Tough Questions for Chile as Ongoing Protests Stall Patagonian Dam Project

Protest in Coyhaique, Chile, sm

Many Chileans are asking themselves what kind of energy future they want for their country. As the growing nation faces higher energy demands and prices. Government officials and business leaders have long seen the HidroAysén Dam project as the ultimate solution to expand the country’s electric grid, but the project has met met with fierce, sometimes violent resistance from student protesters in Santiago and residents of Chile’s Patagonia.

Protest in Coyhaique, Chile.

Protest in Coyhaique, Chile. Photo By Diego Cupolo.

Three white windmills whirl high in the mountains above Coyhaique, one of southern Chile’s largest cities, and Patricio Segura Ortiz points often in their direction as he talks about the nation’s energy future. Sitting behind his desk in the cluttered office of Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams), a national organization against the construction of hydroelectric plants in the region, Segura becomes animated as he speaks about the HidroAysén $11 billion megaproject that aims to build five dams in two of Patagonia’s largest rivers.

“I understand that we might need more electricity in the future, but this isn’t the kind of discussion we can have over Microsoft Excel spreadsheets,” he said. “When you look at a mountain full of forests do you see furniture and plywood or do you see a national park? Is a river the vein of our natural resources or is it nothing more than a producer of megawatts? This discussion is much larger than figures and calculations and basic economic questions. Here at Patagonia Sin Represas, we ask what kind of a country do we want to build?”

Protest in Coyhaique, Chile.It’s a question many Chileans are asking as the growing nation faces higher energy demands and prices. Government officials and business leaders have long seen HidroAysén as the ultimate solution to expand the country’s electric grid, but the project was met with fierce, sometimes violent resistance from student protesters in Santiago and residents of Chile’s Patagonia.

As a result, the project has suffered endless delays, falling four years behind schedule as monthly demonstrations, headed by Patagonia Sin Represas, continue throughout the nation. The constant turmoil has caused Colbun, a 49 percent shareholder in HidroAysén, to consider selling its stake, raising uncertainty over the project’s future.

Still, “there is nothing definite that will or will not happen,” according to Segura. HidroAysén was given the land and water rights to construct the dams in 2011 and is currently awaiting government approval to build nearly 2,000 km (1,300 m) of high voltage transmission lines that would relay electricity from the country’s southern regions to the nation’s central grid.

In the meantime, HidroAysén has begun a new public relations campaign in response to the opposition, with one television ad in particular depicting a scene where the lights go out on surgeons as they perform an operation in a hospital, insinuation the consequences if the construction of the dams is halted. Regardless, environmentalists like Segura remain unconvinced and vow to continue fighting.

“The biggest lie about the dams is that they are being built for Chileans,” he said. “HidroAysén is there to provide more energy to the mines; it’s not for hospitals or schools or anything that has to do with the common people. They want to run gigantic power lines through half of this country, through its most preserved and natural areas, to support the copper mines in the north, and we ask them to look into alternatives with less environmental impacts, but they won’t do it. There is too much profit to be made from a project of this magnitude.”

Growing Nation, Growing Needs

The idea behind HidroAysén is nothing new. The damming of the Baker and the Pascua rivers, the two most voluminous rivers in Chilean Patagonia, has been on the drawing boards since the 1940s, but never moved forward due to geographical limitations. As technology and accessibility to the area improved, the project was reintroduced in the late-2000s as HidroAysén, a joint venture between Chilean/Spanish-owned Colbun and Endesa, the nation’s largest utility company.

The Baker River near proposed dam site.Despite popular opposition, HidroAysén received government approval to construct five dams – two in the Baker River and three in the Pascua River – that are expected to generate 2,750 MegaWatts annually. The decision gave fire to public demonstrations, which reached a violent climax in March, 2012 and put further decisions regarding the transmission line on hold. At the moment, a new government-appointed ministerial group is reviewing the HidroAysén proposal.

Still, the core issue remains the same. Government officials insist Chile needs significant upgrades to its electric grid if the country is to keep expanding at its current rate – the gross domestic product grew at an average annual rate of 4.4 percent from 2001 to 2011, and 5.2 percent in 2012, more than double the world average, according to Bloomberg.

Business leaders fear energy constraints will bring a premature death to Chile’s period of unprecedented growth. Electricity rates on the central grid jumped 75 percent in the last six years, putting a strain on the economy, especially in energy-intensive mining operations north of Santiago.

