“We have to defend the Aysén Region,” said STCC President Ricardo Guarategua. “These foreign companies are coming to steal our waters. And the money will all just go back to Spain. It’s time that we ayseninos (Aysén residents) stand up.” The STCC is one of Region XI’s most important labor unions.
Of particular concern to the union is the so-called HidroAysén Project, a planned joint venture by energy companies Endesa and Colbún that calls for the construction of five massive hydroelectric dams. Together the dams, slated for the Baker and Pascua Rivers, would generate 2,750 MW of electricity – roughly equivalent to 20 percent of Chile’s current overall current generating capacity.
Endesa, one of the world’s largest energy companies, is co-owned by Italian utility Enel (67 percent) and Spanish construction firm Acciona (25 percent). Colbún, owned by the Matte Group, is Chilean and also counts with investment from Chile’s Angelini group. A third company, Swiss mining firm Xstrata, also has plans to build hydroelectric dams in the region.
“Our union has gathered information and studied the subject,” said José Cayún, the STCC’s vice president. “We also remember what happened when Alumysa (an aluminum smelting company) wanted to set up shop. They said the same thing: development for the region, more work for the people, that the quality of life for the region’s worker would improve. But it was all a big lie. Now they come along with these dams and promise us the same thing. But it’s also a lie.”
The STCC joins an ever growing list of organizations opposing the Patagonia dam projects. Other opponents include the Region XI-based Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve, the Santiago-based environmental group Ecosistemas and several U.S. NGOs, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the International Rivers Network.
The union leader’s comments come in the wake of the recent Cavalcade for a Patagonia without Dams, a nine-day Region XI horseback ride trek organized to bring attention to the issue. The cavalcade’s approximately 100 riders completed their journey in Coyhaique, the Aysén capital, early last week (ST, Nov. 28).
Opponents of HidroAysén project say it would be environmentally and socially devastating for the pristine region. Not only does the plan involve extensive flooding, but it also calls for building a 2,000-kilometer transmission line – the world’s longest – that would cut through thousands of acres of protected and unprotected wilderness area.
Backers of the project say it is a necessary step toward meeting Chile’s increasing appetite for electricity, which grows by more than 6 percent annually. Endesa and Colbún also argue that their US$2.5 billion project would bring jobs to the area – particularly construction jobs.
Those jobs, however, represent only a short-term benefit, said José Cayún, who insisted there’s nothing contradictory about a construction worker’s union opposing a massive construction project.
“Our people might get excited when they talk about bringing 4,000 jobs* to the region, but we don’t think it’ll really work out like that. They’ll need workers, for clearing and building roads, but it’ll just be for a few years and only for qualified people. Once the roads are built, and the project completed, they’ll send those workers home… And it may not be us, but our children and grandchildren will suffer the polluting affects during all the years that the dams last,” he said.
(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.)
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