Chilean Patagonia with Hydroelectric Dams?

  • Marcela Torres
  • 25 May 2012

This article was originally published by our friends at Southern Cone Journeys, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their blog.

Chilean Patagonia’s landscape may change forever. Why? Because a recent ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of the HydroAysén project may bring about flooding in a large portion of one of the most pristine areas in Patagonia, which according to many people would cause permanent environmental damage and affect the region’s tourism, which promotes its untouched nature.

What Is HidroAysén?

HidroAysén seeks to build and operate five hydroelectric plants, two on the Baker River and three in the Pascua River, located in the Aysén Region in southern Chile. It is, no doubt, the largest energy project ever evaluated in the country until now. If the work is carried out, which would take approximately 12 years, it could have an average generating capacity of 18,430 GWh.

Beside the power plants, the project requires setting up more than 1,500 high-tension towers between the towns of Cochrane and Chaitén. From there, the lines are designed to go underground to Puerto Montt and then overground again to Santiago, where the energy would enter the Central Interconnected System, which extends from the Atacama and Los Lagos regions and does not cover Aysén.

HydroAysén is managed by a joint venture between the largest power companies in the country, ENDESA and Colbún S.A., which own 51% and 49% of the company, respectively. Between them, they would control 80% of the country’s electricity generation, establishing a duopoly in the Chilean power market.

Poster of the "Chilean Patagonia without dams!" campaign

Poster of the "Chilean Patagonia without dams!" campaign. © www.patagoniasinrepresas.cl

Civil Society Rejection and Legal Battle

Since the project was presented in August 2007, it has been rejected by a large part of civil society and the environmental movement in Chile. So much so that 70 national and foreign nongovernmental organizations established the Council for the Defense of Patagonia, better known for its “Chilean Patagonia without dams!” campaign, to fight the construction of these power plants.

Why do they oppose them? Because the development of HidroAysén requires flooding 5,910 hectares (14,603 acres) of natives forests and other habitats known for their unique species like the huemul, one of the two deers found in Chile and faced with the danger of extinction. The organization also argues that the project contravenes all regional development strategies for Aysén, which emphasize the need to boost high-quality tourism products and set the goal of positioning Aysén as a “Life Reserve.” For example, more than US$500 million have been invested in tourism – mostly by small entrepreneurs – in the Baker River Basin.

Civil society’s rejection and the organization’s persuasive campaigns were not enough, however, to convince the regional government authorities, who approved the project on May 9, 2011, setting in motion a series of demonstrations throughout the country that brought together people from the entire political and social spectrum. In fact, a poll conducted that month showed that 74% of Chileans oppose HidroAysén.

A legal battle began in June 2011, when several injunctions were filed against the Environmental Assessment Commission of the Aysén Region, which approved the project, and to prevent HidroAysén from initiating the construction of the dams. The Puerto Montt Court of Appeals voted against the injunctions, however, and these were later also rejected by Chile’s Supreme Court on April 4, 2012, in a split ruling of 3 votes against 2.

So, What Happens with Tourism?

In September 2011, the vice president of the Federation of Tourism Companies of Chile (Fedetur), which groups 28 large and medium-sized companies in the country, stated that “In the end it will be proved that the dams do not have an impact on tourism” and that HidroAysén can “add value to tourism” in the Aysén Region.

These comments caused fury among environmental organizations and particularly in Aysén’s tourism sector. Several chambers of tourism in the area issued a joint public statement indicating that “Neither Fedetur nor Achet should feel they have the right to appoint themselves as ‘representatives of the tourism sector’ of Aysén and they should not presume to express our feelings because their visions are very far from what is real.”

Confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Chacobuco, Patagonia, Chile

The Rio Baker is a site of two proposed hydroelectric plants in the Aysén region of southern Chile. The HidroAysén project would flood portions of the region, along with 15,000 acres of Patagonian wilderness. The dams could also affect the tourism market, which is a major contributor to Aysén's economy. Photo by Flickr/Jason Hollinger

Uncertain Future

So why has HidroAysén received support from the Environmental Assessment Commission, Chilean courts and a trade association that regroups large and medium-sized tourism companies if almost the entire country is clearly against it? The most likely explanation is in the power of large corporations. In fact, it has been revealed that one of the Supreme Court judges who voted in favor of the project owns 109,804 shares of ENDESA, which amount to more than 97 million pesos (approximately US$200,537).

The real issue, though, is Chile’s energy policy and the need to harmonize the development the country requires for achieving progress and the moral responsibility of preserving our natural resources for future generations. This is especially true if we consider the recent social movement demanding better access to energy in the region, which extended from February 8 to March 23, 2012, and resulted in the removal of the Minister of Energy.

HidroAysén states that its Project “will only flood 0.05% of the Aysén Region” and that, in compensation, it will improve 187 kilometers (116 miles) of highway, it will build a dock and a cattle slaughter plant and it will buy equipment for three public health posts. However, all of these works are mainly intended to supply the people who will work on the project. In addition, its website announces that the power plants will require “a monthly average of 2,260 workers for an estimated period of 12 years, reaching a maximum of 5,000 workers, of which at least 20% will be local labor, a figure that is expected to increase over time.”

Although the Supreme Court ruling in favor of HidroAysén to build the five power plants is a tough blow to the civil society movement, there is still a long road ahead. Environmental organizations hope they can stop the approval of the high-tension towers supply line that HidroAysén needs to transport the energy it will produce, since it will go through 780 private properties and it will require cutting down 100 hectares (247 acres) of forests and intervening on another 600 hectares (1,482 acres).

Not everything is lost. We hope that this project is not approved in the end and the country will search for other means of satisfying its energy needs, so that Patagonia will not lose the charm that inspires thousands of people in Chile and all over the world to come visit.

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Marcela Torres

Marcela Torres is a journalist born in Santiago, Chile. She has lived in the United States, Costa Rica and Australia, where she earned a master's degree in tourism. Following her passion for travel, she has visited most of Chile, Peru, Brazil and Argentina. She is co-author of a guide to Chile’s national parks (in Spanish), a blogger (click Read More Here) and founder of Southern Cone Journeys, a responsible tourism operator based in Chile.
Marcela Torres
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