The country’s steep energy costs have put HidroAysén at center of national dialogue, raising questions of how the Chile will develop as it aims to reach “developed nation” status by 2018 – a goal the government has set for itself.

Photo: The Baker River near proposed dam site. Photo By Diego Cupolo.

Powerful Rivers, Problematic Relations

Back in Coyhaique, María Irene Soto, director of communications for HidroAysén, stands over a green and white map in her office and explains how the dams will make Chile’s energy problems an issue of the past.

“In Chile, we don’t have large petroleum or coal reserves. This means our electricity rates are much higher than in neighboring countries like Argentina and Peru,” she said. “Sure, we could put up wind farms and solar plants, but that won’t be enough. Whether or not HidroAysén is built, we will need to get energy from somewhere and the reality is that there are no rivers anywhere else in the country that can provide as much power as the Baker and Pascua rivers.”

“Other rivers rely on rain water and their volumes vary widely between seasons” she continued. “The Baker and Pascua are fed by a constant flow of glacier waters. They are nearly perfect for hydroelectric dams.”

Holding photos of the Baker River her hands, Irene explained how the two rivers run through deep canyons that are especially advantageous for a hydroelectric project. The canyon walls act as natural barriers, pushing the river water forward for maximum energy production, while at the same time, minimizing the flood zone when the dams are erected.

“The affected area is relatively small for a hydroelectric project that will produce this amount of electricity,” Irene said. “This is the best project for Chile in terms of size and efficiency. There are no better alternatives.”

The problem, Irene admits, is the lack of public support. A recent poll showed more than 60 Chileans were opposed to the project and Irene blames millionaire conservationist Douglas Tompkins – co-founder of The North Face – for funding environmental campaigns through Patagonia Sin Represas.

Irene pointed out how one of the organization’s billboards inaccurately showed transmission lines running in front of the Chile’s most famous natural attraction, Torres del Paine National Park, even though the dams would be built north of the park and the transmission line would avoid Torres del Paine all together.

The Baker River near proposed dam site.“Look, no one wants to destroy Patagonia,” Irene said. “Tompkins just doesn’t like what we’re doing because he owns a lot of land and nature reserves in Patagonia and our transmission lines might go through some of his property. I doubt he would be putting so much money into Patagonia Sin Represas if our project were affecting someone else’s property.”

To improve its public image, HidroAysén has recently promised to cut electricity bills in half for the 90,000 residents of Chile’s Aysén region. The company also said it would create a conservation area larger than 28,000 acres and donate land to a national park to offset any environmental impacts caused by the dams.

As Irene finished her presentation, neatly-dressed high school students filled the HidroAysén office to apply for university scholarships the company also began offering in late 2012. The HidroAysén scholarships cover 90 percent of tuition costs for select candidates in the Aysén region – which is no small offer in Chile, a country with some of the most expensive universities in the world.

“Things are changing,” Irene said. “More and more, we are seeing the people in the Aysén region support the project.”

Silvia Rios Saldivar, owner of Coyhaique’s Camello Patagon Cafe, is one of the region’s residents that is in favor of HidroAysén.

“People make such a big deal about it, but they fail to see the benefits,” Rios said. “The construction and maintenance of the dams will bring new jobs to a place that has little economic opportunities outside of tourism. People might not like development, but we’re going to need development if we want our lights to work in the future.”

The Cost of Development in Patagonia

Further south in Cochrane, a town of less than 3,000 people, the debate over HidroAysén has heavier implications. One of the dams would be constructed about a half-hour’s drive outside the city on the Baker River. Inside a small cafe on the corner of the central plaza, a young mother, baby in hand, and an older man discuss whether or not HidroAysén will move forward.

“It doesn’t matter what we do,” he says. “The government and business owners are going to build what they want and where they want it. There’s no point in protesting.

“No, we don’t live in a dictatorship anymore,” the young mother says. “People can express their voices now and the government will listen. We have to make our concerns heard.”

The dialogue portrays the two sides of political thought in 21st century Chile and the owner of the cafe, Carlos Garrido Moneva, looks on and nods. Garrido says many Chileans believe HidroAysén will be constructed even if it’s widely unpopular.

“Sometimes we suffer from a lack of faith,” said Garrido, who is also president of Defensores del Espíritu de la Patagonia (Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia), a Cochrane-based conservation group.  “We have to keep faith because it’s the only thing we have. Faith and time. The longer the project is delayed, the more it will cost and the more it will go in our favor. HidroAysén has a lot of money, but we have a lot of time and we will not give up this fight. The project is too big, too destructive and run by people that are too corrupt.”

