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Competing surveys receive varied attention in Chile’s main dailies

June 18, 2008

A new poll concerning the HidroAysén dam project is raising questions not only about what Chileans really think of the controversial hydroelectric venture, but also about how the issue is being treated by the nation’s major newspapers.

The latest survey, conducted in May by Adimark-GfK, found that 55.7 percent of Chileans approve HidroAysén’s plans to build five massive dams in far southern Chile’s Region XI, an area of Patagonia also known as Aysén. Only 25.5 percent of the roughly 1,000 people polled oppose the polemical project, according to the poll, which was commissioned by the very company planning to build the dams. HidroAysén is a joint entity created by Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean energy company.

The Adimark poll concluded also that 65.9 percent of Chileans agree the polemical project will help resolve Chile’s current energy scarcity, compared to 26.4 percent who disagree. The survey results, made public late last week, contradict a pair of earlier polls – one by the Center for Studies in Contemporary Reality (CERC), the other by Fundación Futuro – which concluded that a slim majority of Chileans oppose the estimated US$3 billion dam project. The CERC poll, published in late April, found that 53 percent of Chileans oppose the large-scale dam project compared to 38 percent who favor it. The Fundación Futuro study, released earlier this month, reached a similar conclusion: 52 percent oppose the project while 41 percent support it (PT, June 6).

The Adimark poll is being hotly contested by activist groups like the Patagonia Defense Council (CDP), which is currently engaged in a high-profile international campaign to block construction of the Patagonia dams. “The information doesn’t surprise us, because when a conglomerate hires a survey company to evaluate one of its own projects, the resulting poll is of course going to be biased,” said CDP head Patricio Rodrigo.

The CDP is an umbrella group involving more than 40 Chilean and foreign organizations opposing the HidroAysén project. Many of Chile’s top environmental leaders have taken an active role in the CDP, as have influential U.S. NGOs such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California-based International Rivers.

“The hydroelectric dams won’t resolve Chile’s energy crisis because even if they are built, the first of the dams won’t begin operating until 2014 or 2015,” Rodrigo added. “By 2010, Chile will already have alleviated the situation with the 4,000 MW worth of projects already under construction.”

The HidroAysén project is slated for Region XI’s two largest rivers: the Baker (two dams) and the Pascua (three dams). Together the dams would add approximately 2,750 MW to Chile’s overall electric grid. The country’s current generating capacity is roughly 12,700 MW.

Backers of the massive project say it will go a long way toward helping Chile meet its growing appetite for electricity, said to increase by about 6 percent annually. Critics say it will be environmentally devastating for the pristine river valleys. Even more worrisome, they say, are plans to build a 2,300-kilometer transmission line between southern Aysén and central Chile. The transmission line, likely to cost an additional US$1.5 billion, would require clear cutting countless acres of wilderness land.

Like the poll results themselves, coverage of the different surveys by Chile’s three principal daily newspapers – El Mercurio, La Tercera and La Nación – has varied significantly. Privately-owned El Mercurio and La Tercera are widely considered to have a conservative bent while La Nación, which is mostly owned by the state, is more left-leaning.

All three papers reported on the HidroAysén-sponsored Adimark poll, with both El Mercurio and La Tercera giving the story major play – complete with color graphs. La Nación, in addition to reporting the results, published a separate article voicing concerns among environmentalists about the poll’s possible bias.

In contrast, both El Mercurio and La Tercera buried the April CERC poll results, mentioning the findings at the tail end of more general articles about President Michelle Bachelet’s latest approval ratings. Only La Nación treated the apparent growing opposition to HidroAysén as a separate issue.

The Fundación Futuro poll received even less attention from the mainstream press. Once again, La Nacíon was the only of the big three to draw any attention to the survey. As with the CERC poll, El Mercurio buried the findings deep within a loosely related article. The survey results did, however, appear in the less-popular La Segunda, an afternoon paper owned by the same company. La Tercera ignored the poll altogether.

According to Patricio Segura, president of Region XI’s Professional Journalists Association, all three major newspapers lack basic analysis when reporting poll results.

“They cover any old survey, without reporting who pays for it, how the polls are conducted or even the questions that are asked – which is key,” he told the Santiago Times’ sister newspaper, the Patagonia Times. “There should be more analysis when it comes to surveys, because otherwise (the newspapers) just act as megaphones for the people financing the studies.”

By Santiago Times Staff ( editor@santiagotimes.cl)

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