"I will fight these dams until I die!" Cecilio Olivares coughs with the force of his proclamation. 93 years old, and born and raised in the Patagonian wilderness, his eyes are like the Baker River swirling not two miles from his doorstep: blue, and deep. "In the short term this will solve Chile’s energy problems. But after?" It’s time for Chile to do something different, he says.
Five dams have been proposed in the isolated region of Aysén in southern Chile: three on the wild, uninhabited Pascua River, and two on the Baker. The most voluminous river in Chile, the Baker (BAH-ker) is the thundering, silvery blue heart of Aysén, and the core of the region’s history and lore. The $10 billion project, proposed by private, multi-national developer HidroAysén, will generate a whopping 2,750 megawatts, energy that will be shipped north to power Chile’s growing population center via a 1,400-mile transmission line. "In 10 years, we have to double our energy production," says María Irene Soto, HidroAysén’s communications chief.
Chile’s neoliberal economic model demands a high rate of economic growth, "and energy is the basis of growth," says Soto. The country imports approximately 75% of its energy in the form of coal, diesel, and natural gas; advocates see the dams in Aysén as the solution to a cleaner and cheaper energy mix. Detractors insist that mega-dams are "dinosaur" technology, and that the increase in energy production is not targeted at the private sector at all, but rather mines in Chile’s northern desert; that the environmental damage will just beget more environmental damage.
And, in fact, the mining industry in the country devours 60% of Chile’s energy. "Energy efficiency is key for us, and we have to take advantage of our renewable energy sources," says Mitzi Urtubia of Chilean NGO Ecosistemas. Chile has the highest quality of sun in the world in the Atacama Desert. Right next to the mines." Environmentalists in Chile and abroad have launched campaigns to stop the dams and transmission line, but in Aysén, people are concerned not just with saving the rivers, but saving themselves.
"People in Aysén want to live better," says Soto, displaying glossy brochures detailing the benefits HidroAysén will bring to the region. Recently wrested from the wilderness, Aysén is a continental island linked to the rest of Chile by a delicate isthmus of gravel highway and ferries. Access to quality health care and education is difficult. High prices for food and fuel are crippling for some families. Settled in the early 1900s by rugged gauchos, Aysén has long felt itself to be at the bottom of Chile’s national priorities. So HidroAysén’s promises of jobs, paved roads, cheaper electricity, and improved hospitals are tempting. The company has sprinkled cash liberally throughout Aysén, paying for dental treatments and buying laptops for schools, and although the project is only half approved (the environmental impact study for the transmission line will be presented later this year), HidroAysén is already offering classes in heavy equipment operation and other relevant skills, turning gauchos into specialized tradesmen. "I don’t blame people for accepting the money," says Francisco, a college student from the region. "They’re being given things the state never gave them."
Tourism is a burgeoning industry in Aysén. Fly-fishing lodges dot the shores of the Baker near its headwaters in Puerto Bertrand. Camping areas in the proposed flood zone received close to 400 visitors last summer, a small number, but one that grows every season. A new motto, "Aysén: Reserve of Life" advertises the region’s pristine landscapes. "Aysén’s principle resource is the quality of its environment, and it needs to be developed with care," explains Urtubia. But Aysén’s richest resource flows through the fingers of foreign corporations. Fed by Chile’s southern ice fields, Aysén holds the largest freshwater reserve in the world after Antarctica, but none of this natural resource belongs to the Chilean people. In 1981, dictator-cum-president General Augusto Pinochet signed the controversial Water Code, privatizing Chile’s water rights, making them a fully tradable commodity, available on the world market. Endesa, the controlling interest behind HidroAysén (and subsidiary of Italian energy giant Enel), owns the development rights to 80% of Chile’s water. Every river in Patagonia represents a future hydroelectric project. Complicated access has left the region untouched until now, but with HidroAysén’s proposed road and infrastructure improvements, Aysén—and its pristine rivers—will be open for business.
Poised on the brink of their own future, the citizens of Aysén are deeply divided. Teresa, a retired nurse, says, "These dams will put us on the map. We need progress." Others, like Margarita Baigorría Cruces, are more skeptical: "HidroAysén is bread for today and hunger for tomorrow." Many echo her sentiment. "I am not in favor of the dams," says Nils Campo, who has attended several trainings offered by the developer. "But if you give me the chance to advance, I’m going to take it, because once they get what they want we aren’t going to see anything." Edita Cardenas Cruces agrees. "We’re just birds against the storm. Where there’s money, they do what they want."
Verónica Venegas Q, a sociologist from Aysén, says, "How can the government sit back and let HidroAysén solve our region’s problems?" Concerned about the social impacts of rapid industrialization, she cites the example of another Endesa project in central Chile. Over 700 members of the Pehuenche indigenous tribe were forced from their land, leading to the disintegration of the community. "The previously isolated Bíobío region is now characterized by unchecked in-migration, land speculation, and deforestation," reports the Patagonia Under Siege blog. The people of Aysén do want progress, it seems, but they fear the high cost of going too big, too soon.
In February of this year, a historic social movement rose out Aysén. Citizens blocked roads, paralyzing the region, demanding that the central government acknowledge their value as citizens and take innovative steps to allow them to progress on their own terms. Marches of solidarity broke out across Chile, banners proclaimed "Dam Free Patagonia!" and "Aysén is Chile, too!" The list of petitions included the regionalization of natural resources and the empowerment of the region to decide on projects such as dams. Aysén demands a new, decentralized model, one that acknowledges its people’s unique value as inhabitants of one of the world’s last great wildernesses. If given the support and autonomy to capitalize on this, they believe they will give Chile even more in return.
"Patagonia is where humanity left off," says Jonathan Leidich, a tour operator in the region. "It’s where we can learn from our past and start over, the right way," Damming the Baker and Pascua Rivers will clean up Chile’s energy problems, but if Chile continues to prioritize economic growth over social well-being and preservation of natural resources, the country will soon demand more electricity: more dammed rivers, and maybe even more coal plants. "The world’s rate of growth is unsustainable," Leidich says. "The new model has to come from the developing world, because the ‘developed’ world has built itself into a corner." Chile is at a crossroads. Instead of industrializing the wilderness to push an antiquated development system, the country’s leaders are in a position to revolutionize its energy industry, and its human industry. Urtubia concludes, "All we have to do is decide."
Cecilio Olivares adjusts his thin frame in the chair. "The Baker belongs to everyone. And it is up to all of us to take care of it. We have to learn. Educate. And change our consciousness."
[Top Image: Patrick Poendle/Shutterstock. Slide show Images: Susan Munroe.]