Update February 2009 Text by Daniel Gonzalez, Patagonia without Dams Campaign Coordinator
During the month of November 2008 Chile?s EPA, known as Conama, informed Hidroaysen, the company proposing the constructionof 5 large dams in the Baker and Pascua rivers located in Chilean Patagonia, that in order to move the approval process forward, they would have to answer over 3,000 comments and observations made to the Environmental Impact Assessment report (EIA) submitted by the company in August of 2008. By all measures, their EIA lacked sufficient and adequate information that would have allowed the multiple government agencies and the public in general to understand the true impacts associated with these dinosaur projects.
After months of pompous and arrogant announcements made by Hernan Salazar, Hidroaysén?s CEO, stating that their EIA and the process behind it would accomplish what none other had done in the past in terms of transparency, quality and consideration for local communities and environment, the report submitted to the government failed miserably in all fronts. Eleven out of thirty two public agencies involved in the approval process called the report poor, inaccurate, insufficient, irrelevant and openly in conflict with Chilean law and international protocols ratified by Chile?s Congress. In essence, these agencies, entrusted with protecting the public interest, called for article 24 of Chile?s environmental legislation, recommending the rejection of Hidroaysén?s EIA. The company had failed to explain objectively the real impacts and potential risks to local communities stemming from the construction and operation of 5 large dams. Some of the top scientists in Chile and abroad went further stating that the company had not even been able to properly characterized the environments the dams would impact.
Among the most relevant flaws found in the study were the lack of data on seismic risks in a region known for quakes and volcanic activity, impacts on key natural habitats both in and out of national parks, some of them of known global value as biosphere reserves, impacts on human health, management and disposal of toxic pollutants, impacts to Patagonia?s wetlands and aquifers, total unaccountability of GLOF?s (sudden outbursts of glacial lakes, which have become common events in Patagonia due to global warming) and their associated impacts to river hydrology and public safety, biased modeling of sedimentation flows and its effect on dams? life span and ocean productivity, etc. In addition, the company refused to yield to public requests demanding the inclusion in the same study of the multiple impacts associated with the world?s longest transmission line, which would transport the electricity from these dams through 2,300 kilometers of pristine landscapes, national parks, waterways and private lands found between Patagonia and the overdeveloped capital of Santiago (6 million). The lines and the 210 feet high towers holding them would inflict irreversible and unacceptable impacts to multiple ecosystems and communities spread throughout the southern half of the country. Additionally, from an aesthetical point of view, Brookfield?s proposal would be a total disaster for the country?s tourism industry, highly dependent on unobstructed views of the only thing Chileans still agree the country can distinctively offer to educated travelers; it?s beautiful landscapes. Hidroaysén has strategically distanced itself from this issue, hoping to transfer responsibility and the bad image associated with the lines (their bad image continues to plummet because of the dams) to Brookfield, the Toronto based conglomerate now controlling Chile?s transmission system.
In spite of clear evidence that Hidroaysén?s EIA could and should not have proceeded to stage two of the environmental review process, the government, under strong pressure from the industry, caved in and voted to move forward. Much of this was possible thanks to the intervention of key public ministers known for their pro industry stand such as Interior Minister Edmundo Perez Yoma, Energy Marcelo Tokman, Public Works Sergio Bitar and Secretary of the Presidency José Antonio Viera Gallo. The public outcry did not wait and the dozens of organizations working against the dams, grouped under the Council for the Defense of Patagonia (CDP), immediately accused the company and the government of braking the law, the public trust and due process, and wrote a letter to President Bachelet requesting her to keep her pre-election promises to strengthen Chile?s democracy, citizen?s participation in EIA procedures, and the implementation of a national watershed program to protect Chilean rivers from destructive interventions such as large scale hydroelectric dams. To date, Bachelet has never responded to the letter.
After weeks of evaluations and coordination, over 10,000 observations generated by the citizenry, community organizations, university research centers and international groups did not make the deadline for inclusion in the government?s report reviewing Hidroaysen?s EIA. In an unprecedented move, Bachelet allowed his regional Governor to move the process forward prior to the conclusion of the 60 day period established by law for public input, catching the citizen groups working on the EIA reviews off guard, since historically their input had always been provided towards the end of this official deadline. Although the government has stated, in defending their illegal approval process, that citizen participation will be honored, no evidence whatsoever has emerged as to how, in this late stage of the process, can they do that, since the company has been already notified of the total number of observations they will have to respond to in their August 2009 report. According to the law, once a company is notified, further comments cannot be added to the EIA evaluation report known in Chile as ICSARA.
Hidroaysen is a partnership between italian Enel, spanish Acciona (both owners of Endesa Spain, although Acciona is in the process of selling its 25% interest to Enel) and Colbun, one of the nation?s largest utilities controlled by the Mattes, Chile?s most influential family . To many, including midlevel government reps, the poor quality of Hidroaysen?s EIA study is nothing else but a reaffirmation of how these powerful industrial groups operate in Chile, where rigorous and responsible evaluations of the impacts associated with large industrial projects are easily replaced by well funded lobbying, ?favors? to local Municipalities, and marketing campaigns capable of facilitating government permits and relaxing the application of laws and regulations. These companies hold absolute control not only of strategic industries in Chile, but of much of the country?s natural resources including water, forests and mine riches, and when it comes to ?putting their foot down? to get their way their leverage has no limits.
