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Chile: Patagonia senate candidates unhappy with Hiydroaysen dam projects

Steve Anderson & Benjamin Witte
The Patagonia Times
October 19, 2009

HidroAysen’s multi-million dollar media blitz seeks to build public support.

The HidroAysen mega-dam project slated for southern Chile’s Patagonia region did not fare well in a debate last week among Region XI senate candidates. The debate was held just as  the owners of HidroAysen launched their a multi-million dollar public relations campaign to sell their project to Chile: there are now an unending parade of pro-dam ads in all the nation’s major media.

At last week’s debate, incumbent Sen. Antonio Horvath – from the rightist National Renovation party – distanced himself from the dam project, saying he could not support it because the transmission line issue has not been fully and publicly addressed.

The project as it now stands in the region are not acceptable,” said Horvath. “Because there are 2,000 kilometers of power lines and we don’t know where they are going to go. And that’s an aberration. And second, Chile has all kinds of non-conventional renewable energy potential to be developed in each of our regions.  And besides, as others have pointed out, these dams won’t really create lasting jobs, because the workers will come in from other parts of the country. Big dams are impressive, but what’s left of the empanada after the event is over, from a social point of view?”

The debate was hosted by TVN, Chile’s state-owned television station, and in addition to Horvath included candidates Eduardo Cruces, Patricio Walker, Paz Foitzich and Ernesto Velasco.

“I’ll say it straightforwardly – I am not in favor of putting the dams in Aysen,” said Foitzich, an independent candidate affiliated with the Marco Enriquez Ominami presidential candidacy. “First, we are going to be stuck with a high tension power lines that will contaminate the region completely. Second, we need to support development of non-conventional renewable energy projects. We have a royalty tax now on the mining industry, and I would like to know how much of that money is being spent on renewable energy projects. And we have a regional development strategy that doesn’t include large dam projects. We are giving priority to sustainable development and things like tourism, fishing, fish farming and cattle. People from Aysen need to stand up and be counted, need to defend what nature has given us, our water, our greatest resource.”

“I want to see Chile’s water nationalized,” said Velasco, a member of the Social Democratic Radical Party (PRSD), part of the governing Concertación coalition. “I support non conventional renewable energy and energy efficiency. I am against putting dams in Aysen, it is not compatible with our development strategy and tourism. Tourism in Argentina’s Patagonia generates US$500 million each year.  Here it is just between US$50 and US$80 million.”

“Regional environmental authorities (COREMA) should be autonomous and shouldn’t be permitting pressure from anyone,” said Walker, a Christian Democrat senate candidate who is running together with Velasco on the Concertación ticket. “They should be very rigorous in reviewing HidroAysen’s response (to the more than 1,300 questions that were raised the public and by government agencies to the project’s environmental impact statement). And if the response is not good enough and isn’t part of a regional development strategy and doesn’t respect the environment, then I say ‘no.’”

Still, Walker said he would support HidroAysen if environmental rules were complied with, if the local population was provided cheap energy and if the dams paid a “royalty” to the local community.

“As a region we need to be able to sit down and talk to one another,” said Cruces, an independent candidate also affiliated with Enriquez-Ominami. “We have to demand protection for the environment.”

The growing public debate – as seen in the candidates’ forum above – comes in the middle of a huge PR blitz. HidroAysén has contracted the services of  image-maker Burson Marsteller, and Chilean firms Porlam Young & Rubicam and Tironi y Asociados to shape a nation-wide “pro-dam” campaign.  The last named firm, run by long-time Concertación collaborator Eugenio Tironi, is also heavily involved in Sen. Eduardo Frei’s presidential campaign.

Chilean utility Colbún (49 percent) and Italian-owned electricity giant Endesa (51 percent) created HidroAysén in 2006 with a plan to build four massive hydroelectric dams along Region XI’s two largest rivers, the Baker and Pascua. A year later the company redesigned the project, adding a fifth dam. Together the five power stations would add a whopping 2,750 megawatts (MW) to Chile’s central grid, or SIC. The SIC currently has an installed capacity of less than 10,000 MW.

HidroAysén presented its US$3.2 billion “mega-project” to Region XI environmental authorities (COREMA) in August, 2008. Three months later, however, the company temporarily withdrew itself from the approval process after its 11,000-page Environmental Impact Report (EIR) received a barrage of criticism from both government agencies and citizens groups.

HidroAysén now says it’s ready to respond to those questions and will soon restart the environmental review process to coincide with its pro-dam PR effort.  Many national polls show strong citizen skepticism about the project.

In early August  presidential candidate Sen. Eduardo Frei – from the governing Concertacion coalition – told business leaders that Chile needs to take advantage of its hydroelectric resources (PT, Aug. 7 ). “Under my government hydroelectricity expanded like at almost no other time in our history. I’m proud of that,” said Frei, who already served once as president (1994-2000).

The new HidroAysén publicity plan is a direct response to the high-profile Patagonia sin Represas (Patagonia without Dams) campaign launched two years ago by the dam project’s many opponents.

Led by the Patagonia Defense Council (CDP), an umbrella group representing some 50 Chilean and foreign organizations, the campaign centers around the idea that the massive HidroAysén dams will ruin the pristine Baker and Pascua Rivers and open up the Patagonia wilderness to further industrial exploitation.

Citing recent university studies, opponents say the energy produced by the Patagonia dams is not necessary and that given Chile’s unique geographic attributes, the country could easily produce enough energy with non-conventional renewable sources – like wind and solar – to cover its growing power needs.

SOURCE: LA TERCERA, COALICION CIUDADANA POR AYSEN

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