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article imageIn Patagonia, controversial dam project gets environmental OK

By Lynn Herrmann     May 10, 2011 in Politics
Santiago - A $7 billion dam project in Chile’s Patagonia that would dam two of the world’ last remaining wild rivers gained environmental approval from the Chilean government late Monday, despite protests and a growing wave of opposition.
Police used tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators outside a city building in Coyhaique, where 11 of 12 members of the Committee on Environmental Assessment of Region XI approved the controversial project for HidroAysén.
As the country’s mining industry clamors for more energy, powerful groups have their sights set on pristine Patagonia far to the south of where the vast majority of mining operations are, the Atacama Desert region.
Five dams, two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River, are planned for construction and operation by HidroAysén, with almost 1,200 miles of transmission lines cutting through pristine wilderness, including some of the most stunning scenery on the planet, to transport power back north to Santiago and beyond, to the mining region.
With an abundance of renewable energy potential, including continuous winds along the Pacific coast, numerous geothermal locations, and limitless sunshine in the Atacama, all eyes are on Patagonia.
Aerial view of part of Patagonia.
Aerial view of part of Patagonia.
Entropy1963/Wikimedia Commons
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, in the US, said: “It’s the most beautiful place, I believe, on the planet. I don’t know any place like Patagonia,” the Associated Press reports.
Opponents of the project fear approval of the project will open the doors for more dams on more rivers, with more development in the region affecting forests and wilderness.
Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kris, using much of their money obtained from their Esprit, North Face, and Patagonia clothing lines, along with The Conservation Land Trust, have created Parque Pumalin, a sprawling nature reserve attracting 10,000 visitors each summer. It spans a section from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean, encompassing more than 700,00 acres and has been declared a Nature Sanctuary, granting the land environmental and non-developmental protection.
“The electric law in Chile is so skewed to the power companies, virtually guaranteeing inefficiencies and monopolies, that it is counterproductive to the interests of citizens and certainly counterproductive to the health of nature,” Tompkins said, AP notes.
Despite these objections, supporters of the project are well connected. Maria Isabel Gonzalez, former boss of Chile’s National Energy Commission and now a lobbyist, said the benefits of HidroAisén’s project “outweigh the drawbacks, from the development perspective,” according to AP.
“This project is necessary for the country. It's not ideal that they're the same ones who already have an important percentage of the generation of the central grid — this isn't acceptable, but it's what there is,” Gonzalez added.
Located near the Baker River, the town of Tortel is heavily dependent on tourism, with more than 600 people in the community making their livelihood from it. In the region are world-class whitewater rapids, waterfalls, national parks, national reserves, the Campo de Hielo Norta and Campo de Hielo Sur, fjords, and the abundance of freshwater associated with such treasures.
The town’s mayor, Bernardo Lopez, facing a government decision that will alter the face of the community, said: “They should advocated for the citizens, but it seems that what really matters here is drawing foreign investment,” according to AP.
Once completed, the controversial project would flood almost 15,000 acres, induce massive clear-cuts through the region’s forests, and eliminate much of the area’s water attractions. The area is also home to the small Southern Huemul deer, an endangered animal that is a national symbol of Chile. There are less than 1,000 of these secluded animals believed in existence.
Opposition to the project has grown to 61 percent, and Monday’s demonstrations led to more than 100 arrests. Chile’s Coalition announced on Tuesday it is aiming to begin an investigation of irregularities and conflicts of interest associated with HidroAysén’s approval, La Tercera reports.
The country is also home to a powerful mining industry, with much of that activity located to the north of Santiago, in the Atacama Desert, the driest region on the planet and home to 365 days per year of sunshine. While that scenario would dictate a perfect solar energy platform, some energy experts in the country have spurned the technology, claiming it is uncompetitive and years away from being relevant, warning that the only alternative to the dam project would be the import of dirty coal.
Chile recently approved Latin America’s largest coal-fired plant for powering mining operations in the desert north of Santiago. Last week it also approved two other coal plants.
Kennedy pointed out a 2.6 gigawatt solar program in the US Mojave desert, backed by private investors and government guarantees. The $2.2 billion project will begin supplying California utilities in two years, far quicker than the HidroAysén project. “This is proven technology that is being used all over the world,” Kennedy noted, AP reports.
The HidroAisén 5-dam project is expected to take 12 years to complete, and could generate 2.75 gigawatts of power, almost a third of central Chile’s current capacity. Daniel Fernandez, executive VP for HidroAisén, said the project would provide infrastructure, jobs, scholarships, and less expensive energy for the Aysen region.
With an unequaled wine industry in Latin America, jaw-dropping scenery, a wide-ranging tourism industry that includes ecotourism, snow skiing, and world-class fishing, Chile is poised to capitalize on all of this.
Yet, Gonzalez, the lobbyist, said: “Chile is still a poor country, with 2.5 million poor people, and to overcome poverty we need energy, and for that reason we need to develop our own resources, the most competitive ones. ... It would be very selfish on the part of the rich countries to say, 'Look how they're destroying these uninhabited pristine areas.”
It is, however, those uninhabited, pristine areas that are a boon for Chile’s ecotourism industry, attracting visitors from across the globe.
Ena BVon Baer, a government spokeswoman, said: “We have to get that energy somewhere, independent of what the project is, because energy today is twice as expensive as in other Latin American countries,” according to Bloomberg News. “We want to be a developed country and to do that we need energy, especially cheap energy for the poor,” she added.
Citizens in the country have called for a national march on May 21 in protest of the HidroAysén project.
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