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Coronavirus pandemic revives the culture and economy of the world’s southernmost town

Lockdown restrictions in Puerto Williams, Chile, gave young people the opportunity to learn the ancestral crafts and the language of the Yaghan people

On March 21, 2020, the first case of the coronavirus was recorded in Puerto Williams, a small Chilean town that is famed for being the southernmost settlement in the world and which has been home for the past 7,000 years to the Yaghan indigenous people. Two days later, the authorities closed maritime entry points and airspace, limited economic activity to essential business only and ordered a strict lockdown. According to Maritime Studies, one of the leading social sciences and humanities publications in the world, the quarantine measures had the effect of reviving some ancestral cultural practices that had been in danger of disappearing for some time, including traditional artisan work and use of the Yaghan language. The lockdown also strengthened intergenerational links in the community and led children and young people to once again feel identified as indigenous people.

The report documented the way of life of 94 members of the Yaghan community in Puerto Williams during the harshest months of the pandemic. Gustavo Blanco, a professor at the Austral University of Chile’s Institute of History and Social Sciences and the lead author of the study, said the lockdown reinforced the relationship between the elders in the community and the newer generations. This renewed bond helped to “revive artisanal practices with palm fiber that had been in decline,” says Blanco. “When you are stuck indoors at home for months, you have the opportunity to get to know aspects of your culture that are being lost and learn how to recover them.”

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