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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