Ramiro Trecaman Villanueva, community relations representative for HidroAysénHidroAysén’s environmental impact review, the study that granted the project government approval, had significant omissions, Garrido said. For example, the study did not mention the occurrence of glacial lake outburst floods in the rivers, a type of flood that occurs when large reservoirs of water are released after the collapse of glacial ice due to earthquakes, volcanic activity or rising temperatures.

Photo: Ramiro Trecaman Villanueva, community relations representative for HidroAysén, By Diego Cupolo.

“These glacial bursts have happened about three times a year during the last five years and they create tsunami conditions in the Baker that could be extremely dangerous if a dam were erected in the river valley,” Garrido said. “They could potentially tear the structure down. Even the government’s own environmental experts have said putting dams in this river won’t be smart, but HidroAysén keeps pushing to start construction.”

Aside from environmental impacts, the residents of Cochrane are also concerned with the project’s social impacts. Nearly 5,500 construction workers, double the town’s population, would arrive in Cochrane to work on the dams if they are approved.

“That will be the end for us,” said Camilo San Martín, municipal architect in Cochrane. “Everything is going to change. The people here live a certain way. We leave our doors unlocked, our bikes outside, we don’t steal, there’s barely any violent crime, and we live by our word. These workers are going to come from big cities in the north and they’ll bring all the bad sides of society with them.”

“People also have this vision of development as the definition of progress, and this isn’t always the case,” San Martín continued. “The residents of Cochrane live well and don’t need anything more. This question of development will bring more wants and create artificial needs that don’t exist today. This only creates discontent. Why do we need more if we are already happy with what we have?”

Looking Towards Chile’s Future

Throughout the entire HidroAysén debate, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has remained a proponent of the project, but saw his approval ratings plummet to 27 percent in July for his handling of the protests and failure to create a more stable social climate for business investment.

Pinera has received pressure from both sides, as mining companies like Coldeco, the world’s top copper producer, say they are planning billions of dollars worth of expansions in new extraction projects, but complain that they cannot move forward because of the shortage in cheap electricity – a serious problem considering mining accounts for about 15 percent of the GDP, according to Bloomberg News.

While some environmentalists see the news of Colbun’s waning interest in HidroAysén as a step towards victory, a line of foreign utility companies like the State Grid Corporation of China have already expressed interest in taking over the project and continuing the work of improving its public image.

“This could go both ways,” Segura said, still sitting in his chair at the Patagonia Sin Represas office in Coyhaique, fingers interlaced over his stomach. “The president is a neoliberal and he could try to push everything through before next year’s elections. Or, the delays will continue, and we might get a chance to elect someone that will change the course of the project.”

“It’s a shame because we don’t even have to build HidroAysén,” he continued. “Instead, we could focus on making new legislation to improve the electrical grid we already have and make it more efficient. We could divert funds from the project and subsidize wind farms or solar power all over the country. Just think about it: Why should we run transmission lines from the south to the north of Chile where the Atacama desert sits empty, just waiting to be filled with solar panels that could supply all mining operations in that region? It doesn’t make sense; the government simply doesn’t want to consider the alternatives. For them, it’s the HidroAysén or death, nothing more.”

Segura takes a moment to lean back in his chair as the gears in his head turn like the three windmills above Coyhaique. Like many Chileans, he knows the country has enough natural resources and the skilled workers to raise the living of standards of all its residents. If the government achieves it’s goal of becoming “developed nation” by 2018, it would make Chile the first Latin American country to do so.

“It’s really a matter of what kind of a country we want to build, what kind of a country we want to leave for our children,” he says, “One that continues relying on the destructive methods of the past or one that will move forward with the opportunities and technologies of the 21st century?”

Note: Government officials, national and regional, were contacted and refused to give comment on the article.


1. Patricio Segura Ortiz, a journalist who serves as leading figure for the leaderless Patagonia Sin Represas in Coyhaique, Chile.

2. María Irene Soto, director of communications and community relations for HidroAysén.

3. (In Photo) Ramiro Trecaman Villanueva, community relations representative for HidroAysén

4. Silvia Rios Saldivar, owner of Camello Patagon Cafe in Coyhaique

5. Camilo San Martín, municipal architect in Cochrane

6. Carlos Garrido, president of Agrupación Defensores del Espiritu de la Patagonia



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