Adrift on Robinson Crusoe Island, the forgotten few

When the wave struck, islanders were abandoned to their fate. Patrick Bodenham reports from the Juan Fernandez archipelago.

As Chile's President, Sebastian Piñera, basked in the plaudits that followed the successful rescue of 33 trapped miners, he toured European capitals handing out chunks of rock to national leaders retrieved from the bottom of the San Jose mine. David Cameron received his mounted piece of rock; in return he handed over a copy of
Robinson Crusoe.

It may have seemed a curious diplomatic exchange, but it highlighted an earlier event that rocked Chile in 2010. An earthquake in February triggered a tsunami that raced across the ocean and struck the Juan Fernandez archipelago: a crown-shaped series of peaks that rise vertically from the sea nearly 700km from Chile's Pacific coast. Among them was Robinson Crusoe Island, home to 600 people in its only village.

It was on this island that the Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk, whose adventures are said to have inspired Defoe to write the novel, lived for four years and four months.

But a mix-up between the Chilean Navy and tsunami alert services meant that its modern-day residents received no official warning. As the tsunami raced across the sea, the fate of the islanders was left in the hands of 12-year-old Martina Maturana.

Awake at night, she saw the fishing boats bouncing in the harbour and sprinted 400 metres from her home, sounding a village gong to signal a warning. Many ran, but when the huge swell struck most were still in bed. The wave was five metres high when it struck the town killing 16 and leaving around 25 families with no home.

While the rescue of "los 33" resulted in a tremendous image boost for Chile, the country's response to the disaster on Robinson Crusoe Island has left the government with a rather different legacy: a huge court case, and an even bigger clean-up operation to try to rebuild a dwindling and wayward community. The village's population has gone down by about a third as non-islanders, who had arrived to set up tourism and fishing companies, have left in droves. Even Martina Maturana, who has since become a heroic figure in Chilean media, has left for the mainland.

For the remaining villagers, symbolic gestures such as a candlelight vigil by Mr Piñera – who was just days from being sworn in as president when the tsunami struck – and a bouquet of flowers in the shape of a Chilean flag lowered into the sea, mean absolutely nothing. "All we heard about on TV was miners, miners, miners." says Claudio Chamorro, a fisherman. "The government had that one in the bag. But here we all are still with nothing."

The complaints are shared on Chile's mainland. "It was completely avoidable," says Kathy Kaufmann, a Santiago-based lawyer who has been following a case launched by the villagers against the state. "The destruction wasn't, but they should have had plenty of time. The island had over an hour, had anybody bothered to tell them.

"Here we have several people who died as the result of a tsunami that everyone knows happened. Everyone knows these people were killed, everybody knows how much time they had, everyone knows the rest only escaped because Martina rang the gong. That was the only warning. In other words, what did the government do? Can they prove they took all reasonable measures to avoid the deaths? No, they can't. They're liable."

During Selkirk's time, the island was used by British merchant ships as an important stopping point for the scurvy-ridden crews on their way round Cape Horn. Other groups have since tried and failed to settle on the remote island range, from South American Jesuits to Spanish soldiers, exiled convicts and Chilean separatists. Now the few people there are fourth generation descendants of pirates, prisoners and prostitutes who grow ever more suspicious of monthly visits from Chilean naval vessels, packed with social workers, architects and planning officers.

They wait for the navy ship drinking beer with lobsters laid out for sale on the jetty. Behind them a flat strip of land covered in flowers and row upon row of twisted metal pulled up from the harbour are all that remains of the entire lower portion of their town. Others islanders mill around in a group on the wasteland where their homes once were, awaiting government aid to rebuild their village.

The British embassy in Santiago has been leading an international effort to gather copies of the novel Robinson Crusoe. Many years of pilgrimages and donations since the island was renamed in honour of the book in the 1960s left it with a collection of beautifully illustrated copies, in languages as diverse as Russian, Italian, Basque, Galician, Greek, Chinese, and Sanskrit.

But the wave demolished the island's library, its town hall, civil registry office, museum, cultural centre, naval offices, post office, school and every single shop on the island. None of these has yet been rebuilt.

The cracking and roaring sound as the wave tore through the village still haunts Victorio Bertullo, retired history teacher at the village school and former patron of the lost Robinson Crusoe collection. As new copies of the book sent by the British embassy begin piling in, Bertullo stacks them in cardboard boxes to await their new home.

"There's still a fear of the sea," he says. "Every time there's a siren people get jumpy and think something's happening. But I think most people have made their peace with it already. The sea brings us a lot, but when it gets angry, or if starts to think we don't deserve it, it can take everything away again."

Oreana Vargas is head of the government reconstruction programme, and is also faced with the difficult task of relocating 25 families. "Everything you need to make a city work disappeared, so on this front we have to start afresh," she said. But making the islanders content with the new plans has proved nearly impossible.

Legislation set in place to protect the new buildings from future tsunamis has put a limit on residential building in the area hit by the tsunami, leaving the unhappy reconstruction co-ordinators a tiny slither of land to work with, sandwiched between the seaside area and the steep, volcanic mountains behind.

The islanders have their own ideas. Houses are springing up around the bay despite the new regulations. "They're going to slab us up in a bunch of boxes, side by side with one another like the favelas," said Maria-Eugenia Beéche Brum, 69, who arrived with her daughter to the island nearly 20 years ago.

"The local history is one of colonisation and pressures. People come and stay a while, it doesn't work and then they leave again," said Vargas. Today the island's inhabitants trap and export the abundant lobster population.

Rich from cash made selling lobsters to the mainland, the residents have little to spend their money on. A peculiar outcome is an abundance of pedigree dogs purchased for huge sums of money and imported to the island, where they roam the streets freely. "They are rebuilding their history by recognising their pirate heritage," Vargas says.

"At the bottom of it they've really formed their identity on the idea of being wild. They go hunting with rifles. And if they're hungry they catch a fish. And the fish is a metre and a half long. So it's like they're living in this Jurassic Park, only half way there."

Since the wave destroyed everything, the community has been plagued by terrified people taking things for themselves. "When there's an emergency situation, sometimes people get together and help out," said Vargas. "But at other times amid all the desperation, the best doesn't always come out."

The looting in the aftermath of the tsunami on Robinson Crusoe Island has not been as bad as in other parts of Chile, but the mistrust caused is palpable nonetheless. Two small hook-shaped tattoos on the forefingers of Maria-Eugenia and her daughter Francisca – the secret sign for buried treasure – reveal their reasons for moving to the island. For 60 years, Maria-Eugenia has been searching.

They escaped the tsunami but have since been staying in a half-built house lent to them by another islander who remains on the mainland. While he was away, the house was occupied by local fishermen as a gutting factory to sell fillets to the mainland. Blood stains mark the floor where Maria-Eugenia scrubbed for days to clean off the fish gore. "They'll take anything you leave out in the open," she says, and has fought to keep glass windows in the house, gas tanks and tools.

Half of the objects displayed around Maria-Eugenia's room, including the kitchen table, she says, were her own belongings that she retrieved from other people's living rooms. Displayed on a table beneath an etching of the British pirate Captain John Rackham, her dented collection of silverware is all she managed to salvage from her own house. "I knew it was mine because I was the only person on the island who had any."

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