In the balance: Puelo's and Chile's future

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Editors Note: The following is from Issue 6
 
By Rodrigo Condeza
 
It´s a fact, the rivers of southern Chile are under heavy pressure from energy companies pushing hydropower schemes. But why? The law is clear: if a company does not utilize its freely acquired water rights, or refuses to pay taxes on them, or returns said rights to the State, these rights are then made available on the free market.
 
That generates high speculation and strong incentive to implement projects no matter the cost.  In other words, the more quickly such projects are carried out, the fewer taxes the energy companies are forced to pay.  The companies are also able to obtain a swifter rate of return from the water, their principal asset. Under these conditions, we witness quickening attempts to exploit the great rivers of Chilean Patagonia like the Baker, Palena, Futaleufu and Puelo rivers.
 
Take Mediterráneo, Chile’s largest run-of-river hydroelectric plant. Approved just days before former President Sebastián Piñera finished his term in office this past March, Mediterraneo includes an electric line with towers up to 140-meters high traversing through the heart of the Cochamó area in northern Patagonia. The power plant and its towers would be in plain sight of the thousands of visitors who come each year to visit the Manso, Puelo and Cochamó valleys. The construction of the plant will forever jeopardize the scenic and pristine nautre of this region.
 
For the people who live there, those natural attributes are also the most important feature of this gateway to Patagonia. They see how, every year, their land gains in value and the tourism ventures grow in line with the regional government’s own vision of making tourism the key element in Cochamo’s long-term economic growth. The Puelo Valley in particular has tremendous potential with the new border crossing at El Bolson, which will unite the Cochamo municipality with Argentina.
 
Yet, regional environmental authorities have chosen to approve what some of the local agencies here considered to be "the lesser evil” -- 63 kilometers of power lines that nobody wants, in order to transport to the national power grid the 220 megawatts produced by this run-of-the-river hydroelectric plant.
 
With this decision, they sacrifice a landscape that belongs to all Chileans and are effectively endorsing the private investors behind the Mediterraneó project. In their desire to minimize costs and maximize profits, the Mediterraeno project investors have proposed a plan that entails the easiest-to-implement power line that rather conveniently does not affect the 100,000-hectacre Fundo Puchiguín property in the Puelo area, owned by Robert Hagemann, the founding partner of Mediterraneó.
 
 
 
Is there an alternative? A 40-kilometer power line crossing Hagemann’s Puchiguín property and its inner peaks, including underground sections and crossing the estuary below the water, is a viable option. However, such a plan has been discarded as being “too expensive.” Unfortunately, in this conflict it appears that the bad is preferable to the good, the ugly to the beautiful.
 
Thus, the prevailing pattern in Chile repeats once more. The country continues to develop with a high degree of social inequality, where market decisions, without strategic land use planning, make the country’s wealthiest still richer at the expense of the majority, the local communities and their natural resources. For Puelo, this will be a huge, perpetual scar in its heart.
 
Chile must change
The strong, legitimate community opposition of recent years results in legal battles, adding a high degree of uncertainty for all actors involved: communities must divert scarce resources to defend their territory; investments in development are halted; financiers of hydropower projects are uncertain about the return on capital; and the government wears down so it can sustain a system that does not permit the much-needed, precise planning of the nation’s energy matrix.
           
This must change. If Chile does in fact require these megawatts, it should be carried out with a process where the necessary time is taken for regional planning, including citizen dialogue and participation that results in viable projects in balance with the public interest. Currently, when a project enters the environmental impact evaluation system it is nearly impossible to affect significant changes. The chips have already been played.
 
Mediterranó is not viable for the Chile we want to build, a country where transparent, well-formulated planning, together with environmental justice and territorial equity, is the path we travel. Till then, we can only ask: what’s the next river under threat? 
 
 
Rodrigo Condeza is manager of Mitico Puelo Lodge and Tagua Tagua Park, and director of the non-profit Puelo Patagonia, whose mission is responsible development in the Puelo watershed of northern Chilean Patagonia.
 
Photo: Andres Amengual
 
 

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