11 disgusting facts about a massive dam project just approved in Chile

Rio Baker, Chilean Patagonia. The scale of this watershed, and its purity, exist in very few places left on earth. Photo by Germán Póo-Caamaño.

Yesterday afternoon 12 members of a local environmental committee unanimously** approved Hidroaysén, the largest hydroelectric project in the history of Chile.

*UPDATE: Please see our new photo essay of what could be lost in this area–shots of the most epic terrain in Patagonia put together by Pulitzer Prize winner and National Geographic photographer Jack Dykinga, two-time World Press winner and Prince’s Rainforest Project Award winner Daniel Beltra, award-winning filmmaker and photographer Jeff Foott, award-winning photographer Bridget Besaw, and Emmy-winning videographer Edgar Boyles.*

THIS IS A particularly gnarly example of how multinational corporations can dictate policy-making, basically shitting on public opinion, long-term environmental and economic considerations, and most of all the the local people.

My colleague Eileen Smith lives in Santiago and reported from the demonstrations following the decision. Within 30 minutes of the protestors gathering, police drove four buses along the curve of the street to block the demonstration from view by the commuting public, and then fired water cannons and tear gas into the crowd when protesters attempted to cross the street from Plaza Italia.

The protestors, chanting Piñera, entiende, Patagonia no se vende (Piñera (president of the Republic), understand, Patagonia is not for sale), expressed what’s so wrong about the project, that it’s essentially selling off irreplaceable Patagonian land and water. Here are 11 facts of this project:

1. The policies that set the stage for the dam go back to Chile’s military dictatorship.

Chile’s Constitution and Water Code, signed during the Pinochet dictatorship in 1981, established a privatized freshwater market under which water rights are bought, sold and traded as commodities in perpetuity. Rights to massive watersheds were purchased by multinational corporations such as Gener (US), Xstrata Copper (Swiss), and Endesa (Spain, Italy).

2. As a project controlled by outside corporations, there is little in the way of direct accountability for environmental impact.

Hidroaysén is a joint venture of Chilean corporations Colbún and Endesa, however these companies are controlled by Endesa Spain, which is a property of the Italian corporation Inel. Whatever happens as a result of the dams, it’s far “out of sight, out of mind” for stockholders and officers on a different continent.

3. Hidroaysén’s approval came in the face of mass opposition.

61% of Chileans polled opposed the project.

4. Hidroaysén used a “terror campaign” to try to sell the project to the public.

The media campaign, launched in 2010, told Chileans that they’d be “left in the dark” unless they approved the project, which, as tweeted by Rodrigo Miranda, secretary general of Chile’s national journalists association, “brought back memories of the 1988 ‘Yes’ campaign waged by Pinochet.”

5. The scale of the project forever alters one of the world’s last “reserves” of pristine wilderness.

The project consists of 5 different dams, which once constructed, will flood an area the size of Manhattan (part of which includes a national park). In addition, the clear cutting necessary for the transmission line will be one of the longest in history, some 1,400 miles – roughly equivalent to the entire West Coast of the United States, much of it going through virgin forest and pristine Patagonian wilderness. In addition:

6. The area traversed by the transmission lines is one of the most seismically-active in the world.

From International Rivers:

“The region in which the project would be located, Aysen, has recently experienced damaging seismic events. Despite the existence of numerous fault lines and other unstable geology in the region, the EIA [environmental study] did not even attempt to describe potential seismic risks that could lead to catastrophic loss of life in the areas where the dams and related structures would be located.”

7. The environmental study submitted by Hidroaysén was basically a joke.

The lack of seismic considerations were among more than 3,000 issues identified in the EIA by the 32 public services which participated in its review (International Rivers). Other considerations insufficiently examined or completely left out of the study include:

*Flooding levels
*Soil impact
*Precise geographic information
*Landslides and other hydrological impact
*Social impact (including relocation of people)
*Impact on local tourism
*Impact on Flora / Fauna

8. There are violations of laws on protected areas.

The project will impact 6 national parks, 11 national reserves, 12 important conservation sites, and 16 wetlands. As reported in International Rivers, “It is improper under Chilean law for an EIA to propose plans that would violate the law or to ignore the clear potential that these plans would violate Chilean law.”

