Chile: Protecting Patagonia from Hydroelectric Destruction in Aysén

According to activist Peter Hartmann, a new energy project "implies destroying everything, taking everything out of the region without leaving much behind."  Two of Chile’s largest energy companies, Endesa and Colbún, are hoping to gain government approval to begin construction on a massive hydroelectric project in Region XI, an area of northern Patagonia that’s also known as Aysén.

If approved, their so-called Aysén Project – a US$2.5 billion scheme to build two dams on each of the regions largest rivers, the Baker and the Pasqua – would be the largest hydroelectric venture ever built in Chile. Together the four dams would generated an estimated 2,400 megawatts. According to the companies, this is energy that Chile desperately needs. The project also calls for constructing a 1,200-mile, US$1.5 billion transmission line – the world’s longest – to transport that electricity from Aysén to Central and North Chile, where consumption is highest.

HidroAyén, the joint-company especially created for the venture, insists the project would benefit both Aysén and Chile as a whole. Nevertheless, the Aysén Project has attracted a long list of opponents, both in Chile and abroad. On the local level, at least a dozen smaller organizations – based principally in the Region XI towns of Cochrane and Coyhaique – have come together as the Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve. One of those smaller organizations is the Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna (CODEFF), whose regional director is Peter Hartmann.

In the interview below, Hartmann, an architect, environmentalist and mountaineer, speaks at length about "the wonder that is Patagonia." He also questions why Chile’s wealthy mining companies, which are alone responsible for much of the country’s growing appetite for electricity, don’t invest some of the money they’re earning in developing their own sources of electricity.

Benjamin Witte: What is the Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve hoping to accomplish?

Peter Hartmann: This Coalition came together in January of last year. Our specific goals have been to establish a critical stance to the (Aysén) Project and, because no one else was doing so, to educate the people about what’s really going on here. We also want to defend the development model we ourselves have chosen for the region.

The biggest problem is that (the project) is incompatible with the development model we’ve chosen for the region, which is development by and for the people of the region, making use of the region’s exceptional qualities without destroying them. These development models that come from outside, these mega-projects, are the complete opposite. They imply destroying everything, taking everything out of the region without leaving much behind.

So that’s out first concern. Also, if we want to look closely at the possible impacts (this project) could have… These projects are immense, on a scale that is absolutely unmanageable for this region. They’re unmanageable because this region is very fragile, ecologically, geologically as well as culturally. For example, in the area where they want to build the HidroAysén mega-project, there are as many people living there as the company is going to need to build the dams. So imagine what that means – practically doubling the area’s population. In my opinion, that’s something that’ll be impossible to manage.

BW: Tell me about the area where HidroAysén is planning to build the four dams? If I were to go there, what would I see?

PH: You’d see something similar to what you’d find in Aysén as a whole, which is the wonder of Patagonia. It’s a very mountainous area with some valleys through which magnificent rivers flow – two of the biggest in Chile, which are the Baker and the Pasqua. The Baker is the most voluminous in the country. The Pasqua is the third most voluminous. Relatively speaking the Baker isn’t on a steep grade. The Pasqua is much more sloped. The Baker is more or less well known, powerful, like I said, but navigable for the most part. It also has parts, though, with very strong currents. It’s a great place for kayaking, for water sports, although that’s something that’s relatively new there. The Pasqua, on the other hand, is very wild, very pristine, almost unknown and very difficult to get to.

Like in all of Aysén, it’s a pristine area that has tremendous environmental value and an interesting cultural value as well… Along both rivers there are huemules (deer-like animals indigenous to Patagonia). Along both there are other endangered fauna, for which those areas are some of the few habitats they have left on the planet. The water in both rivers is of exceptionally high quality. Both rivers boast really spectacular landscapes, with waterfalls and rapids as well as calm areas. There are some beautiful forests. There is a forest ecosystem there that’s unique in the entire country, which is the Baker Evergreen Mixed Forest… And of course there is also huge energy potential there. It’s not by coincidence that the energy companies are there, very interested in exploring that potential.

BW: Speaking of those companies, Endesa argues that Chile very much needs Aysén’s energy resources. But are there alternatives?

PH: The energy companies are like the old time hunters who want to kill an elephant first and only then, go out hunting for antelope. In this case, they’re going for the biggest thing first. After that they’ll go around grabbing whatever’s left. (That’s their strategy) . . . even when killing an elephant means wasting half the meat, or even if hunting that elephant is tremendously costly. We think that it would be better to go for something smaller rather than something huge.

So of course, there are a ton of alternatives. One option is smaller scale hydroelectric alternatives, in which there are a lot of megawatts available. (Those potential megawatts) . . . also happen to be located much closer to where they’re needed. There are a lot of megawatts available in wind energy, which could also be generated closer to where the energy’s needed. There are thousands of megawatts available in the northern desert from solar energy. Why don’t the mines that are earning billions of dollars with the high price of copper invest some of that money and generate their own solar energy, up there in the north, instead of waiting for Endesa to come here and then transport the electricity 2,000 kilometers. That’s just crazy. It’s the most unsustainable thing imaginable.

Of course there are also alternatives like geothermal energy, in the north and central parts of the country. (Chile) is full of volcanoes where they could harvest heat and produce thermal energy. It would probably even cheaper than transporting electricity so far.

BW: Do you feel optimistic that the coalition will be able to block these dam projects?

PH: Of course we feel optimistic. If not, we wouldn’t be working on this. We’re very optimistic. Clearly this isn’t an easy task. But all of these projects have their weak points, areas that we try to highlight. In fact, they have many weak points. And we’ve got a lot of strengths, both weaknesses and strengths. We’re trying to work with the very people who would be affected by the project, with the people from the areas through which they want to route the power lines… We also have international support and we’ve been able to accomplish so many things this year that we’re now able to bring to the campaign. What’s more, we know from (the companies) themselves that this opposition makes things very complicated for them. They need to get financing and credit and apparently, the lending institutions don’t like where there is this much opposition.

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