Outrage at HidroAysén Dams Raises Environmental and Political Consciousness in Chile

Since mid-April, the planned construction of 5 hydroelectric dams in the ecologically rich region of Aysén in Southern Chile has produced persistent floods of protesters in the streets and plazas of cities spanning the length of the country.

May 28 march in Santiago. Sign: Plebiscite to save PatagoniaSince mid-April, the planned construction of 5 hydroelectric dams in the ecologically rich region of Aysén in Southern Chile has produced persistent floods of protesters in the streets and plazas of cities spanning the length of the country.

Marches and demonstrations have only become larger and more widespread since May 9th, when a government commission approved the $3.2 billion dams – the first of two parts of Hidroaysén’s hydroelectric mega project- in an almost unanimous vote (11 votes in favor, one abstention). Before HidroAysén can begin construction, the same commission must vote on electrical lines that would run the length of the country. But with the voting committee facing a judicial appeal of its evaluation and demands of a plebiscite growing, it is clear that few are holding their breath for the outcome.

The umbrella campaign “Patagonia Sin Represas” (Patagonia Without Dams) distributes posters of yet-un-built electrical towers hovering over species unique to Patagonia that graze beneath pristine snow-capped mountains. The images are meant to evoke a patriotic instinct to protect the integrity of Chile’s natural wonders.

But this has become much more than an environmental movement. “HydroAysén is like the symbol of everything that has been imposed authoritatively in Chile,” proclaimed ecologist Sara Larraín, Director of Chile Sustentable, in an interview with Radio Tierra.

What made this hydroelectric plant so objectionable to environmental activists in the first place?

A principal concern is that the dams will flood 6,000 hectares (almost 15,000 acres) of partially protected land. HidroAysén’s website counters that this is only 5% of the land that makes up Patagonia. The company also makes the controversial projection that Chile’s energy demand will triple within 20 years and promotes itself as a clean, domestic, affordable energy source. Uncontested is the fact that the hydroelectric plants would pump 2,750 Megawatts of electricity into Chile’s Central Interconnected System, serving most citizens as well as Chile’s large mining industry.

President Piñera has framed the scope and urgency of the project as the only logical way to continue to develop economically and avoid “condemning the country to a blackout towards the end of the decade” (El Mostrador).

But members of “Patagonia Sin Represas,” with its now ubiquitous slogan, reject both the rhetoric and many of the technical claims used in support of HidroAysén as alarmist and misrepresentative of Chile’s real energy needs and alternatives. “No, we will not end up in the dark [without HidroAysén],” said Flabia Liberona, Executive Director of Chilean environmental organization Terram, responding to Chileans’ fears on Radio Tierra. “Without HidroAysén we will not have a problem satisfying Chile’s energy demands tomorrow, nor in the next 10, or even 15 years.”

In Chile, the controversy has sparked a much-needed popular discourse about both alternative energy sources and personal energy usage. People are starting to demand that the government define a comprehensive energy policy independent of corporate interests. As the project has barreled forward in the last few years, studies by regional, national, and international environmental NGOs attempting to respond to claims about HidroAysén and provide recommendations for energy policy in Chile have multiplied.

According to a May 2011 report by the National Resource Defense Council, an internationally recognized NGO based in the US, “Taking into account the high-quality renewable resources available in Chile, the fall of the prices of ERNC (Renewable Non-Conventional Energy) technology, and the increase in the prices of fossil fuels, important sources of ERNC are already competitive in Chile.” The report proposes a policy that favors a competitive market for ERNC in order to promote economic development along with the improvement of solar energy from the Atacama Desert, geothermal energy, and smaller hydroelectric plants, among other possibilities.

“The recent earthquake in Japan and the earthquake in Chile demonstrate that energy security is essential for a country’s development,” notes a report by Energía Sustentable and the University of Chile. It suggests that it is unsafe to rely so heavily on one central source of electricity like HidroAysén.