9. Chile is squandering an opportunity to be a world leader in sustainable energy.

The Atacama desert in northern Chile has one of the highest solar potentials in the world. Chile is one of the few South American countries with the industry to produce innovations.

10. Most of the energy from the dams is going to operate massive mining operations.

Instead of benefiting local populations, the energy produced will be used largely to power mining operations hundreds of miles away.

11. It’s not just “in the middle of nowhere.”

Part of what bothers me the most about this dam project is that it’s easy to think about the people affected as few. There’s often this prevailing sense of people living in remote regions as less important somehow because they’re out “in the middle of nowhere.” But as a resident of Patagonia (the Argentine side) and having visited Chilean Patagonia, and knowing firsthand what it’s like in this region, the fact that ties to the land and local communities are strong among the people who live here, that there’s appreciation for clean air and water that isn’t born necessarily of “eco-awareness” but just the simple fact that their families have lived and tended small subsistence farms here for generations – all of this makes me bitterly disappointed that as these watersheds are destroyed, so are the lives of those who have grown up and raised their families there. You wouldn’t dam and flood an urban center, forcing thousands out of their homes. What is it about doing the same thing – if only to fewer people – that makes it right somehow?

**Correction: (5/11) The actual vote was not unanimous as previously stated, but 11 out of the 12 members voting to approve, with one member abstaining.

Community Connection

Here is a way to petition the Chilean government to stop the project.

For more information please visit Patagonia sin represas.

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  • http://Caminochile.blogspot.com Coleen

    Stop HidroAysén!

    I currently live in Puerto Natales, in Chilean Patagonia. The natural beauty of this and other parts of Chielan Patagonia will never be able to be replaced and this dam is not welcome here. There are protests in the streets from Aríca to Punta Arenas. Schools are stopping their classes to allow their students to protest. Universities are closed in Santiago, Valdivia, Coyhaique, and Puerto Montt.

    As David said, these regions have fewer people and therefore they have less clout nationally. The reality that they are few does not change the fact that they still should have a voice about the use of their land. Entire ways of life could be lost, and it would be impossible to return to the way things were before.

  • http://abbiemood.com Abbie

    What an environmental setback :/

  • http://travelmedianinja.com joshywashington

    Just signed the petition, I encourage everybody to take a second to do so!

  • Filipa

    Just signed the petition.
    Do you know of any other ways we could help stop this?

  • daveallen

    the native people of Patagonia were hunted to death like game animals right into the C19 by the ancestors of these power elites.

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  • Tom

    I don’t see the problem? We need power don’t we?

    • http://www.writenwrite.com write

      there is no problem, but you can conclude yourself when reading these 11 facts.

  • Jon

    Unfortunately, despite the deleterious effects the property owners have a right to do as they wish thier land.

    The locals should petition thier current government to undo the actions of thier previous government by purchasing back the land from those corporations.

  • h20h-junkie

    Don’t like water? Fish like water. Trees like water.
    Sorry, I like dams, especially when made
    from nuclear powered cement factories …
    It’s a WILDERNESS because nobody goes there and it will
    turn right back into a WILDERNESS once they have completed
    the dam … so sorry if it will attract canoeing fans.

    • Dave

      Yeah fish like water; however, they don’t like dams. Kinda gets in the way when swimming upstream to have babies. What if I put up a cement wall in front of you every time you tired to have sex?

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  • Kayla

    Great article but you have some factual errors. One of the 12 member abstained so it wasn’t unanimous. Also, they approved the environmental study. The actual project still has to go through national approval.

