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The march of the dams
Benjamin Witte-Lebhar
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With attention focused on hydroelectric projects in Patagonia, others quietly slip through.

Growing public awareness over the environmental pitfalls caused by large-scale dam construction appears to have done little to discourage Chilean government authorities from approving a seemingly endless queue of controversial hydroelectric projects.

Over the past two years, a high-profile environmental campaign dubbed Patagonia sin Represas, or "Patagonia without Dams," helped generate a nationwide debate over plans by energy company HidroAysén to build five massive dams along Chilean Patagonia´s Baker and Pascua Rivers. HidroAysén is a joint venture involving Italian-owned electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean utility.

What began as local opposition later mushroomed into a nationwide campaign that placed unprecedented pressure on the companies involved and, at least for the time being, helped stall the project. Recent polls suggest that a majority of Chileans now disapprove of the multi-billion dollar plan, despite its early endorsement by several high-ranking members of President Michelle Bachelet´s administration.

"There´s been a change at the general public level," said Santiago-based ecologist Juan Pablo Orrego. "With these campaigns we´ve shed light on the real costs of these huge hydroelectric power plants. Before they were always seen as sources of clean, renewable and cheap energy: the three clichés. We´ve shown that´s not true."

More projects in the pipeline
But while the Patagonia sin Represas movement has certainly been successful in drawing a line in the sand over the plants´ construction, it has had only limited impact extending that debate beyond the confines of the HidroAysén projects. With national attention focused on Patagonia, energy companies have quietly been pushing through a long list of other hydroelectric projects in other parts of Chile.

Last September, HidroAysén partner Colbún submitted an environmental impact study for a US$500 million power plant on the south-central Region VIII´s Biobío River. Chile´s second largest river after the Baker, the Biobío already supports two of the country´s three biggest dams – Endesa´s Pangue (467 MW) and Ralco (690 MW) – which together supply approximately 9 percent of the country´s total electricity.

The move attracted virtually no national media attention, despite the fact that in 2004, the year Ralco was inaugurated, the Chilean government promised in a report to the Organization of American States that it would not allow any more such projects in the area.

Both the Pangue and Ralco dams were highly controversial, not only because of their environmental impacts but because in both cases, the projects forced the relocation of Pehuenche-Mapuche indigenous communities.

History now looks to repeat itself as Colbún´s 360-MW Angostura project, planned for the juncture of the Biobío and Huequecura Rivers, calls for a 640-hectare (1,580-acre) reservoir that would displace approximately 45 families. A number of those families are Pehuenche-Mapuche. To make matters worse, six of the families had already relocated to make room for the Pangue dam.

"We´re asking the government to keep its promise to manage the country´s river basins in a sustainable way, to keep its promise to respect Mapuche-Pehuenche cultural heritage, and to keep its promise not to allow any more dams on Mapuche-Pehuenche territory along the Biobío," said Freddy Pérez, head of a local opposition group called Aguas Libres de Quilaco, or "Free Waters of Quilaco."

Shouting into the Wind
Pérez and other critics of the project are hoping their arguments will hold sway with Region VIII´s environmental commission, but precedent suggests that won´t happen.

Between 1997 – when Chile´s environmental evaluation system, or SEIA, first went into place – and 2007, environmental authorities approved all but two of the 32 hydroelectric projects they processed, according to Chilean researcher Manuel Jose Prieto, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

In the past two years that trend has continued, despite the visibility of the Patagonia sin Represas campaign. Last October, the environmental commission in the southern Region XIV voted nearly unanimously in favor of a highly-contested dam project along the San Pedro River. Yet another Colbún venture, the San Pedro power plant calls a 56-meter- (185-foot) tall dam and accompanying reservoir that will extend more than 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and flood nearly 300 hectares (740 acres).

Among the project´s many critics is former Panguipulli Mayor Alejandro Koehler, one of some 20 people who were dragged out of the Oct. 21 environmental commission meeting in Valdivia by riot gear-clad Carabineros, Chile´s national police.

"They violated all of our rights. They injured us. They hit us. It was totally arbitrary," said Koehler, who spent eight hours in police custody. "I was a political prisoner in 1973. I spent many years in exile in Germany. And so it just seemed surreal being arrested under a democratic government for which we´d fought so hard to restore."

Three months earlier the environmental commission in nearby Region X issued an even more surprising ruling, authorizing a run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant in the middle of Puyehue National Park, the country´s most visited natural reserve. How, question critics of the decision, could the government allow construction in a park supposedly protected by both national and international law?

Environmentalists are equally baffled by a decision just this past March to approve a huge hydroelectric project US-owned AES Gener plans to build in Cajon del Maipo, a large canyon just south of Santiago that serves as a popular weekend getaway for city residents. The 531-MW project will use water from several tributaries of the Maipo River, a key source of drinking water for Santiago´s estimated 6 million residents.

A Rubber Stamp Approach
Observers say the problem is fundamentally institutional, that Chile´s environmental system, SEIA, is neither designed nor equipped to properly assess and thus filter out potentially destructive projects.

"The SEIA is a system made to neither reject projects nor evaluate alternatives," said Prieto. "The system is instead designed to facilitate projects. It orients companies so they can follow the law and meet all the existing requirements. Since Chile doesn´t have a real energy policy, or a policy of land and water management, there´s no real legal framework for evaluating projects. So it´s really easy for companies to meet the requirements."

Nor do the various regional environmental commissions have any real autonomy, say critics. They are headed by regional governors, who are presidential appointees. The approval process, in other words, is easily subject to the political and economic whims of the commission members or their superiors in Santiago.

The commissions "have no independence whatsoever. They do what La Moneda [Chile´s presidential palace] tells them to do. What´s more, La Moneda is co-opted by the large corporations." said Orrego. "Taking on that alliance between the government, the corporations and the multinationals is a huge challenge."
—Latinamerica Press.


Hydroelectric projects are springing up all along Chile´s main rivers. (Photo: Aguas Libres de Quilaco)
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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