Beyond claims that there are better alternatives, HidroAysén has been bombarded by accusations of falsifications and omissions in its environmental impact reports (the principal legal basis for government approval of such projects, according to the Environmental Foundation Law, 19.300). The company also faces disapproval by the majority of local Aysén residents, according to a May poll by Fundación Aysén Futuro.

President Piñera’s continued support for the project has not boded well for his perceived legitimacy, either.

On May 21st, a day typically marked by demonstrations, HidroAsyén was the main target of the protests that raged outside of the first parliamentary session of the season in the port city of Valparaíso; inside, President Sebastián Piñera fiercely defended both HidroAysén and his position on popular sentiments regarding the project.

“A president should be able to lift his gaze, look beyond the next elections and assume his responsibility to his country. I am very clear on my responsibility to the environment, but I am also very clear on my responsibility to development!” said President Piñera in his state of the union address. His message was also very clear: his administration’s support of HidroAysén would not be subject to the influence of environmental organizations or Chilean citizens.

HidroAysén was the principal cause of the recent drop in President Piñera’s approval rating to its lowest level yet, 36%, according to a report published by Adimark on June 2nd. “There is a kind of general uneasiness that people cultivate and look for. There are anti-system factors,” Senator Carlos Larraín told Radio ADN in response to the data. “There is no reason to ask politics for what it cannot offer.” Are people, in fact, asking too much of the current system?

“Today in Chile, with our regulatory framework, companies decide how and where and when they install their projects and with what technology they do it and the government does not have any instrument with which to strategize,” said Liberona. With a constitution that was created in 1980 under the strict neo-liberalism of the Pinochet era, the Chilean government is, in a sense, disempowered in its ability to regulate private companies—especially when it comes to water rights.

Chile’s Water Code (Código de Aguas) of 1981 distributed permanent and freely transferable rights to the “aprovechamiento,” or exploitation, of Chile’s waters to whomever would make the most efficient use of the resource. The law goes on to say that anyone with the right to use a body of water must also be guaranteed the means with which to do so, and can solicit these means from the state (www.leychile.cl). Law 20.099, passed in 2006, attempted to make the code less absolute, for instance, by requiring that entities justify their use of the water.

So who owns the water in Patagonia? HidroAysén is a partnership between Endesa Chile (a subsidiary of Endesa España), and the Chilean company Colbún. Endesa Chile has held water rights in Patagonia and many other parts of Chile for decades. The company was privatized in the late 1980s and its water rights have switched hands with its ownership ever since. Today, 92% of Endesa and its water rights are owned by the Italian-based international energy giant ENEL.

Still, HidroAysén prides itself on the investment it has made in the local community. The company does promise to generate some employment for local citizens. The company projects it will generate between a few hundred and 5,000 jobs per year during the decade in which the dams are constructed. Once construction is finished, the plant will require little human power.

May 28 march in Santiago. Sign: Plebisicite nowArch Bishop of Aysén Luis Infanti has long voiced his opposition to water privatization in Aysén and denounces HidroAysén’s investments in the economically struggling region as attempts to bribe local residents and institutions, including the Catholic Church. “Soccer clubs, sports teams, helping municipalities, cultural activities… These are many ways of taking over the voice and the consciousness of local institutions,” he said.

Bishop Infanti has helped Patagonia Sin Represas gain international support. In May, he made a three-week speaking tour of Italy in an attempt to bring religious and academic audiences into the struggle. “It was very well received by diverse audiences,” said Bishop Infanti. “And for the large majority, it came as a surprise that ENEL is the owner of the waters of Chile. Understanding that ENEL is the owner of these waters in Chile bothered people and the movement Patagonia Sin Represas is growing in Italy, too.”

Expansion of the movement is key. Even as Senate President Guido Girardi leads the appeal of government’s evaluation of HidroAysén, he downplays the significance of any institutional measures he could take to reverse the project’s path to approval. “More important than the judicial claims is the fact that young people have been so mobilized,” Girardi said. “As many as 70,000 people have taken to the streets in a single demonstration to protest. The judgment of the people seems more relevant to me than what the courts decide.”

