Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Debating the Course of Chile’s Rivers

COYHAIQUE, Chile — With Chile trying to manage both Latin America’s most dynamic economy and a looming energy squeeze, the government has embraced a plan to build a series of dams here in the rugged, pristine heart of Patagonia that would flood thousands of acres.

The plan, proposed by a Spanish-owned electricity company, would harness the rushing rivers of the sparsely populated region known as Aisén, which is dotted with national parks and nature reserves. But environmental groups have condemned the proposal, which they say will damage ranching and tourism. They have mounted an international campaign to block construction.

“There are so few places on earth with the qualities of the Patagonia region of Chile that it’s really criminal to try to foist this kind of project on the Chilean people in the name of avoiding impending blackouts and all that sort of thing,” said Glenn Switkes, Latin American coordinator for the International Rivers Network. “This is going to be a long battle, in the trenches, using every legal and political tactic possible.”

For the last 20 years, Chile has enjoyed Latin America’s highest sustained level of growth. But its weak spot is a lack of domestic energy sources. Chile imports more than 90 percent of the petroleum, gas and coal it uses, and the needs are rising.

Neighboring Bolivia and Argentina are rich in gas. But Bolivia refuses to sell any to Chile until a century-old border dispute is resolved, and Argentina has just raised its price as much as 50 percent. As a result, the pressure to harness Patagonia’s vast energy potential is increasing.

“It is a crime against Chile not to use Aysén’s hydroelectric resources,” Jorge Rodríguez Grossi, minister of economy in the government that left office in March, has argued. In an interview in January, he called opponents of the project antipatriotic because they were blocking efforts to “seek greater sovereignty in the electricity supply.”

The project has provoked intense opposition in this area of Patagonia. The electricity generated would be consumed in the country’s heartland, not here, civic and environmental groups complain, and would bring few benefits and a host of problems.

“This is not the kind of development we want here at the end of the world,” said Patricio Segura, a leader of the Citizens’ Coalition for Aisén here in the region’s capital.

“There is no need to transform Patagonia into another Santiago,’’ he said. “We want our resources to be used, but in a responsible manner.”

Here is the full article.