Tree planting for victims began as a virtual forest in Oxford, 2002.

Today, Chileans mark the 50th anniversary of the bloody US-backed military coup d’état that killed President Salvador Allende, putting an end to democratic rule and unleashing a systematic reign of terror to crush thousands of supporters of the socialist government in Chile. That day and the seventeen years that followed saw our loved ones brutally murdered or disappeared and our elected government overthrown. 

A month ago, I was gardening with my brother and his children in his garden. My brother explained to his kids that digging the holes to plant the shrubs reminded him of the ditch he had to dig a few days after the coup. They had to bring out all our family albums and go through each photo one by one. Any photo that had a socialist in the picture went into the hole, as did every book, poster and record that could be deemed socialist. They burned the piles of photographs, books, posters and family memories and filled in the ditch once it had all turned to ash.

First and second-generation Chilean exiles link hands around Parliament Square on the eve of the Law Lords’ ruling on Pinochet’s immunity from prosecution for murder and other crimes, 23 March 1999 Photo: Stella Franceskides

This story of destroying old memories, and creating new ones, is something familiar to all refugees, exiles and survivors of the coup. Memory is fundamental to the struggles of survival and justice for the victims of the Pinochet regime. As the regime made thousands of people disappear, they robbed their families of a chance to know what happened to their loved ones and, therefore, to grieve and find closure.

Since arriving in the UK, the Chilean exile community has tirelessly searched for our loved ones and campaigned for justice and an end to impunity in Chile. MemoriaViva is the primary record of the thousands of people who lost their lives, the disappeared detainees, political executions, victims of political imprisonment and torture, internal relegation and forced exile. Their only crime was their hope for a better world. This record holds the perpetrators to account, as well as providing the biographies and stories of their victims,  including the story of my brother, who was murdered and made to disappear simply for working at a factory and being a member of a trade union.

First and second-generation Chilean exiles outside Wentworth Estate, Virginia Water, where Pinochet was under house arrest in 1999. Image: Stella Franceskides

Today, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coup, we are opening a forest in Curacautín, Chile. Ecomemoria is a memory forest in which each planted tree is dedicated to a victim of the Pinochet dictatorship, with every tree bearing the name of the person it honours and a QR code leading to their biography. Ecomemoria is the materialisation of memory, a commitment to history, and a tribute to those who endured unimaginable horrors.

While we once dug ditches to bury the memories of our loved ones and evidence of their socialist politics, we now dig to plant trees in their memory, and to celebrate their lives, hopes and dreams.  

The creation of this ecological space is an act of resistance against injustice and impunity, ensuring these horrific crimes are never forgotten. It aims to recover the aspirations that were cut short for all the victims and place them at the centre of Chile’s historical memory.

Three generations searching for justice for their loved one, Irán Calzadilla, murdered in 1973. The sister said, with tears in her eyes, when she saw the tree planted in memory of her brother, ‘I now know that Irán will live, through this tree and here, forever’.

In the 503 days before Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in London, activists followed the dictator around the city, reading the names of the victims one by one. During one of the events, we planted 3,692 crosses for all the political execution victims, with names and photographs of the detained-disappeared individuals in front of parliament. This event was impactful, but at the end of the day, everything had to be packed away. That’s where the idea of creating a native forest and naming each tree after a victim was born — a testimony that will endure for centuries.

Curacautín, Chile 6 May 2023. Relatives of the disappeared planting the first trees in Chile. Photo: Nicole Drouilly.

Ecomemoria is also a response to the ecocide and mass deforestation that the ‘Chicago-boys-free-market Chile’ era of the ’70s and ‘80s carried out and maintained long after the coup. The dictatorship not only left an indelible mark on people’s lives but also had a devastating impact on nature. During that dark period, practices that severely harmed the natural environment, from uncontrolled resource exploitation to environmental degradation, took place. This dual tragedy, both human and environmental, underscores the importance of initiatives like Ecomemoria, which seek to heal wounds in both society and the land, restoring memory and balance with nature.

To date, more than a thousand native trees have been planted, coming from direct donations from individuals, feminist organisations, environmentalists, local farmers, Mapuche communities and workers Unions such as the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile (CUT), the Agrupación Nacional de Empleados Fiscales (ANEF) and Modatina Wallmapu, either contributing financially or working together to create the forest. 

You can help us to realise our goal of planting a tree for every victim by sponsoring a tree. We can only respond to the brutality of a dictatorship with life.

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