Activist discusses anti-dam drive in Chilean Patagonia
 Por 12 de Abril del 2009

Daniel González is a leader of the Patagonia Without Dams campaign, an international effort to halt HidroAysén, a project that calls for the construc- tion of five hydroelectric dams in southern Chile’s Aysén Region. A biologist by training, González in the late 1980s was international coordinator of a campaign to stop construction of dams on the Bío Bío River in central Chile.

The dams ultimately were built after a long, bitterly fought battle. Later, González became the first executive director of the Pumalín project, in which he helped American con- servationist Douglas Tompkins establish 740,000- acre (300,000-ha) Pumalín Park, the world’s largest private nature preserve. González also is chairman and former executive director of Futa Friends, a non-governmental organization set up to safeguard the Futaleufú River in northern Chilean Patagonia. He spoke with EcoAméricas correspondent James Langman in Puerto Varas, Chile.

What’s the status of your campaign?
The campaign has come to a sort of half-time, as they say in football. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process in Chile is quite telling in how companies here keep betting on getting their projects approved through political influence. Projects in Chile are still approved more [as a result of politics] than technical merits. With HidroAysén, the EIA was so full of misconceptions and weaknesses that it shows from early on the company had a big bet that politics would be the way to push the project forward. Recently, the company was able to negoti- ate its way into a second phase, and instead of the project being rejected as it should have been, they were able to get partial approval while they have until August to deal with more than 3,000 observations of their EIA from the government.

Why does HidroAysén not yet have all water rights for the project?
The water rights that they do have Endesa got in 1990 just before former military dictator Augusto Pinochet stepped down. But these rights today aren’t much use because they would have to flood close to 30,000 hectares [74,000 acres] using these rights alone. With that type of flooding, there is no way they would get approval. Thus, they made an announcement last year that they would only flood 5,900 hectares [14,600 has], but they don’t have all the water rights needed for that plan. The government agency in charge of water issues said in November that to move water rights from one area to another, you have to apply for that. But the company does not want to apply for new rights because they know third parties would come compete with them. So, they are now appealing, trying to persuade the government to give them complementary water rights without having to apply for them. If they do not get these rights, their EIA does not count, and their whole project will go to zero.

The project also is contingent on approval of a transmission line?
Exactly. We are calling this project “dams to nowhere” because the power line has not been approved. There is not even an EIA submitted for the line by Transelec, the company that wants to build the line. The line would go through national parks, national reserves, private lands, ranch lands. It crosses 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) of private landscape from Patagonia to Santiago. It’s just amplifying the impacts of this project. We are saying that the govern- ment has the obligation to assess the project as a whole, the impact of the dams and the line together, because it’s the cumulative impact that matters here, and the dams and line are obviously closely related.

What is behind the push for these dams in Chile?
What you are seeing in Chile is that com- panies hold a tremendous quantity of water rights all over Chile. Just in Patagonia these companies hold more than 90% of the water rights that have been granted by the govern- ment. These water rights have been given to private companies forever. But what HidroAy- sén is proposing does not make sense anymore. We are in a different era. It’s not the 1950s, when governments were pushing big dams. We now know that big dams are not the way to go. Why are they still feasible in the eyes of some governments and companies? They are externalizing all of the environmental and social costs. President Michelle Bachelet’s government says Chile needs to use its hydropower resources to dependence on external sources of energy. A lot of that argument is based on the problems we have had recently with Argentina supplying [natural] gas, but that’s a matter of Chile not diversifying its energy sources. Some hydro needs to be developed, but there needs to be a balance between all the different sources, including coal. We think that with the projects already in the pipeline, Chile’s energy problems are taken care of for the next 10 to 12 years. When HidroAysén plans to begin building its dams, the energy scenario will be completely different for the country. Also, the company is citing energy growth projections for the next 10 to 20 years that just do not hold true anymore. Energy demand is dropping to half of the current projections of 6% or 7% percent per year. The ener- gy discussion should not be so linear and an either or, nuclear or coal, nuclear or hydro, etc. The issue is more complex than that. It requires a lot more studies of the alternatives. Just in terms of energy conservation alone, there are huge potential savings that could lower energy needs.

What’s ahead for the campaign?
This campaign has successfully installed itself in the pub- lic discussion, and because of that polls show more than half of Chileans oppose these dams. We have made it clear we are going to continue to look very closely at what the government and the company do. In terms of upcoming things for 2009, we will continue to follow closely everything the company does, and we’ll appeal to the international community to put pressure on the government and companies. As you know, Colbún, part- owner of HidroAysén, is owned by the Matte family, which has invested heavily in paper exports. In Canada, we will [publicize the role of] Brookfield, which owns Transelec, the company planning the transmission line. Endesa is based in Spain and Italy. We are going to be active with our international partners to publicize the actions of these companies and what they are doing in Patagonia.

Daniel González
12 April 2009

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The Patagonia Without Dams Campaign In Chile