Dam Project Threat Still Looms Large in Chilean Patagonia

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I reached the northern terminus of southern Chile’s Carretera Austral last week, just after Tuesday slid into Wednesday. All things considered, it is one of the most profoundly beautiful stretches of road I’ve ever experienced. Pristine glacier-fed lakes and jagged Andean peaks line both sides of the largely unpaved and sometimes rough road. It passes through national parks, traverses powerful rivers and cuts through temperate rain forests, all marking the Carretera, truly a road less traveled, as one of the world’s finest classic-style road trips.

I’m also glad I came when I did because parts of the area are under serious threat by a proposed dam project.

HidroAysén, a transnational power company, has plans on the table to construct a $3.2 billion system of five dams on two rivers that would flood upwards of 15,000 acres of rare forest ecosystems, changing forever the face and function of one of the world’s last unspoiled and pristine regions. The region’s livestock, fishing and fledgling tourism industries, on which local communities depend, would be seriously impacted.

To continue on its current track of unprecedented economic growth, Chile wants to reduce its dependence on imported oil which stands at a whopping 96 percent. But critics maintain that the project is simply a means to provide cheap electricity to mining companies in the country’s far north. More importantly, realistic alternatives, such as harvesting the wind or sun, both of which are abundant in Chile, haven’t even been considered.

Despite fierce public opposition –about 70 percent of Chileans don’t support the project– HidroAysén was granted the land and water rights back in 2011. But opponents of the project, headed by Patagonia Sin Represas, or Patagonia Without Dams, have managed to stall the final go-ahead. It’s now four years behind schedule and the pressure appears to be working. The delays are forcing major partners Colbun, who controls a 49 percent stake in the project, and majority partner Enel-Endesa to reconsider their involvement. The fight is far from over  — one Chinese company is considering to step in should one of the major investors pull out — but it’s beginning to look like this is one environmental battle that just may have a happy ending.

At the moment, the project is awaiting government approval to build nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,300 miles) of high voltage transmission lines that would relay the power from the south to the nation’s central grid in the north. Some of the proposed route traverses a seismically active region dotted with volcanoes. The most recent major eruption was in Chaiten in 2008.

For some additional background, check out this very good well-researched and documented piece in Upside Down World. International Rivers also has additional info and The Natural Resources Defense Council has a letter-writing campaign as well to keep up the pressure on Chilean President Sebastián Piñera.

And finally, check out the trailer below for the 2011 documentary, Patagonia Rising.


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