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Kennedy Jr. lobbies hard against Chile dam project

Santiago Times
April 1, 2008

HidroAysén project a threat to Chile’s “pride and soul” says NRDC attorney

Influential U.S. environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Monday wrapped up a weeklong visit to Chile with a strong plea to protect Patagonia’s pristine rivers from pending hydroelectric projects.

“I’ve been to every country in Latin America and on every continent in the world. And there’s no place as pretty as Chilean Patagonia. That’s why I come here. If that part of Chile was in the United States it would be a national park. No question,” Kennedy told reporters shortly before meeting with President Michelle Bachelet.

Kennedy represents the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of several U.S. environmental groups campaigning against the so-called HidroAysén dam project. The project – a joint venture by Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean company – calls for five massive hydroelectric dams in Chile’s farm southern Region XI. Slated for the Baker and Pascua Rivers, the estimated US$3 billion project would generate some 2,750 MW – equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the electricity currently generated in Chile.

Kennedy and other critics of the project say it will be environmentally devastating for the region. Forty years ago, he explained, large energy companies built massive dams throughout the western United States. Now, all of those dams are ready for decommission.

“We’re going to tear them down,” the NRDC attorney said. “I hope we don’t see the same kind of history in Chile, because we’ll never be able to restore the ecosystems of the Grand Canyon.” According to Kennedy, Chile boasts an enviable wealth of alternative energy options. The country could opt, for example, to build smaller, run-of-the-river dams that would be cheaper, more efficient and quicker to construct, he explained.

“Chile is a very exciting place from an energy perspective. It probably has some of the greatest potential for renewable energy resources of any place in the world. It has 10 percent of the solar potential on Earth, just in the Arica (Atacama) desert. It has active volcanoes and an extraordinary geothermal potential,” said Kennedy.

“These are proven technologies. They are off the shelf. And they are available today,” he went on to say. “What we can do is help Chileans find investors from all over the world who will come in and build these facilities here in Chile rather than destroying an international treasure that is the possession of the Chilean people and that is the pride and soul of this nation.” The high profile environmentalist, son of slain U.S. attorney general and one-time presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, has been a frequent visitor to Chile since first coming here in 1973. Kennedy’s organization, the NRDC, has been actively involved in the campaign to block the HidroAysén project since late 2006 (ST, Dec. 20, 2006).

The NRDC is one of some 40 organizations, most of them Chilean, that together form the Chilean Patagonia Defense Council (CDP). Other member groups include the Santiago-based Ecosistemas, which played a leading role in fighting Endesa’s BioBio River project, and the Region XI-based Citizen Coalition for Aysen Life Reserve.

“This is a fundamental year during which important decisions will be made affecting not only the future of Patagonia, its beautiful resources and its people, but also the future of Chilean democracy,” said CDP Executive Secretary Patricio Rodrigo. “Over the course of this year we’ll witness whether the citizen movement, which doesn’t want dams in Patagonia, comes out triumphant, or whether it will be the large, manipulative companies… that come out on top.” Before moving ahead with the project, HidroAysén must first gain approval from Chile’s National Environmental Commission (CONAMA). The company plans to begin the approval process later this year – possibly as early as July – when it is likely to submit a requisite Environmental Impact Study.

In the meantime, energy analysts from the Universidad de Chile and the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María are busy completing a thorough study of Chile’s energy situation. HidroAysén opponents hope their findings will convince government authorities to explore other generating options. The study, funded in part by the NRDC, is expected to be ready within the next few weeks.

By Benjamin Witte (benwitte@santiagotimes.cl)

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