Chile: Campaign To Block Aysén Dams Gains Momentum

A growing movement to block construction of several large hydroelectric dams in northern Patagonia, Region XI, may be on its way to becoming one the biggest environmental campaigns ever, according to the influential U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"Over the last few months I’ve seen that the interest in Patagonia and in this campaign has really grown. I believe that it could be over time one of the largest environmental campaigns in history," Jacob Scherr, the NRDC’s international programs director, told reporters during a press conference Saturday.

"The reason I say that is because not only does it involve an extraordinarily special place with extraordinarily special people, but also because it’s symbolic of what the entire planet is facing, which is getting the energy we need to develop but also trying to protect the planet from the threat of global warming."

Scherr’s comments came at the tail end of a week-long visit to Chile by the NRDC, which in the past six months has become an increasingly active participant in the anti-dam campaign. Accompanied by veteran Chilean ecologist Juan Pablo Orrego and famous rock musician Beto Cuevas – former front man for the Grammy-winning group La Ley – Scherr and his colleagues spent most of their visit in Regions X and XI.

While there the group met with a wide range of local dam opponents, among them leaders of the Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve, representatives from the National Organization of Young Tehuelches and Aysén Bishop Luis Infanti. They also had an opportunity to visit Chile’s largest river, the Baker, which two of Chile’s largest utility companies – Endesa and Colbún – are eventually hoping to dam.

"It’s one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen in my life – very fast moving, extraordinary turquoise color," said Scherr. "I thought about the flow of that river, and the life there that had probably gone unchanged for thousands of years. And then I looked up to the mountain towering above the river, and realized that there is a glacier there that provides the water to that river and that glacier, like every other glacier in Chile, is rapidly melting."

For more than a year now, Endesa and Colbún – through a joint venture called HidroAysén – have been working on their so-called Aysén Project. Considered the most ambitious energy endeavor in Chile’s history, the estimated US$4 billion project involves plans to build four massive dams: two on the Baker and two on the Pascua, Region XI’s second biggest river. Together these dams would generate an estimated 2,400 MW – energy, say backers of the project, that would go a long way toward meeting Chile’s growing demand for electricity (ST, Jan. 31).

A Swiss mining company called Xstrata – formerly Falconbridge – has also presented plans for an Aysén dam. Slated for the Cuervo River, Xstrata’s dam would cost an estimated US$600 million and produce approximately 600 MW (ST, Jan. 5).

"This is a zone with huge hydroelectric potential that has been studied for more than 40 years, going back to the time when Endesa Chile was state-owned," HidroAysén, a joint entity formed by Endesa-Colbún, explained in written statement.

"Its development is closely linked to Chile’s medium and long-term energy needs. We’re using a renewable and competitive resource that’s clean and available domestically. (Also) the Baker and Pascua Rivers basin is much more stable than tow located in the central part of the county, which allows for energy production that is not as subject to the arbitrary nature of seasons and the climate."

But while opponents agree that Chile’s growing energy needs are indeed a pressing reality, large-scale hydroelectric production, they argue, is a poor and outdated method of supplying that electricity demand. To start with, the massive dams would be environmentally devastating. Not only would they involve widespread flooding, but they also call for building a 2,000-kilometer transmission line – the world’s longest – that would literally cut through acres upon acres of both protected and unprotected wilderness area (ST, March 14).

"We’re convinced that there are alternatives, starting with energy efficiency. So far in Chile, nothing has been done in that respect," Juan Pablo Orrego, head of the Santiago-based organization Ecosistemas, said during the Saturday press conference. "Chile is a country that is particularly rich in sources of non-conventional, renewable energy. We urgently need to get ourselves up-to-date, to join the 21st century and develop modern, intelligent and efficient electricity."

It’s also important, he added, that before deciding whether or not to approve the dam projects the government take into account input from the general public.

Contrary to popular knowledge, explained Beto Cuevas, those areas are not uninhabited. "Many people in Chile think there’s no one there, that it’s a remote area where almost nobody lives," the well-known rock star said. "But there are people that live there, people who have their very own lifestyle. It seems to me that in a democracy like Chile’s, we can’t just go down there and trample on the land, trample on the people just because they’re a minority."

This is not the first time that Orrego, Cuevas and the Scherr have collaborated. In the 1990s, the three participated in a campaign to halt dam construction along Chile’s Bio Bio River, Region VIII. Despite their efforts, in September 2004 Endesa inaugurated its 570-MW Raclo dam, currently the country’s largest.

"I think Chile is really at a crossroads," said Scherr. "It can pursue an outdated, outmoded energy policy involving large mega-dams in the south that would destroy Patagonia, or, with our help and the help of other institutions, (it can) pursue an energy policy which is geared toward the 21st century."

Benjamin Witte is a U.S.-Canadian freelancer based in Santiago, Chile.