Hidroaysén announced that by August of 2009 they would respond to the observations made by the government agencies reviewing the EIA, and declared unequivocally that they would face no problems clearing the next step of the process. Such confidence undoubtedly resonates with the reality on the ground, because even though the dams are far from being approved their operations in Patagonia continue to move forward at alarming speed. Over 15,000 acres of lands have already been purchased by the company in the Aysén region in order to preempt opposition from key land owners located within or nearby to be flooded areas. Properties are acquired at such high rates and speed, that overnight locals are now incapable of buying or renting real estate in the very places they?ve taken years to settle and call their own. All around the region company officials are working 24/7 to convince local communities that the dams are inevitable, and millions are spent on promotional programs, radio ads, scholarships and ?aid? impossible to turn down by local officials. Hard hats, helicopters, high tech equipment and entire fleets of brand new four wheel trucks have now invaded the region creating an irrefutable sense of ?fait accompli?. Some public roads are now closed and for the exclusive use of the company while they dynamite, at every dam site, endless tunnels for river channeling and the future installation of turbines.
Many local gauchos, ranchers and community leaders have become victims of Hidroaysen?s strategy and increasingly accept their overwhelming presence and predisposed themselves to either sell their lands or hastily accept favors and presents, which in the overall scheme of things means peanuts for a company betting on a 4 billion dollar project. This early surrendering to the company?s mighty wallet slowly propagates from one valley to the next, but luckily hundreds of others, mindful of what is truly at stake for their way of life and the future of their children continue to organize and work together to defeat what they now call ?these dam monsters?.
The Campaign against the damming of Patagonia (www.patagoniasinrepresas.cl) continues with full resolve, convinced that Hidroaysen?s proposition does not only represent the most obsolete and destructive alternative to deal with Chile?s growing energy demand, but also undermines Chile?s democracy as these large multinationals expand their control of strategic industries critical to the country?s well being. If the dams in Patagonia are built, Endesa and Colbun would consolidate their position as the most powerful utilities in the country, and would fully monopolized the electricity market for years to come. Such scenario would prove disastrous for the average consumer and would seriously hampered progress for development of more efficient and sustainable sources of energy, more even so considering that Chile has never in the past implemented an energy plan addressing the most basic aspects such as efficiency, conservation and gradual input of renewables. More over, such monopolization would also decrease the system?s reliability, due to both market concentration and excess dependence on dams located in an earthquake prone area, but also connected to the consumer centers by a transmission line crossing terrains subject to volcanic eruptions and other natural events.
Inevitably the campaign against the dams in Patagonia has also developed a legal strategy in order to counter Hidroaysen and the government?s attempts to ignore current law. Some of the most prominent legal actions involve non-compliance of international protocols ratified by the Chilean Congress, such as the Canada-Chile environmental Convention, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, or the Washington Accord (1940) for the protection of flora and fauna and scenic beauty. Additional legal actions involve challenges to the water rights currently being requested by the company in order to develop the dams. In spite of the company?s relentless lobbying efforts, these rights have not been granted so far because doing so would breached some of Chile?s most important legislations, designed to ensure non discrimination from the state when allocating resources for economic gain, particularly in regards to access to clean water. If granted, Hidroaysen would have full control of Patagonia?s largest watersheds, precluding local ranchers, tourism operators, small farmers and municipalities from accessing clean and readily available water for their own needs. Just as with electricity, Hidroaysen is now also bent in controlling the region?s most important water sources, the Baker and Pascua Rivers. The Government?s own water agency (DGA) has summarized the situation by stating that due to the water rights requested by Hidroaysen, the Baker watershed would no longer be able to provide sufficient water to the rest of the people inhabiting the region. An incredible prospect for the hundreds of residents and early settlers that never thought such a thing could happened in Patagonia.
2009 represents a crucial year for the rivers and people of Patagonia. Chile will hold presidential elections once more and undoubtedly the dams issue, given the high profile it has gained in the last two years, will have an important place in the candidates agendas and discourse. Over half of Chileans don?t favor Hidroaysen?s proposal because people understand that not only these dams would for ever altered some of the country?s most important natural environments, but because better solutions are available and currently under implementation in many parts of the world. During 2009 Chileans will increasingly protest against the damming of Patagonia, and will act assertively at the regional and international levels to expose not only the companies behind these obsolete and greedy solutions, but also their own government and all foreign entities involved or associated with the damming of such a spectacular and unique region.
To this end, the Campaign continues to work closely with partners in the US (International Rivers and NRDC), Europe and Canada in order to raise international public awareness about the plight to keep Patagonia free of dams. For 2009 a number of meetings are being plan with company officials, financial institutions and government officials in Europe, Canada, and the US to explain to those in charge of funding and implementing such large scale projects, often never aware of the environmental and social costs associated with their initiatives, why we should keep one of the world?s last non-industrialized regions free of such interventions to ensure its biological viability and strategic scientific value for present and future generations. Those that know Chilean Patagonia understand well the importance of keeping Hidroaysen out and the need to protect this truly amazing corner of our planet.