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CERC: 51 percent of Chileans oppose Aysen dam project

Patagonia Times
October 30, 2008

A recent poll by the Center for Studies in Contemporary Reality (CERC) suggests that a slim majority of Chileans continue to oppose energy company HidroAysén’s multi-billion-dollar plan to build five large-scale dams in Patagonia.

According to the CERC study, 51 percent reject the controversial hydroelectric project. Forty-two percent, in contrast, favor HidroAysén’s plan to construct two massive dams on Baker River and three on the Pascua River. Both rivers are located in far southern Chile’s Region XI, an area also known as Aysén.

The poll indicates an increase in support for the US$3.2 billion project, which promises to add a whopping 2,750 MW (equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the electricity currently available in Chile) to the country’s thinly stretched energy matrix. In April, CERC reported that 53 percent of Chileans opposed the project compared to just 36 percent in favor.

CERC’s latest study, however, does not take into account the recent publication of a series of government reports slamming the project’s recently submitted Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

Numerous government agencies, including the National Water Directorate (DGA), National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) and National Energy Commission (CNE), agree that HidroAysén’s EIS has serious shortcomings (PT, Oct. 12, 17, 22). Energy Minister Ana Lya Uriarte even went so far as to say the EIS “isn’t up to snuff.” The CERC poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 1,200 people, was carried out between Sept. 26 and Oct. 7 – just before the critical agency reports went public.

HidroAysén was formed in 2006 by Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean utility. The company submitted its behemoth energy project for approval by Aysén’s Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) this past August (PT, Aug. 14). The evaluation process is currently in its “citizen participation” phase, which ends Nov. 24.

From there, HidroAysén will have to respond to the criticism submitted not only by the DGA, CONAF and other government agencies, but by various citizens groups as well.

There is also a possibility that COREMA will heed the advice of some government agencies and – as it did last year with mining company Xstrata’s plan to dam the Cuervo River – declare the project inadmissible via a bureaucratic instrument known as “Article 24.” Under such a scenario, HidroAysén would have to decide either to scrap the project or, waiting at least one year, revamp and resubmit the EIS.

Backers of HydroAysén claim its 2,750 MW will go a long way toward meeting Chile’s growing appetite for electricity, estimated to grow by some 6 percent annually. The energy source, furthermore, is clean and efficient, HidroAysén insists. And, because the water is located right here in Chile, it is not – unlike imported oil and natural gas – subject to uncertain price and supply variations.

Not everyone, however, shares the company’s enthusiasm over the behemoth venture. For two years now, activists in Region XI – partnered with environmentalists in Santiago and abroad – have campaigned to stop the project, insisting it will ruin the Baker and Pascua Rivers and open up Chilean Patagonia to further industrial degradation.

“The company has been saying for months that it hired the top specialists and that it had everything resolved. Yet in the end, it presented a study that lacks the basic necessary information to be properly evaluated,” HidroAysén opponent Sara Larraín noted during a recent press conference.

“This is a sham,” added Larraín, one of Chile’s leading environmentalists. “First off, they’re trying to pass off five power plants as one single project. On top of that, it has enjoyed the backing of a strong political lobby as well as media pressure.”

By Patagonia Times Staff (patagoniatimes@gmail.com)

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