On Saturday, March 28, at least 40,000 people (and as many as 70,000, depending on who is asked) marched along the main avenue in Santiago to protest HidroAysén. Chaotic footage of previous HidroAysén rallies on network news programs portrayed protests as excuses for anarchists to be destructive or police officers to spray tear gas, depending on the viewer’s perspective. In contrast, this rally brought out whole families after lunch and lasted until after dark, notably without incident. The recent grassroots growth of the movement, evident in marches across the country as well as street art, guerrilla theater, and other forms of protest, has caught even long-time environmental organizers off guard.

“There may not have been manifestations with as much strength, with 40,000 people, since the ‘No’ campaign,” said long-time activist, professor, and Civil Industrial Electrical Engineer, Claudio Escobar Cáceres. He was referring to the campaign to vote “No” to extend Pinochet’s rule in the 1988 plebiscite that ultimately ended his dictatorship. The same allusion may be intended in the banners, signs, and at least one popular song that now demand a plebiscite on the issue of HidroAysén.

“For me, what’s happening right now is very mysterious,” said Escobar, who mounts a one-man protest of HidroAysén outside of La Moneda every Thursday afternoon. “During [the previous government,] La Concertación, they approved many projects that were environmentally destructive to the country…Maybe, by some stroke of luck, with Patagonia, the glass of discontents overflowed, and people finally took to the streets to protest with force.”

The Piñera-themed chants and masks that get people particularly riled up at rallies may also provide a clue as to the sudden willingness to protest. Even Chileans who are aware of the continuity between administrations will admit that protesting government policies sanctioned by an openly right-wing millionaire president yields the kind of conviction that could not be found protesting the ostensibly socialist Concertación.

President Piñera has recently attempted to respond to citizen demands by announcing the creation of a committee to discuss the country’s energy policy. Senator Girardi swiftly rejected the legitimacy of this gesture by inviting representatives of several of the environmental organizations in Patagonia Sin Represas to join his new Citizen Energy Policy Commission (Comisión de Energía Política-Ciudadana), which will operate parallel to that of the administration.

For many Chileans, mistrust of electoral politics runs deep, and at least one of the energy experts Girardi invited to the table refused, regarding the commission as little more than political theater. “Today I received an invitation to do a presentation for the commission,” said Juan Pablo Orrego, President of Ecosistemas and member of the advisory board of Patagonia Sin Represas. “We [Ecosistemas] are never going to participate in any session held by Girardi.”

Orrego made the comment during a talk on HidroAysén before a packed coffee house. An international audience of engineers and political activists, college students and elderly couples, collectively struggled with the nexus of political, economic, historical, and ecological forces that HidroAysén represents. More than one attendee began to despair midway through, voicing strong hopes that there was a light at the end of the PowerPoint.

No one is sure why exactly HidroAysén has garnered so much support in comparison with other causes, or whether the movement will be able to maintain its momentum. “Protesting HidroAysén is the just the most politically correct thing to do right now,” said Rodrigo Contreras, an activist for indigenous rights at the March 28 rally, who lamented people’s lack of solidarity with other social movements. “At marches for the [since terminated] Mapuche hunger strike against Chile’s Antiterrorist Law, there are sometimes 40 people.”

Escobar, Liberona, and Orrego have seen a lot of causes come and go, but they have all cautiously regarded citizens’ unexpected appropriation of “Patagonia Sin Represas” as a potentially historical political awakening that might result in future citizen solidarity. The current university marches and strikes for more affordable education may be a sign of sustainable youth mobilization. “With any luck” Escobar said, “this is the expression of a civic maturity of a people that feels empowered enough to take to the streets and express what they think is wrong.”

Caroline is a journalist currently based in Santiago with a Fulbright grant to do research on community radio stations in Chile.