Chilean rivers threatened Chilean landscape

Megaproject moves forward despite widespread opposition.

World Reports

In late October 2002, NORANDA, the Canadian transnational corporation proposing the Alumysa aluminum smelter and hydroelectric megaproject in Chilean Patagonia, submitted an addendum to the project’s stalled Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The addendum contained the corporation’s responses to the comments and observations made by government agencies, citizens’ groups, and environmental organizations concerning the original EIA. Many of these comments addressed concerns about habitat destruction, changes in air and water quality, and serious social impacts due to the huge project. In December of last year, NORANDA successfully petitioned the Chilean government for a suspension of the EIA process while it prepared its responses to comments made on the project proposal. The current reactivation of the EIA process means that NORANDA is now ready to move ahead with the political maneuvering it perceives as necessary to gain governmental approval for this massive $2.75 billion industrial project.

The Alumysa project—the largest private project in Chilean history—is slated for the remote coastal Aisen Region in northern Patagonia. Aisen, with steep temperate rainforests rising out of a complex labyrinth of fjords and canals, is one of the least polluted corners of the Americas.

Opponents of the project are generating comments on the EIA. Chances that the government will deny permission for the megaproject seems slim. Still, due to an environmental framework law passed in 1995, there are procedures by which activists might stop the project. An alliance of Chilean environmental organizations, led by el Comite Nacional Pro Defensa de la Fauna y Flora (CODEFF), has been formed to resist the project, and individuals and organizations throughout Chile are digging into the EIA to expose more weaknesses in the proposal.

The Alumysa megaproject is an aluminum smelting facility that will require the construction of a series of dams on three different rivers in Patagonia of southern Chile. There is no aluminum ore in southern Chile; the project would use minerals from Australia, Jamaica, or Brazil. The original bauxite will be converted into alumina at a still undisclosed site. (This processing of the bauxite into alumina is actually the most toxic step in the making of aluminum, and Chileans resisting Alumysa oppose forcing any distant community to suffer the consequences of this process in order to reduce pollution in Patagonia.) More than one million tons of minerals will be brought to Aisen to feed the Alumysa smelter each year, producing 400,000 tons of aluminum annually, to be sold on the international market. The remaining 600,000 yearly tons of waste is to be stored in an open tailings pile next to the proposed plant on the fjordal shores near Puerto Chacabuco. A spill could be catastrophic.

Cheap electricity is essential to the profitable production of aluminum. By placing the Alumysa project in Patagonia, NORANDA is attempting to take advantage of the region’s hydroelectric potential, which is immense, considering the steep terrain and swift rivers. NORANDA proposes to construct six dams as part of three different hydroelectric centers in three different watersheds. NORANDA may engage the infamous South American energy company ENDESA, the author of the ongoing damming of the magical Bio Bio River, in the development of hydroelectric facilities for Alumysa. This hydroelectric development will drown up to 10,000 hectares of temperate rainforest and riparian habitat, forever changing these watersheds. Effects include mortality of aquatic life, the alteration of oxygen and nutrient cycles in the freshwater and estuary ecosystems, increased sedimentation due to road and dam construction, and destruction of fish habitat. In southern Chile, 100 percent of the endemic freshwater fish species are threatened. Along with a number of other animal species, the huillin, an endangered river otter (Lutra provocax), will be adversely affected, as will the heraldic huemul, the endangered endemic deer species (Hippocamelus bisulcus) of the Southern Andes, which accompanies the Andean condor on the Chilean national shield.

The project will require the construction of 95 kilometers of new roads and 80 kilometers of transmission lines, greatly accelerating the fragmentation of habitat in this unindustrialized region. Though rural inhabitants need better roads, the infrastructure accompanying the Alumysa megaproject goes far beyond the needs of people who live in the area. Such roadbuilding threatens to increase the intensity of human activities on the previously remote landscapes, including but not limited to poaching, cattle grazing, forest clearing, and fuelwood extraction. Even the proponents of Alumysa recognized early on that the scale of the project would instigate environmental and social changes in “a violent manner.”

Direct social impacts of the dam and hydroelectric exploitation include the relocation of at least 40 families in the Lago Caro area. Project opponents fear that a “floating” population of up to 8,000 men employed only for the construction of the dams and the aluminum smelter will incite a growth in prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, alcoholism, crime, drug addiction, and other social pathologies, overwhelming the social services and healthcare capacities of the region, as well as the limited housing and transportation infrastructure.

Especially disconcerting for the rural communities is the potential loss of years of effort and thousands of public and private dollars that have been put into creating a sustainable organic farming industry in Aisen, all of which is at risk in the face of the industrialization of the area as manifested by the Alumysa megaproject.

Citizen and environmental groups in the Aisen Region and throughout Chile have called for an international campaign in defense of one of the most unpolluted and pristine places in the world. Due to the scale of the project and the tremendous financing it will require, there is a long, drawn-out battle ahead. As they say in Patagonia, “Aisen Reserva de Vida es la tarea de todos”—the Aisen Life Reserve is everyone’s homework.

- Gary Graham Hughes is a Montana-based activist and writer.

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