Six national parks, 11 national reserves, 26 conservation priority sites, 16 wetlands and 32 private protected areas are set to be decimated, all in the name of energy. That amounts to roughly 6,000 hectares or 60 square kilometers of land. That’s bigger than the Vatican City, Monaco and Bermuda combined. The Chileans have fought against it. Bono has written a song about it. The world has protested. It seems only the odd US internet outlet — like Huffington Post — has made it even a passing priority to talk about the issue. But the mainstream American media has yet to seriously report on it, ignoring one of the greatest site-specific ecological threats presently in our world. And Americans remain almost completely ignorant of the tense standoff that’s currently embroiling the small South American nation.
The HidroAysen project would result in Endesa — a Spanish and Italian multinational conglomerate that owns the water rights to Chile’s rivers — covering the construction and operation of five hydroelectric power plants. Two of these plants would lie on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River, both of which are located in Patagonia, a region deep in the south of Chile. According to HidroAysen, “the hydroelectric power complex is designed to have an installed capacity of 2,750 MW with an average annual energy capacity of 18,430 GW.” Once up and running, the energy will be directed into Chile’s Central Interconnected System (CIS), which supplies more than 93% of the country’s population.
The good folks touting the project go as far as to say “We are convinced that HidroAysen not only represents a cost-effective sustainable, reliable, and ecologically viable source of energy, but is also compatible with tourism, agriculture, and livestock development in the Aysen region.”
On May 9, HidroAysen won approval from the Environmental Assessment Committee of the southern region of Aysen, a Chilean government commission whose members were all political appointees under current President Sebastian Pinera’s government. The approval was met with increasing protests. According to the Inter Press Service Agency, 80,000 people took to the streets on May 20 and led the Carabineros militarized police to fire tear gas and water cannons on them.
Hit the Jump to continue reading about the controversial HidroAysén plant, for which 80,000 Chilean citizens protested against on May 20th.
ABOVE: the river basins in Patagonia that will be irrevocably destroyed if HidroAysen is built
President Pinera’s government supports the project because of the need to double power production in order to meet the estimated GDP growth of six percent annually. But if the government is concerned with the economic factor, it should be noted that the growth is to be seen in the northern part of Chile. One opponent of the project is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and the nephew of former president John F. Kennedy. According to Kennedy, “It makes no economic sense. The big energy demand is coming from the northern part of the country and the metals industry, and in those regions you already have available resources.” With tens of thousands of protests in the streets over the last few weeks across 26 other cities, it remains to be seen what the next steps in this project will be. Kennedy believes the hyrdroelectric project was approved over a solar project, because of “the political clout that Endesa has over the Pinera government.”
Irregularities were seen and reported during the environmental assessment process but the environmental institutions in Chile failed to properly handle them due to a lack of reform and transparency. The HidroAysen project is not only an issue we should explore more because of its impact on what’s left of Chile’s breathtaking wilderness, but also because of its impact on the people who live there. Though the number of indigenous families that live there is small, the dams would drown nearly 6,000 hectares, which means forests would be clear cut, a way of life for the Mapuche natives would be destroyed, eco-tourism would be trampled and habitat for the endangered Southern Huemel deer, among many other animals, would be eliminated. And that says nothing of the roads that would need to be built slicing through pristine old growth forests, nor the 1,600 kms of transmission lines carving their way north to Santiago, the capital.
Protests in Piazza Navona, Rome, on May 13, 2011
With HidroAysén, Endesa and Chile’s other big energy company, Colbun, are set to take a monopoly stake in the country’s energy industry — the addition of these five new power plants would join Chile’s CIS, meaning control of roughly 50-90% of the country’s electricity generation.
The advent of social networking has aided in the issue gaining steam online as people having taken to their twitter account using the hashtag #noahidroaysen (Spanish for “No to HidroAysén”) and simply #hidroaysen. On May 21, a call for massive protests was made online; the day President Pinera delivered the annual budget message to the nation.
Take a look at footage shot during one of the protests held in the streets of Chile, spread the word about the proposal’s approval and make the effort to learn more about the issues of water rights being privatized, the notion that Chilean officials have been bought and the environmental concerns Chile could face with the construction and operation of the HidroAysén. Similar to when America’s ANWR region of Alaska was threatened, there is no turning back the tide of development. Once those roads are built the damage will be done, and once those valleys are flooded they will be lost forever.