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Patagonia in Peril: Proposed Dams Threaten One of the Last Great Wild Places

Grassroots campaign continues to battle $10-billion mega project

At this moment, government officials in Chile are under pressure to approve a major hydroelectric project that would dam the Río Baker and nearby Río Pascua, two of the biggest and wildest and most beautiful rivers in the Patagonian wilderness.  Backed by a consortium of national and international corporations, the $10 billion, 2,750 megawatt project, HidroAysén, includes five major dams and a transmission line that would run 2,000 kilometers north to Santiago, crossing indigenous lands, national parks and protected nature reserves.  Resistance to the project — led by a coalition of local, national, and international groups known as the Patagonia Defense Council — is at an all-time high.   

photoname Photo by Jorge Uzon/International RiversThe Pascua is largely inaccessible to curious humans, so it remains tucked in the mountains
and mostly untouched.

To understand the legal and economic dimensions of HidroAysén, one has to go back to the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet who privatized the nation’s water and energy sectors.  A 1981 law made it possible for corporations to buy and sell water rights, paving the way for major hydroelectric projects.  Just prior to Pinochet’s departure in 1990, a Chilean company called Endesa was handed the exclusive right to develop the most powerful rivers in Patagonia.  Endesa — now controlled by Enel, Italy’s largest electric utility — is the majority partner in HidroAysén.  The Chilean partner in the consortium, Colbún, is controlled by two powerful Chilean families — the Matte Group and Angelini Group.  If HydroAysén goes through, Endesa and Colbún will control nearly 90 percent of the energy in Chile’s electric grid.

While the consortium contends HidroAysén will bring “clean” energy to Chile, critics argue that it overlooks the social and environmental costs associated with the project: displaced communities, the disruption of traditional livelihoods, and the impacts on ecosystems and wildlife.  The project would threaten a number of endangered species including the Chilean river otter and huemel — an endangered Chilean deer featured on the national coat of arms.  

HidroAysén would not only destroy the wilderness character of the region, critics claim, but the project is plagued by a number of inherent risks.  The transmission line, which could require the world’s longest clearcut, would cross areas prone to earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, avalanches, and rockslides.  The dams would be susceptible to rockslides, earthquakes, and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) caused by the sudden collapse of natural ice dams.  According to Jonathan Leidich, owner of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions and field producer of the documentary film Patagonia Rising, GLOF events have increased dramatically in the last 20 years due to climate change, causing river levels on Río Baker to rise as much as 20 feet.

photoname Photo by Berklee Lowrey-Evans/International RiversA day of action for rivers by Rio Baker, Patagonia, in 2011.

Moreover, recent studies conducted by University of Chile and Sustainable Energy International in Santiago indicate that HidroAysén is not even necessary to meet the nation’s energy needs.  By looking at the projected energy demand through 2025 and comparing it to the energy that would be generated from all the projects the government plans to build during the same period, both studies conclude that neither HidroAysén nor half of the proposed coal-fired power plants are needed.  According to the studies, the best way to meet Chile’s future energy needs, both in terms of security and cost-effectiveness, is through a sustainable model based on efficiency and non-conventional renewable sources.  Chile enjoys exceptional solar, wind, and geothermal resources, all of which could be developed with far less damage to the environment than HidroAysén. 

Meanwhile, resistance to the project continues to grow.  On May 28, 2011, as many as 90,000 people demonstrated in Santiago following the government’s approval of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the dams — the largest single protest in the nation since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.  Outside of Chile, environmental organizations such as International Rivers and the Natural Resources Defense Council continue to apply pressure on President Sebastian Piñera and his government.  The resistance is having an impact.  In 2012, Colbún decided to indefinitely suspend the EIA process for the transmission line and announced that it was ready to sell its stake in the project — a move seen by some as a way to force the hand of the government.  A council of government ministers is expected to review the project this month.  But if the past is any indication, the battle over HidroAysén is far from over.

In the state of Aysén, citizens opposed to the dams have campaigned to designate their entire region a “Reserve of Life,” protected from major development.  No mines, no big dams.  Patagonia is already recognized by the United Nations as a World Biosphere Reserve.  This campaign to preserve the wild character of Aysén is augmented by the efforts of Kris and Doug Tompkins, an American couple, who for years have worked to purchase wildlands in Patagonia as a way of protecting them (Read the Journal’s 2012 interview with Doug Tomkins).

What activists like Leidich envision for Patagonia is a model based on traditional culture, sustainable agriculture, ecotourism, and scientific research.  In terms of ecotourism, there are already nearly a hundred businesses operating in Aysén, all featuring a pristine wilderness experience.  There’s a need for research here as well.  As the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world, the Patagonian Ice Fields are undergoing dramatic changes as a result of warming.  Only recently have scientists begun to quantify the glaciers in any formal way.  Ultimately, Leidich would like to see a university in Patagonia where students from all over the world could come to study wildlands and sustainability. 

“The developing nations of the world have always looked to Chile for leadership,” he explains.  “This is our opportunity to become a global leader in the coming century.  Patagonia could provide a model for the entire world of how to live sustainably on a large scale, in accordance with the character and integrity of a wild and natural place.  We have the wilderness, infrastructure, even the support from local officials.  As a nation, we just need the political will to look beyond the old way of doing things and embrace the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

James McVey
James McVey recently rafted the Río Baker from its source to the sea. He is the author of The Wild Upriver and Other Stories (Arbutus Press) and The Way Home: Essays on the Outside West (The University of Utah Press).

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