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Thousands march in Chile against dams in Patagonia

Gary Graham Hughes
International Rivers
June 8, 2010

This past Saturday, June 5, colleagues in Chile marked the annual International Day for the Environment (el Día Internacional del Medioambiente) with a nationwide day of action.

This is the second time in less than a year that a nationwide action has been organized against the development of mega-hydroelectric projects in Patagonia.

Thousands came out to march for the protection of Chile’s rivers in cities throughout the country [PDFver here] , from the capitol of Santiago to Coyhaique in the Aysén region in Patagonia. In Coyhaique the spirit was particularly Patagonian — a drenching downpour could not deter the hundreds of people that came out to march against HidroAysén, as the rough weather and the rain only confirmed the marchers’ identity with the wild elements of their Patagonian home.

Sergio Diaz, of the Jovenes Tehuelche (Tehuelche Youth), a national organization of young people working on environmental and human rights issues, said that “it is important to recognize that even in places very affected by the earthquake, like Concepción and Talca, that people are putting aside all of their problems and standing up to reject the proposal to dam rivers in Patagonia.”

The national march is an element of the response of the environmental and social justice movements in Chile to some very aggressive lobbying on the part of the very highest Enel-Endesa corporate executives in the past month. High-profile visits of people like Fulvio Conti – CEO of Italy’s Enel, the controlling interest in the HidroAysén project – to publicly push the Chilean government into “fast-tracking” the approval process have been seen as arrogant and intimidating, and therefore quite poorly received by the Chilean public.

Also perceived as being of particularly bad taste was the visit of Pablo Yrarrázaval – the head of Enersis – at the end of May to present Chilean President Piñera with a US$10 million check for earthquake reconstruction while taking advantage of the podium to make a public pitch for a more “fair” and “accelerated” treatment of the HidroAysén project by environmental authorities. The scene was so gross [PDFver here] , in fact, that former Minister of the Environment Ana Lya Uriarte was compelled to write an open letter denouncing the behavior of the company as completely inappropriate, and then going so far to say that HidroAysén “is not necessary for Chile’s energy future.” [PDFver here]

In the meantime, the Chilean Minister of Energy, Ricardo Raineri, who in the past has made public statements in support of HidroAysén, has recently taken concrete steps towards supporting the development of “net-metering” (also known as “inter-tie”) systems to connect domestic small-scale renewable energy generation with the large Chilean electrical grid, once again demonstrating that Chile’s energy future does not have to be built on archaic technology like mega-hydroelectric dams.

The national march and recent events serve notice on HidroAysén and the current authorities that Chilean civil society is indeed very attentive and organized around the issue of dams in Patagonia. As Patricio Rodrigo, of the Consejo de Defensa de la Patagonia (Patagonia Defense Council, or CDP), said at the march in Santiago, “this is the moment in which the people are waking up to defend Patagonia.”

“We are here today,” he continued, “to send a potent signal to the government that we are not going to permit the continued degradation of our environment, much less the destruction of the pristine rivers of Patagonia.”

Further Reading:

From the magazine, Outside: “The project depends on moving power 1,500 miles north from Aysén, up a Ring of Fire obstacle course that passes beneath active volcanoes (Chaitén erupted in 2008), along the subducting Nazca fault line to Valdivia (site of the world’s largest recorded earthquake, 9.5, in 1960), up a narrow coastal plain subject to tsunamis, and then around Concepción (which shook for 120 seconds, three times as long as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906).” Read the full story. [PDFver here]

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