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Seaweed a big crop in Chile
Japan and U.S. are major markets for processed 'pelillo'

CORRAL, Chile -- A diver tethered to a rowboat descends into the calm bay and resurfaces moments later with a bag full of the tangled seaweed known locally as "pelillo," or little hair.

This harvest is an important one for the people who live simply in this remote town on Chile's southern coast. They don't eat the seaweed -- but it helps them eat.The pelillo is converted into the fine, cream-colored powder of pure agar, most of which is shipped more than 10,000 miles across the Pacific to Japan, where it is used in noodles, candies, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other products. Some also goes to the United States.

In the increasingly global economy, companies are going to the ends of the Earth to find the goods they need.

The cool bay that laps at the shore of Corral is known for producing seaweed of good quality, and Japanese companies have turned to such places because harvesting is hard work with low pay that appeals to a dwindling number of Japanese.

Dependent on seasonal businesses -- fishing, logging and farming -- the town of less than 6,000 people welcomed the new business.

Rowboats dot the bay from September to March, when the weather is sunny enough to allow the seaweed to dry outdoors in this area 530 miles south of Santiago. Two-man crews row ashore with their boats loaded with seaweed, and they sell it to Victor Guajardo, a businessman who dries the moss-like plant in the sun and bags it in 55-pound sacks.

Within sight of a Spanish fort that once guarded the port, Guajardo's three teenage nieces help him clean the dried seaweed. They grab handfuls and shake free all that the frizzy filaments have collected -- dust, dead crabs and shellfish. Each full sack of clean seaweed sells for about 5,000 pesos, or $10, Guajardo says.

An industry to process this type of seaweed has taken root in Chile during the past two decades. Guajardo takes shipments across the bay to Valdivia, where he sells the seaweed to a middleman who then resells it to a Japanese-owned company, Proagar, in nearby Llanquihue.

At the company's processing plant, a Chilean manager, Manuel Gomez, explains that pure agar, often known as agar-agar, is released by treating the seaweed chemically and then boiling it. The seaweed is pulled from the sea with its natural greenish-brown color and finishes the process whitened, as if the life has been sucked from it.

The best seaweed for producing agar happens to grow in this part of Chile, Gomez says.

"In Japan, the production of agar-agar is limited because the pelillo is of lower quantity and quality," Gomez says.

His company, which claims to be the world's second-largest producer of pure agar, exports an average of about 880,000 pounds of it each year. While most of the agar goes to Japan, some also goes to the United States and other parts of Asia.

In Japan, the powder is made into thick noodles called "tokoroten," a dish with no calories that is eaten cold, usually with soy sauce, sesame seeds and mustard.

Agar also has other uses in Japan, the United States and other countries as a food thickener and stabilizer, lending its gelatinous texture to pastries, fruit jelly candies, chocolate fillings, some yogurts and some canned foods. It often is used as a culture medium in laboratory dishes.

Many of those who live in Corral know little about what the seaweed is used for except that it is exported to Asia.

In Japan, executives at the country's largest domestic maker of agar, Ina Food Industry Co., say Japan now imports about five times as much of this type of seaweed as it produces, because of the falloff in Japanese harvesters.

Chile has filled the void, becoming the largest exporter of agar to Japan, company officials say. Other countries producing agar include Morocco and Spain.

In Chile, Proagar's processing plant employs about 130 people. The company makes $6 million in sales a year, Gomez says.

Some of that money filters down to the people who row their boats away from the rocky shore into Corral's bay to collect the seaweed.

"Where there is money, you do something," says Guajardo. "Everyone keeps a little bit."