August 15, 2008
Electric Power Conglomerate Hopes to Dam Chile’s Pascua and Baker Rivers Multinational energy conglomerate HidroAysén submitted its environmental impact statement to the Chilean government Thursday morning, outlining its plans to dam the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Chile’s southern Patagonia region. The proposed project includes five massive hydroelectric dams that have come under fierce criticism from environmentalists around the world.
The conglomerate – comprised of Chilean power firm Colbún and Endesa, a Spanish-Italian company – calls the proposed project “the most important electricity project in the country.”
The five hydroelectric dams in Region XI (Aysén) would together supply 2.75GW of electrical power. The power would will be routed northward along a 2,300 kilometers of transmission lines to be constructed by the Canadian firm Transelec.
Opposition groups characterize HydroAysén as an anachronistic behemoth that will line the pockets of private power and mining companies at significant social and environmental costs. They accuse the company as being out of step with 21stcentury energy production trends that lean decidedly toward renewable energy technologies and improvements in energy efficiency. They cite Nobel Prize winner Al Gore’s recent July 17 speech in Washington, D.C., urging the U.S. – and nations around the world – to convert to environmentally friendly, bottom up renewable technologies within the next 10 years.
“Canadian, Spanish and Italian companies are deciding our fate,” said Patricio Rodrigo, representing a coalition of 40 organizations that oppose the project. “These are private national and multinational companies which have monopolized water rights and electricity production for their own profits – not for the benefit of Chile’s citizens.”
“The energy is primarily for the big mining companies in the North,” said Juan Pablo Orrego of the environmental activist group Ecosistemas. “Big mining is the major consumer of energy in Chile, and it has a ferocious environmental impact.
This industry needs to power itself in a sustainable manner, which is possible, given the enormous solar energy potential in the North.”
HidroAysén’s environmental impact assessment (EIA), which it submitted to Chile’s National Environmental Commission (Conama) Thursday morning, totaled about 10,000 pages. The government has five days to determine whether to accept the document, based on technical requirements. Conama will then have 120 days to evaluate the study. The public will have 60 days to comment.
Orrego described the documents as a “labyrinthine,” and the 60-day public comment period as woefully short, given the EIA’s complexity.
“We hope that the government is going to accept our arguments,” said Patricia Soto, national director of the environmental group National Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna (Codeff). “Public support for our cause has been growing, and there is a greater understanding that this project will not benefit the citizens of Chile.”
Soto criticized the government for allowing energy policy to be driven by private interests rather than in a transparent, democratic fashion. The result, she said, has been an utter lack of a comprehensive, strategic national energy policy that is both sustainable and secure.
Santiago anti-HidroAysén campaign worker Adrian Fernandez said one of the biggest challenges of the campaign has been to educate the public in Santiago – where Chile’s population is concentrated – on a project so far away.
“Most people here know very little about this issue,” Fernandez said. “Once I explain it to them, most of them understand that this is not a solution for Chile.”
The anti-dam campaigners reacted to the EIA submitted on Thursday by holding a press conference and draping a giant sign urging “Protect Patagonia” over the Condel Bridge in Santiago’s Providencia borough. The protesters received a sporadic stream of supportive honks from vehicles passing under them.
Representatives from Patagonian communities also traveled to Santiago for the event, expressing their concerns over the social impacts of the proposed projects.
“This megaproject is not good for our people or for the environment,” said Valeria Landeros, an Aysén resident. “Many hectares of land will be flooded, and this will impact the livestock, tourism and forestry industries. The companies have promised us employment opportunities, cheaper energy and good schools, but this doesn’t make up for all the negative social impacts.”
By Julie Sutor (firstname.lastname@example.org)