    • David Miller

      thanks for the clarifications kayla. i read, actually, about the 1 member abstaining and just forgot to mention that. will add a correction.

      i did state in the subtitle that this was an approval by an ‘environmental committee.’

      do you have more information about what lies ahead as far the project getting approved / rejected on a national level?

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  • http://www.landcruising.nl Coen

    We don’t need power! We think we need power, but we don’t. I just arrived in Suriname and I see a lot of construction going on. Newer buildings are build less and less in traditional ways where breeze cooled the air and humidity could evaporate. Now concrete square buildings appear everywhere all with airconditionings.

    So the way I see it, it is a choice to use power. We have grown accustomed to use the power, because it is there. It is so nice to just open a tap, and there is water flowing from it. But it is not a good thing to leave it open and running. We have to lear how to be responsable with our resources. The same goes for the electricity. Think about it.

    I have a hard time buying my first mobile phone after eight years without one. Do I really need one?

    Adventurous greetings,

    We spend some time in Patagonia

  • Extranjera

    I’m currently living and studying at the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia. Though I’ve now had my first, and second, experience with tear gas and water cannons, I am so awed and proud of the protests in town and on campus. It is empowering to see people still fighting for what they want! Watching and participating in the protests has given me the feeling of solidarity and strength for an issue unlike what I have ever experienced in the United States. Patagonia sin represas!

  • http://www.TheSavvyAdvocator.com Rebecca

    There has to be a better way to handle the project. Aren’t there local companies that could help out? Is the dam necessary? I don’t know. Hopefully, if something ‘bad’ happens as a result of the dam, the corporations will be held responsible.

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  • mark

    ok, but it is USA and Europe that exploits the resources of South America, Africa and other poor countries..

    Literally they suck up everything they have and they build damn, nuclear plants on their land, when this is being done in poor countries, it becomes a problem or environmental issue?

    It is really saddening to read some pathetic comments here..

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    I find point #10 most disturbing. Seems like this is a vote not only for environmental degradation but also continued/exacerbated socioeconomic inequality.

  • nobody

    “Hidroaysén used a “terror campaign” to try to sell the project to the public.”

    Oh, tell me about this terror campaign…

    “The media campaign, launched in 2010, told Chileans that they’d be “left in the dark” unless they approved the project,”

    Lol, that is terrifying.

    • David Miller

      oh, i will nobody.

      and thanks for giving me the opportunity to elaborate on this point.

      the truth is that i wrote this piece quickly and had to translate most of the information from spanish.

      in spanish the word for fear is miedo, however, if you’re talking about causing fear, then the word is terror.

      had this media campaign run in the US it would’ve been labeled as ‘fear mongering.’

      in spanish the translation is ‘una campaña del terror’, or a ‘terror campaign.’

      here’s a link to one of the ads run by Hidroaysén which shows a person being operated on, and then having the power go out.

      i’ll let you decide if that seems like fear mongering or a terror campaign, or whatever you want to call it.

      lastly, try to imagine the cultural context for watching this ad: not having grown up in a stable democracy but in a country that was ruled by terror, by a military dictatorship that brutally repressed its population and killed thousands of its own citizens for a whole generation – from the early 70s until 1990.

      • http://sleepinginthemountains.blogspot.com Tim Patterson

        Well articulated – thanks DM.

  • Cloudy McNoggin

    A friend just forwarded me this piece. Thank you for sharing this story. This is definitely a head-shaker.

    I’m still not clear on if this was voted in by a popular vote or if it was 12 legislators who made the final decision. I’d also like to know what kind of money is at play and where it’s going.

    Because let’s face it…it’s all about money. It always has been and it always will be. That’s democracy, that’s capitalism and that’s what lives at the core of most every environmental raping.

    Thanks for sharing the petition.

    • Chilean Berliner

      There was no voting fr people. There were 12 authorities that had to evaluate the environmental impact. But the company just gave them presents. The daughter of the energy minister in chile is a manager in the company. Many authorities placed there by president Piraña used to work in the company before and the day before the voting, the vice president said clear and strong in a press conference “this project must be approved”, leaving no space for a conscious vote… Chile now is managed by its owners, and in 2 years there will be nothing left for the people.

