Chileans Protest Approval of HidroAysén (Hydroelectric Dam) Project

by Eileen Smith May 9, 2011

Photos courtesy of author

This afternoon, twelve Chilean members of a local environmental committee voted on whether to approve a contentious hydroelectric dam project that would staunch the flow of the largest river in Aysén, a region in Chilean Patagonia. Despite weak public support of the HidroAysén project, with 61% of Chileans polled opposing the project, (see PDF, in Spanish here), 11 of 12 members of the Aysén region’s SEA (Environmental Evaluation Service, for its initials in Spanish) approved the proposal, with one member abstaining from the vote.

The results of the vote give the go-ahead to HidroAysén, a dam project run by the Italian group Endesa and its minority holding group the Chilean corporation Colbún, which holds a 49% stake in the project. The proposed series of dams would affect the Baker river, the most most voluminous in Chile, which attracts ecotourists, rafters and fishermen, and is an important ecological feature of the region. Project opponents say the project will badly impact 6 national parks, 11 national reserves, 12 important conservation sites, 16 wetlands and 32 privately-held protected areas. Meanwhile, proponents of the project project construction jobs and electricity production of 2.750 megawatts.

The organization Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams) planned a peaceful protest in the wake of the approval, to take place at Plaza Italia, Santiago’s ground zero for demonstrations at 7:00 PM tonight. Thousands of people joined together, chanting (among other slogans), Piñera, entiende, Patagonia no se vende (Piñera (president of the Republic), understand, Patagonia is not for sale). Protesters held signs with messages opposing the project, including one written in English, shown below partially supported with a kayak paddle. When asked why their sign was in English, the protesters said it was for the international media.

The police then drove four buses along the curve of the street to block the protesters and their signs from view by the commuting public driving and walking east up Avenida Providencia, the street on which thousands of commuters travel home each weekday night.

At approximately 7:30 PM, the protesters attempted to cross the street from Plaza Italia and take over one direction of the Alameda (the main street which leads down towards the city center), at which point the police shot water from water cannons at the protesters and began to release tear gas into the crowd. Many protesters scattered, and several offshoot groups tried to make their way down to the Moneda (the presidential palace) where tensions increased between the protesters and the police, and local news reported that 600 protesters arrived and later set several barricades aflame. As of approximately 10:00 PM a helicopter with a search beam could be seen overflying the Moneda and nearby streets.

Similar protests were planned in other cities throughout the length of Chile. For 30 minutes of citizen coverage of the Santiago event, see here. The next protest march is planned for the same location (Plaza Italia) for Friday, May 13th at 6 PM.

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