Interview: Chile President Piñera Speaks to Patagon Journal About Conservation, Dams and Patagonia

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The center-right government of new Chilean President Sebastián Piñera is nearing its first major environmental decision: whether to approve HidroAysén, a controversial US$ 7 billion project to build five hydroelectric dams on two rivers in Chilean Patagonia.
 
HidroAysén, sponsored jointly by two energy companies, Italian-owned Endesa and Chile’s Colbún, must submit a second addendum to its environmental impact study before a final ruling can be made. The filing of the addendum, now due Oct. 29 after the government last month granted HidroAysén a four-month extension, will set the stage for that ruling, to be made by the Regional Environmental Commission of Aysén. 
 
The dams, planned for the Baker and Pascua rivers in southern Aysén, would have an installed capacity of 2,750 megawatts, or 21% of current power use in the Chilean capital of Santiago’s metropolitan region. Green groups argue the project would alter two pristine watersheds to satisfy energy demand Chile could meet in more sustainable ways. 
 
Soon, all eyes will be on Piñera. 
 
Late last week, on assignment for Newsweek magazine, I interviewed President Pinera in his office at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago. President Pinera was gracious, even presenting me with a book by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra at the end of our 45-minute visit together. We discussed a wide range of topics: earthquake recovery, the economy, Latin American politics, Chilean politics, the human rights investigations, the president's personal philosophy on leadership, more. Newsweek will publish much of our exclusive interview on those and others issues on Sunday
 
Of course, I could not miss the opportunity to also raise key issues affecting Chilean Patagonia. Judging from President Pinera's responses – his first extensive public comments on this issue as Chile’s president - it appears that the government is likely to approve the HidroAysen dam project later this year, but the electric line needed to bring that energy to Santiago faces major hurdles that could eventually sink the entire venture. Here are excerpts from my conversation with President Pinera concerning nature conservation, big dams and Patagonia: 
 
LANGMAN: You have created a nature park on Chiloe Island. Do you consider yourself a conservationist?
PINERA: I believe in conservation. Of course, there are some people that for the sake of saving the life of a species they are willing to condem millions of people to poverty. There are others that in order to make a buck they are ready to destroy the world. I am not on either of these extremes. I have a very strong conscience with respect to conservation and that is why we made this park, which is more than half a million acres. The closest place to heaven I have found in this world. It is absolutely virgin and unpolluted. You will find there lakes, rivers, forests, the big blue whales, and all kinds of animals and plants. You can enter our website www.parquetantauco.cl and you will find all the info and you are welcome to visit. You won’t regret it. 
 
LANGMAN: A controversial issue in Chile is the future of Aysen and its lands. In particular, there is concern that HidroAysen and their plans for building big dams in southern Aysen could cause severe damage to the natural environment in Patagonia and the local tourism economy. A recent study from some University of Chile energy experts shows that there is enough energy already approved or under construction to meet Chile’s needs up to 2025. 
PINERA: We need to double our energy generation within the next 10 to 15 years. And we are working very hard in developing the renewable, clean energies like solar and wind. But there will not be enough with just that. So we need to make a decision. Either hydroelectrics or thermoelectric plants. And both of those have problems. We have a nature conservation law, and we will be very careful making sure that it is fully respected. Whatever project they have to do to meet our energy needs has to meet requirements of Chilean law, which is a very demanding one. I think the big problems are not with the dams in the southern part of the country but the big problems are with the electric line that will cross half of our country. And we have not approved that line yet. Actually, they have not presented a project for that line yet. 
 
My opinion is that this project has to be done respecting all our laws, and certainly our nature and our land. They will not be able to do whatever they want. They have to respect our laws. 
 
LANGMAN: Do you support the proposal to make much of Chilean Patagonia a United Nations World Heritage area because of its unique cultural and natural values? 
PINERA: It is true that Patagonia is unique in terms of nature, culture and many other things, and we would like to conserve that. But at the same time, we want to do that in a very responsible way while also trying to bring development to the area. My personal opinion is that the best prospects for this area are tourism, nature and conservation.  So we are working for that.