Hydroelectric proposals proliferate in southern Chile

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As Chile debates how to meet growing energy demand, controversial dam plans are flowering not just in the Aysén Region of Chilean Patagonia, but on several prized rivers in the south of the country.  

Government authorities consider the trend a necessary response to estimated 6% annual growth in power demand, but green advocates argue the projects put some of Chile’s most valuable water resources at risk.

“Chile’s rivers are in danger,” says Mauricio Fierro, director of Geoaustral, a Puerto Montt-based environmental group opposing proposed dam projects on the Puelo River in northern Patagonia, and the Manso River, one of its tributaries. “The Italian state, owner of the majority of Endesa Chile, has water rights all over Chile given to them free by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. In Puelo, [Endesa] disregards binational treaties, international biosphere-reserve declarations and especially the effects dams will have on people that depend on these rivers for agriculture and tourism.”

Conservationists and ecotourism promoters were thrilled when, in Nov. 2009, the center-left Michelle Bachelet government decreed that 11 watersheds, among them the Cochamó, Petrohue and Palena rivers, would be off-limits to hydroelectric dam projects on account of their high conservation and tourism value.

Decrees to be rescinded?

But this July, the center-right government of newly elected President Sebastian Piñera surprised many here by announcing it was considering whether to annul the decrees Bachelet had issued to protect the rivers.

One of the first to denounce the possible about-face was Sergio Bitar, the former public works minister under Bachelet who had implemented the decrees. Bitar accuses the new government of bowing to pressure from the private sector, no matter the issue.

“I signed the decrees for these rivers, allowing the rights for consumption of water by people and farmers, but not for hydroelectric dams,” Bitar told reporters in July. “The Petrohue especially is a beautiful place known the world over. I believe that there still exists in Chile a conservative logic among economic groups that are closely tied to the Piñera government in which they put exploitation of natural resources above all other priorities.”

Chile’s National Water Agency, meanwhile, announced in August that it is reviewing the decrees of the former government because companies favoring hydroelectric dams on four rivers in the Lakes Region have challenged the measures in Santiago courts.

Environmentalists in the Lakes Region, home to the Cochamo and Petrohue rivers, joined tourism representatives to denounce the government’s apparent backtracking. In a sign the pressure had an impact, the new governor of the Lakes Region, Sebastián Montes, declared in August that he would lobby national authorities to enforce the decrees for the Cochamó and Petrohue rivers, and would work to create a new national park for the Cochamó Valley.

Rodrigo Condeza, president of the local green group Cochamó Conservation and owner of Miralejos, an adventure travel company, calls such statements encouraging; but he asks why they haven’t been made as well about the Palena River and other rivers that would be affected by the lifting of the decrees. “This is without doubt an enormous setback for tourism development in southern Chile as well as for river conservation,” Condeza says.

Meanwhile, the Piñera government has gone on record in recent months in support of the construction of new hydroelectric dam projects to meet Chile’s rising energy demand.

Piñera OK with HidroAysén

In July, for example, Piñera told Patagon Journal in an interview that he was not opposed to the controversial HidroAysén project, which calls for the construction of five large dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in southern Aysén. While Piñera appeared to endorse the dams, he acknowledged that construction of a 2,400-kilometer (1,500-mile) power line needed to link the dams to the national capital of Santiago was problematic.

“I think the big problems are not with the dams in the southern part of the country, but the big problems are with the line that will cross half of our country,” Piñera said.

Piñera recently reiterated such statements to the Chilean media, drawing fire from green groups working to halt the HidroAysén dam project. In late October, HidroAysén, jointly owned by Endesa and Chile’s Colbún, presented a second addendum to Aysén regional environmental authorities. The regional environmental office recently gave the company a host of new questions to respond to, and granted them till April 15, 2011, to prepare their responses. 

A poll released in November by Chile's Andres Bello University found that 79 percent of Chileans view in a negative way the construction of HidroAysen dams in Aysen. 

“From the legal point of view, there are too many infractions for this project to be approved,” says Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Council of the Defense of Patagonia, a coalition of international and Chilean groups opposing HidroAysén. “But unfortunately, when the central government makes statements in favor of the project, the regional authorities tend to overlook such problems.”

Adds Rodrigo: “This is the famous ‘do it the Chilean way’ that Piñera is lauding to the world after saving the Chilean miners?” 

Photo by Francisco Negroni for Patagon Journal


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