. But at the same time, she says, she was secretly studying— learning what she needed to know to rise through the ranks to become the secretary of both the local and regional fishing syndicates. More recently, she helped establish the National Corporation of Women in Artisanal Fisheries.

“When someone closes their eyes and thinks about fishing, they always visualize a man,” Barría says, returning to her spare office overlooking the harbor and its shuffling ferries. “That’s why we have this movement now. It’s so that women know they have rights too, and that it’s important for them to express their needs because being secondary actors, we’re never going to change anything.”

Barría played a key role in pushing through a 2021 national law that added gender equity to fishing policy. The law creates gender quotas in regulatory bodies and seeks to formalize formerly unrecognized (and traditionally female) roles that precede and follow the actual catching of fish—activities like smoking seafood products and baiting nets for fishing crews. Together, these changes let female workers appear on work registers and apply for grants to improve their businesses.

“Now,” Barría says, “women are absolutely empowered.”

WWF sees gender equity as a fundamental element of sustainable development and effective conservation, which is why the organization helped build momentum for the new gender equity law and supports leaders like Barría.

“Women have been made invisible in this sector for years, but they’ve always been a part of the story,” says Denisse Mardones, conservation communications coordinator at WWF-Chile, who joins Barría at the seafront near her office. “Now begins the whole process of implementing this law—and making sure we help these women gain greater participation in the decision-making about, and management of, artisanal fishing and small-scale aquaculture work. We need to secure financing for women’s enterprises and promote recognition of the health impacts of this work; we need to accomplish the vision of the law that recognizes the many roles women play in fisheries and aquaculture here.”

Barría tells Mardones she’s busy as ever organizing and training other female leaders across Chiloé to continue the fight for greater equity. “At the beginning, many husbands would tell their wives, ‘You need to be careful with her,’ because I’m breaking old traditions,” she says, raising an eyebrow. “But the truth is, we simply feel the freedom now to say the things we couldn’t before.”

The women she works with, including the four profiled here, have told her that they never felt important until they discovered the power of speaking up. “That,” she adds, “is what makes me most proud.”

Rosa de Lourdes Huenante Ortiz

Before artisanal fisher Rosa de Lourdes Huenante Ortiz created the all-female syndicate Newen Antu in 2021, she was the only woman in an all-male group. “I was always looked at as inferior,” she recalls. There were, of course, other women in the coastal hamlet of Tenaún who worked in the seafood industry, mostly in sustainable seaweed and shellfish gathering. So, with some advice from Barría, she gathered 11 of them together. The goal: to bring their work out of the shadows.

“We’re working in parallel with, not against, the men, so we are not looking to compete,” she clarifies, pulling a tray of baked snoek, or pike, out of an oven at Camping Hospedaje Tenaún, the ecotourism business she runs alongside her husband. “After all,” she adds, “we’re fighting for the same thing, which is the well-being of our families.”

De Lourdes’s cabins and campsites are perched just across from the town’s seafront. On the wall in the communal kitchen is a certificate from the local municipality honoring her role in empowering female fishers.

De Lourdes says she encourages women in her syndicate to add value to their raw products—principally by cutting out intermediaries. For example, in addition to serving food to tourists, she built a processing room last year. This allows her to clean and freeze conger eel, hake, pike, razor clams, and mussels, and sell them direct. “When we add value, we can make more money,” she says, noting she can earn four times as much for the same goods by preparing them for market. “So, I hope all of the women can reach the point where they can do this too.”

Luvy Jara & Cristina Nancuante

Shellfish collectors Luvy Jara Nancuante (left) and her mother, Cristina Nancuante, invite Barría one evening for a stroll past the emerald waters of the Tocoihue Estuary. It’s dusk, and mother and daughter are digging along the coastline for mussels and razor clams. They exchange the daily gossip and then visit a seafront memorial to Nancuante’s late husband (Jara’s dad). Off in the distance are the hulking platforms of an industrial salmon farm; here in the estuary, the sea is calm.

Nancuante says she first noticed outsiders poking around near Tocoihue back in 1990, so she went door to door with her daughter convincing neighbors to start a syndicate. The plan was to join together to protect these waters for the people who’ve subsisted on them for generations. “I’ve been fishing here since I was 16 years old, so I didn’t want anyone to take this beach away from me,” she says.

Three decades later, when she was in ailing health, Nancuante passed the torch to Jara, the current president of the syndicate, which has a membership of 10 women and five men. “I told my mom that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be president, but she told me, ‘If you aren’t the president, my daughter, the syndicate will fall apart, and all of my sacrifices will be in vain’,” Jara recalls. “This was her dream, so I said as long as she’s alive I’ll make sure that the syndicate stays alive too.”

Carmen Díaz

Pea-green hills emerge from a spectral fog as the small wooden fishing vessel Albatross sails east from the pier in Chonchi, a port town roughly 25 miles south of Dalcahue. In the captain’s chair is Carmen Díaz, president of one of the town’s fishing syndicates, in which 90% of the members are men. Díaz is one of the only only women on Chiloé to own her own boat, “but I hope it won’t always be that way,” she says, honking her horn in greeting to the fishers she passes.

Díaz anchors Albatross off the coast of a satellite island as her husband, Jaime Subiabre, wriggles into a thick wetsuit. Then, she readies an orange oxygen hose and checks the pressure gauge so Subiabre can dive in search of urchins, mussels, and octopus.

“The men here say that if a woman goes off in a boat, that boat will have bad luck,” Díaz says, monitoring the slack on the oxygen hose and receiving the catch each time Subiabre surfaces. “Believe me,” she adds, “it’s the exact opposite.”

Díaz has worked alongside Barría in both regional and national organizations to empower other women to fight for things like gaining formal recognition and payment for their work as well as adding permitting processes to add bathrooms for women at the docks. “Thank God women are actually rising in the syndicates—and are guiding other women—because now we’re fighting for our place,” she says, “and we’re starting to see the results.”

One of her biggest messages is one of economic independence. “When you receive your own money, it’s yours to spend,” she explains. “I, for example, love to read, but I couldn’t buy books before because my husband thought it was a waste of money. Now, I buy all the books that I want. It may sound insignificant to many people, but to buy my own books fills me with pride.”



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