Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Riders Against the Dams - Anti HydroAysen Rio Baker / Rio Pascua Dams horseback journey is underway

SANTIAGO, Nov 19 (IPS) - A group of activists set out on a nine-day horseback ride Monday between two cities in the southern Chilean region of Aysén to protest the construction of five hydroelectric dams on two large rivers in the area.

The protest is organised by the Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia, a group that has 650 members and is located in the city of Cochrane in the Aysén region, 2,000 kilometres south of the Chilean capital.

The activists are riding northwards from Cochrane, a town of 3,000 people, to the regional capital, Coyhaique, population 55,400.

The first group of riders left at 9:00 AM local time (12:00 GMT) from the centre of Cochrane, taking the road that follows the Baker river, with the aim of reaching the town of El Manzano, 25 km away, on Monday evening.

Some of the 42 riders are from the small towns of Caleta Tortel and Villa O'Higgins, located south of Cochrane, which have populations of less than 500.

They will be joined along the way by other demonstrators, including four town councillors from Coyhaique, which the riders plan to reach on Nov. 27. Several parliamentarians also plan to participate. The organisers hope to complete the march with more than 100 riders.

Of the 330 km between Cochrane and Coyhaique, the activists will take buses for a 100-km stretch, shortening the trek by three days, Carlos Garrido, who is coordinating the ride, told IPS.

The event is backed by the Chilean Patagonia Defence Council (CDP), an umbrella group of more than 40 local and international environmental, civic, business and religious organisations opposed to the plans of the Hidroaysén company to build five dams on the Pascua and Baker rivers starting in 2009.

The initial plan was to flood 9,300 hectares of native forest, but due to the protests by local citizens and environmentalists and objections raised by the ministry of Public Works, Hidroaysén announced that the area to be flooded by the dams would be reduced by 36.5 percent.

Environmental organisations are not satisfied with this, however, because they are only in favour of small dams that do not involve damming entire rivers or flooding lands, and that would not harm livestock raising and the tourism industry in southern Chile.

One of the aspects that has drawn the most criticism from environmentalists is the company’s aim to transmit to Santiago the 2,750 megawatts of electricity to be generated by the five hydroelectric stations, which would entail the construction of 2,300 kilometres of high tension cables running across eight of the country’s regions and through 12 wildlife reserves.

Hidroaysén is the result of a partnership established in 2006 between energy companies Endesa Chile, owned by the Spanish firm Endesa, and Colbún, controlled by the Chilean Matte Group. They plan to invest more than four billion dollars in the project, and the environmental impact study will be presented to the authorities in 2008.

The company promises to improve road, airport and telecommunications infrastructure in the region, reduce the local cost of electricity, create 4,000 jobs, invest in schools and hospitals, and develop cultural and tourism activities.

(All necessary for the mining and timber companies expected to follow: Chile's 21st Century Gold Rush , Xstrata & Transelec Negotiate Cuervo River Dam Project )

(Four thousand jobs to build the project but SIGNIFICANTLY less to operate it. IBENER S.A.'s two hydroelectric stations on the Duqueco River require 25 employees to operate: Professionals & Executives = 8, Technicians = 10, Administrative = 5, Aides = 2. See: IBENER S.A. 2002 Annual Report.)

The Patagonia Defence Council’s national and international campaign against the dams and in defence of the wilderness and local cultures in the region has included the recent publication of a book -- "Patagonia chilena ¡sin represas!" (Chilean Patagonia: Without Dams) -- ads in the media and billboards along the roads.

In addition, foreign organisations like the International Rivers Network (IRN), Free Flowing Rivers, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defence Council are preparing to launch a boycott against Chilean export products like copper, timber and fruit linked in any way to Hidroaysén or the electricity it generates.

"The aim of the horseback ride is to give visibility to the people who will be affected by the dams and to make it clear that the people of Aysén are opposed to the project," said Garrido, who explained that the form of protest was chosen because many people in remote parts of this scarcely-populated wilderness region still use horses to get around.

On Tuesday, the group will ride 35 km to the shores of General Carrera lake, Chile’s largest, and on Wednesday they will continue on to a spot on the Los Leones river.

On the fourth day, they will ride 18 km to Puerto Río Tranquilo, a town of 500, and on Friday, they will ride 24 km to the Santa Rosa estate near Bahía Murta, where they will hold a religious ceremony in a chapel.

The riders will then take buses and the horses will be transported in trailers for the 97 km between Santa Rosa and Villa Cerro Castillo. On the seventh day, after riding another 40 km, they will reach the town of Melipal; on the eighth day, they will ride 30 km to Ensenada; and on the ninth day their trek will end in a square in Coyhaique.

"We want to ride through the main streets of Coyhaique, past the offices of Hidroaysén, and meet with the representative of the national government, Viviana Betancourt, to hand her a declaration of principles," said Garrido.

"We see this as a show of strength by the people of Aysén, particularly those who live near the Baker and Pascua rivers. We are holding this demonstration because we do not feel that we are being listened to," he said.

"A long horseback ride is not easy; at first it sounded like a crazy idea. But we are doing it to make it clear that we do not agree with the Hidroaysén project. Those of us who are riding to Coyhaique are telling the State, the government and the company that we say 'no' to the dams," said Garrido.

"I believe it is important that the concept of our region, ‘Aysén Life Reserve', not be lost," city councillor Paz Foitzich, of the Christian Democracy Party (which forms part of the governing centre-left coalition), told IPS.

Foitzich said she will take part in the last stretch of the ride, to help trigger a "debate on the development model that the region has chosen for itself."

"I do not agree with this project, the way it is planned. Any works carried out in this area must fit in with the model chosen by the region. We understand the country’s need for energy, but Patagonia is not only a reserve of life for Chile, but for the entire world," she said.

Here is the full article.