Monday, October 15, 2007

Patagonia, a Global Treasure

A solitary condor soars over rugged cliffs looking for carrion. A furtive young puma takes refuge behind a craggy precipice. Down in the valley, shy huemul deer graze, keeping their distance, while guanaco, relatives of the camel, squawk to warn their herd of intruders. Within 50 miles of the rocky fiords along the coast of Chilean Patagonia, you can see all this and more -- temperate rainforests, vast ice fields, wetlands and arid steppes that are home to species of birds, plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Just as many Californians are finally discovering its magic, the gem that is Patagonia faces imminent destruction.

Hikers, fly fishermen, bird watchers and river runners are all in awe of the region. Wild rivers such as the Baker and Pascua, born in glacier-fed lakes in Aysén Province, offer some of the purest water on the planet and impressive challenges that intimidate even the most experienced river rats. But the Baker, Pascua and other breathtaking Patagonian rivers are threatened by a group of multinational energy companies, led by Spanish energy giant Endesa, who want them dammed.

The dams would transform Patagonia's rivers into vast lakes of stagnant water, and flood the most fertile grazing and agricultural land in the region's steep valleys. Endesa would degrade sweeping vistas and plow roads through nature reserves to build 1,250 miles of transmission lines. Patagonia's clean air and land would be fouled by pollution resulting from electric substations and workers' camps, emitting smoke, dust, noise and garbage.

Endesa has an ugly history. It was born as a state-owned company in the days of the notoriously corrupt Pinochet dictatorship and was awarded nearly all the water rights in the Patagonia region in perpetuity. The company was later privatized, and is now under the control of Spanish investors. But its behavior has not changed. When Chile's democratic government took steps to make Endesa pay to retain its water rights, the company responded by announcing plans to build at least four large dams in Patagonia before the firm's privileges were revoked. Other transnational corporations with water rights in the region have followed suit.

Endesa succeeded in evicting indigenous people living on the BioBio River, so that the Ralco and Pangue dams could be built, overriding laws designed to protect the Pehuenche indigenous people. Even now -- as environmental studies for Endesa's Patagonian dams are nearing completion -- the company has yet to tell the Chilean public exactly where the dams would be built, how big they will be or how much they will cost, environmentally and economically.

Chile's development now stands at an environmental and development crossroads. If the nation wants to continue to develop, and provide its people with electricity, critical decisions must be made. Will Chile choose to rely on large hydropower dams, a model that has been abandoned in the United States as environmentally destructive, or will it choose a more sustainable path based on energy conservation and a mix of traditional and non-conventional renewable power sources?

Here is the full article.

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