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  • Harry bulsec

    This is an amazing operation, without this damn the people of chili would still be living in caves

    • Andre

      Surely that last comment was said in jest?

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  • Karin-Marijke

     Hi David,

    All this is horrible, and that’s an understatement.

    “ties to the land and local communities are strong among the people who live here, that there’s appreciation for clean air and water that isn’t born necessarily of “eco-awareness” but just the simple fact that their families have lived and tended small subsistence farms here for generations”

    I understand what you mean. One day we drove the Carretera Austral. Two huascos on their horses stopped for a chat. You know the weather, the cows. Out of the blue one commented, “Here we have all the time in the world. We spend our days on the road with our cows. Life is good here, contrary to the city. Here we have time. We have clean air.” 
    The simplicity of his words touched me deeply. The way this farmer had such a deep appreciation for his land, for where he lived. How content he was.
    That people lose this because other people need electricity… hard to believe.

  • Zoran

    You did hear that it will provide power for foreign owned mines and not the Chilean people? 

  • Bfvid

    Point 10. Most of the energy from the dams is going to operate massive mining operations.

    That is not true since most mining operations are in the Great North. In Chile there are 4 electrical systems which are completely independent, HydroAysen will feed the Central system which isn’t connected to the Great North system.

    about 60% of the energy consumed in the central system is consumed by residential use

  • http://www.mallincolorado.cl Paula Christensen

    HI David, your article is fantastic. 
    You got the main disgusting reasons perfectly to be against the dams. I run a touristic lodge close to river Baker and live in Patagonia 6 months a year. All what you say is true and very clearly expressed. Thanks very much for coming to Chile and share your anger!!!

  • Shrig

    “You wouldn’t dam and flood an urban center, forcing thousands out of their homes.” Sadly not so true, “About 1.3 – 1.9 million people were forced to move from their homes due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.” http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Gorges_Dam#Disadvantages_of_the_dam / http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~lpohara/Pol%20116/social.html 

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.guindi Joseph Guindi

    I can’t really comment on most of the items as I’m not an expert on this topic. However, I am an energy specialist. I take issue with items #9 and #10.

    #10 The power feeds mining operations

    This one makes no sense. The power produced by a hydroelectric plant, or indeed any powerplant, goes into a grid which feeds whatever it is connected to. You wouldn’t built a hydroelectric power plant and not connected to a grid and only connected it to a factory for the simple reason that it makes no economic sense; the factory’s electric load is not constant, and building a hydro-electric dam is an enormous investment, they would WANT this dam to be as connected as possible. 

    Furthermore, mines don’t consume anywhere near as much electricity as “extractive metallurgy”, aka stuff like smelting and refining (especially aluminium).

    And finally, even assuming that those mines will be the sole customer of this dam project, what are they using now? Probably fossil-fuels, right? You know where this is going.

    #11 Squandering an opportunity to be a world leader in sustainable energy

    This one is false on technical grounds (and I don’t mean “technicality”). Solar energy is nice and all, but they are not a reliable source of power. You can’t base your country’s power supply on something that literally changes with the weather. There is indeed a sound basis for solar electricity, however it cannot serve the same function as hydroelectricity, which is both much much cleaner than fossil fuels, and is near-perfectly predictable and reliable like fossil fuels. If they need electricity, they couldn’t pick a better way to make cheap reliable electricity. I bet they need it too (everyone else does) but I don’t quite know their specific case. But if the alternatives are fossil-fuel or going nuclear, hydroelectricity is by far a better choice.

    Also, I should point out, HYDROELECTRICITY IS SUSTAINABLE. It might not be as popular or sexy as solar panels or wind turbines, but in the real world they are by far the better choice simply because they are reliable and predictable sources of energy.

    I won’t comment on the rest as you may indeed be right, but the above two are incorrect.