The Rio Cautín, or Cautín River, known for its emerald green water, originates high along the western slope of Chile’s Las Raíces mountains. It winds its way westward through forests and cultivated fields in the country’s Araucanía region, the ancestral lands of the Mapuche Indigenous people. The region is rich in water — the Cautín is just one of many lakes and rivers that decorate the landscape. It is this water that Indigenous rights and environmental activist Alberto Curamil, who is part of the Mapuche community, set his mind to protecting against hydroelectric development.
The conflict between the Chilean government and the Mapuche stretches back to the late nineteenth century when the Chilean government confiscated the vast majority of Indigenous lands in the South American nation. But the recent clash over water can be traced to the 1981 privatization of Chile’s water resources, which essentially gave the government the right to sell water to whichever private interests were willing to pay for it. And Curamil’s fight for the waters of Araucanía can be traced to earlier this decade when, in the midst of a megadrought, Chile’s minister of energy announced plans for 40 hydroelectric projects on rivers in the Araucanía region, including on the Cautín.
Curamil wouldn’t have it. He mobilized the Mapuche people, who hold the natural world to be sacred, and their allies, and soon was leading marches, blockades, and other protests against the hydroelectric projects. He also partnered with legal experts to challenge the plans on the basis that the Chilean government had failed to obtain free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous stakeholders before proceeding with the development projects, as required under its own laws. His years of dedication — which resulted in a 2014 arrest for his role in organizing protests — paid off. In the spring of 2016, the Chilean Environmental Service Agency cancelled one of these projects, the Alto Cautín hydroelectric plant on the Cautín River, and that winter, an environmental tribunal ruled that another, the Doña Alicia dam, could not proceed due to the lack of consultation with the Mapuche.
These wins were celebrated by the Mapuche community, whose members have traditionally lived off the land and depended on the Cautín for water resources. “It was very good for us to be able to stop that,” says Belen Curamil, speaking on behalf of her father Alberto, who is currently being held in jail in Chile. “We had a large gathering by the river in commemoration of that. The water is very important to us.”
Tonight the global environmental community too, will celebrate these wins with Curamil. Though Curamil cannot join in person, he is among this year’s recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. He is joined by five other activists.
One of these is Ana Colovic Lesoska. Some 8,000 miles across the world from Chile, Lesoska, too, has taken on problematic hydropower projects. For her, the battle has been waged in her native North Macedonia, where the country has turned to hydropower in an effort to transition away from coal. Much of this hydropower has been proposed in protected areas, including Mavrovo National Park, which is one of Europe’s last largely untouched places.
As with the dams in southern Chile, the lineage of these projects dates back to the 1980s when a government plan to build some 20-odd small hydroelectric plants within Mavrovo first began circulating. By 2010, the state-owned utility Elektrani na Makedonija (ELEM) had proposed two large plants, the Boškov Most and Lukovo Pole. Both dams would be financed by international banks, and both would have footprints primarily in the park.
To Lesoska, who is a biologist by training, these two dams were an untenable proposition, particularly when she learned that the location of one of the dams coincided exactly with the habitat of the endangered Balkan lynx. “I got a short circuit in my brain, and said No, this cannot happen, this cannot be allowed,” she says. The country’s entire breeding population of the lynx, believed to be about 35 individuals, lives within the park.
As the founder of Eko-Svest, which safeguards North Macedonia’s national parks from large infrastructure projects, Lesoska was well positioned to take on the dams. She sprang into action, implementing a range of both local and international tactics, including going door to door in communities near the park to spread word about the impacts of the dams; filing a complaint with the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, (EBRD) which was funding Boškov Most, for allegedly violating its own polices by failing to evaluate the biodiversity in the area before approving financing fro the project; and distributing plush toy lynxes to ambassadors with representatives on the EBRD board. She also collaborated with scientists to get the Balkan lynx recognized as an official — and endangered — subspecies of the Eurasian lynx under both the International Convention on the Conservation of Nature, and the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats.
In 2013, in what would become the final blow to the project, she submitted a complaint to the Bern Convention regarding both projects. In December 2015, the Bern Convention issued a finding that the projects should be abandoned due to their negative impact on the lynx. Later that month, the World Bank withdrew its commitment to fund the Lukovo Pole project. And in 2016, a Macedonian court annulled the environmental permit for the Boškov Most dam. The following year, the EBRD cancelled it’s funding for the project. The dams were dead.
Both Curamil and Lesoska defeated hydroelectric projects that threatened the water and wildlife of their nations. But their fights are not over yet.
In 2018, Curamil was arrested for his alleged involvement in an armed robbery. Sources have described the arrest as a form of retribution for his activism.
“There are many instances where, especially Mapuche people, have been imprisoned for a year, two years, and then for any lack of any evidence they are freed,” says Miguel Melin Pehuen, a co-founder of the Mapuche Territorial Alliance, who accompanied Belen to San Francisco for the Goldman Prize ceremony. “They are just mechanisms to get people out of circulation.”
Curamil remains in jail awaiting trial. His colleagues are currently assessing the potential impacts of another proposed hydroelectric project in the region, though their efforts are focused in large part on freeing Curamil.
Lesoska, for her part, is using the platform she’ll inherit as a Goldman Environmental Prize winter to raise awareness about ongoing hydroelectric development in North Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkan region. Of the roughly 20 small hydro projects proposed for Mavrovo, several are already operational, but others are still in the pipeline, and Lesoska hopes to stop these. “These are relatively small projects,” she says. “But they have large damaging capacity when it comes to ecosystems.” Lesoska is pushing to change the zoning for Mavrovo National Park to prevent this type of economic activity from occurring there.
She’s also calling attention to the proposed Nenskra dam in neighboring Georgia. The project will flood lands of the Indigenous Svan people, depriving them of their homes and livelihoods. As she puts it, she wants EBRD to “learn from its mistakes” and stop funding damaging hydro. Lesoska is urging people to learn more about the project and sign a petition asking the government to reconsider it.
Curamil and Lesoska receive the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize tonight in San Francisco along with four other activists:
Linda Garcia, for her work to defeat the Tesoro Savage oil terminal project, which was predicted to be the largest oil terminal in North America and would have turned Washington state in a fossil fuel corridor for decades to come.
Alfred Brownell, for his role in protecting more than 500,000 acres of rainforest from palm oil developers in Liberia, which will allow Indigenous communities to continue to steward the land.
Bayarjargal Agvaantseren, for her contribution to the protection of 1.8 million acres of critical snow leopard habitat in Mongolia.
Jacqueline Evans, for her campaign resulting in the sustainable management of all Cook Islands’ ocean territory — some 750,000-plus-square-miles — as well as the establishment of 15 marine protected areas in the country’s waters.
The awards ceremony will be streaming live online tonight.