Thursday, November 29, 2007

Chile's anti-dam horseback protestors arrive in Coyhaique

“The mentality in this country is the following,” he said. “If people see money, if they see power, they will immediately sell everything.”

After Nine-Day Trek, Protestors Demand Response From Regional Authority

(Nov. 28, 2007) Over 100 horseback riders descended on the XI Region capital Coyhaique at noon Tuesday, concluding a nine-day tour of the Region to protest the HydroAysén dam project. The Cabalgata Patagonia Sin Represas (Cavalcade for a Patagonia without Dams) departed last Monday from the town of Cochrane, the site of the proposed hydro-electric project, some 330 kilometers away.

Enthusiastic crowds greeted the group, which paraded through the streets of Coyhaique before gathering outside the offices of the Regional government, located in front of the town’s central plaza. The leaders of the cavalcade, representatives of the region’s various municipalities, addressed their supporters there.

“We can live without hydro-electric power. We can live without gas. But we cannot live without water. God gave us these rivers, and we the right to defend them,” asserted Ernesto Sandoval, a leader of the cavalcade from the Baker River area.

Representatives of the cavalcade proceeded to enter the government building to seek a response to their demands. Before departing on its journey, the group sent a letter to Regional Governor Viviana Betancourt urging her government to take action against Endesa and Colbún, the companies behind the Aysén dam project.

The protestors alleged the companies’ claims to water sources and private lands in the region, a legacy of the final days of the Pinochet dictatorship, are illegitimate. The letter also called for a formal and ongoing dialogue between the government and the local community, and encouraged the government to take steps to promote the region’s traditional economic activities.

In their meeting Tuesday the cavalcade leaders presented the governor with a small solar panel and two renewable light bulbs – symbols of the alternatives to the massive hydro-electric facility.

Betancourt appeared briefly to address the crowd before returning to her meeting with the cavalcade’s leaders. “I, too, am on the side of democracy,” she said, pledging the voice of the local community would be heard throughout the process of examining the dam project proposal.


There is also a cultural dynamic at play in the campaign against the project. Local communities fear that a massive influx of workers – from throughout Chile and the world – would disrupt the social fabric of the region and destroy its traditional way of life. The name chosen for the coalition of NGO’s, local organizations, and environmental activists behind the protest - “The Defense of the Spirit of Patagonia” - reveals much about the nature of the resistance to the project.

On the other side of the equation lies the question of how to meet Chile’s burgeoning energy demands. The country’s energy needs are expected to increase by seven percent in the coming year, and recent economic forecasts warn that rising prices in the energy sector could severely impact the country’s economic growth in 2008. The HydroAysén project would generate over 2,700 MW of electricity – nearly a quarter of the country’s current annual consumption.

While the national government is now taking steps to increase investment in alternative energy sources, supporters of HydroAysén – and there are many, even here in Coyhaique – stress that these options cannot provide an immediate solution to Chile’s looming energy crisis.

“In the next 10 years Chile will have to double its energy capacity,” Bernardo Matte, the head of Colbún, one of the companies behind HydroAysén, recently told Qué Pasa magazine. “The development of alternative renewable energies is certainly an important part of our strategy for the future, but we have to live in the real world.” (The reason environmentalists want to save it.)

Ultimately, the national government has control over the most contentious issues, including the question of water rights, which fall under national law. The regional authority is appointed by the President, and therefore has little lee-way to pursue its own course of action. Its policy has been to remain neutral, pending the results of the Study of Environmental Impact for the project, which the companies hope to submit to COREMA, the regional environmental authority, in January.

“We will continue to listen to both sides of the debate, but we cannot judge something that is still a potentiality, with so many uncertainties,” said Jorge Díaz, the chief advisor to the regional governor.

He assured that the government is working on projects to foment the local economy and develop alternative energy sources and will continue to do so regardless of the ultimate fate of HydroAysén.

Faced with these realities, there is a sense of fatalism surrounding the campaign against HydroAysén. Jorge Figueroa, a native of Cochrane, has spent his whole life in the region and now lives in the capital. He came to greet the cavalcade, which included his 70-year old father, with his young sons.

He lamented how his home town has already changed dramatically in the ten years since moved to Coyhaique. He believes the construction of the dams would destroy one of the most unique areas on earth but also believes the government is inclined to see the plan through – and there is little that can be done to stop it.

“The mentality in this country is the following,” he said. “If people see money, if they see power, they will immediately sell everything.”

Here is the full article.