Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Hollywood Stars Shed Light on Chile's Controversial Dam Project

U.S. Film Idols May Join Chilean Music Celebs In Protesting Dams

(Jan. 15, 2008) A controversial plan to construct massive hydroelectric dams in Chile’s Region XI continues to attract international attention to pristine Patagonia, which this (Chilean) summer welcomes a number of high-profile visitors – possibly even a few Hollywood stars.

Rumor has it that mega-celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz might be making their way to southern Chile in the coming weeks. The two actors, who have both visited Chile in the past, starred opposite each other in the 2002 box office hit “Gangs of New York.”

According to La Tercera, their trip has the support of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). DiCapprio sits on the Washington, D.C.-based environmental group’s board of directors, together with U.S. film legend Robert Redford. Citing an unnamed source, the Chilean daily also reported that Diaz and DiCapprio will participate in protests against the so-called HidroAysén project.

A joint venture involving Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Chilean energy company Colbún (owned by the Matte and Angelini groups), the project involves plans to build five dams that would together generate some 2,750 MW of electricity – roughly equivalent to 20 percent of Chile’s current overall generating capacity.

The project, slated for the region’s two largest rivers – the Baker and the Pascua – has an estimated price tag of US$2.5 billion. That figure does not include an additional US$1.5 billion needed to build a 1,200 mile transmission line between Region XI, an area also known as Aysén, and central Chile, where the electricity would be consumed by mostly industrial and mining operations.

At this point, the rumored Diaz-DiCaprio visit is still very much unconfirmed, insists ecologist Juan Pablo Orrego, a leading opponent of the polemical project. Still, were the rumor to become reality, the involvement of DiCaprio and Diaz in the ongoing anti-HidroAysén campaign would certainly be welcome, he told the Santiago Times’ sister newspaper, the Patagonia Times.

“In general, artists can play a powerful role in bringing together campaigns and drawing attention to all kinds of issues, be they human rights, foreign debt, the environment, what have you…Artists can really play a noble role in this sense. I think it’s praiseworthy that people who’ve done well for themselves as a result of their art are ready to use that charisma, the celebrity they’ve attained as artists, for noble causes,” said Orrego, head of a Santiago-based environmental NGO called Ecosistemas.

DiCapprio and Diaz would by no means be the first celebrities to oppose the dams. Starting with ex-La Ley front man Beto Cuevas, numerous Chilean celebrities have joined the opposition. The growing list of famous dam critics includes musicians Joe Vasconcellos and Javiera Parra, Juanita Parra of the group Los Jaivas (The Crabs) and the legendary Chilean folk-rock group Inti Illimani, among others. Celebrity attention to the issue has really “snowballed,” said Orrego, who once enjoyed his own share of artistic fame as a member of the successful 1970s band Los Blops.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr will be rafting on Chile's Futaleufu River, site of the Geocom-Kinross gold mine, next week

Whether or not Chile’s Patagonia will be rolling out the red carpet for the “Gangs of New York” costars, it will definitely play host to representatives from both the NRDC and the California-based environmental NGO International Rivers (RN), formerly the International Rivers Network.

Starting this coming weekend, the RN will be leading a fact-finding expedition to some of Region XI’s more remote locales. Led by Patagonia campaign leader Aaron Sanger and campaign coordinator Aviva Imhof, the group will also include U.S. country singer Dana Lyons. Among other things, the RN team plans to visit the Pascua River, which because of its relative isolation tends to not receive as much attention as the more accessible Baker.

“(The RN trip) is a way of making this river more visible. Because it’s further away and more isolated, the Pascua – in terms of this whole conflict – has remained somewhat hidden. There’s a lot of talk about the Baker, because it’s visible. The Carreterra Austral (Southern Highway) goes near it at various points… It’s interesting that the Pascua is less visible, because it is actually the more pristine of the two,” said Orrego.

Also expected to travel to Patagonia is NRDC senior attorney Robert Kennedy Jr., whose father was assassinated in 1968 while running for the U.S. presidency. The RN and NRDC delegates, meanwhile, plan to meet this week with researchers from the Universidad de Chile to discuss possible energy alternatives.

According to the companies behind the project, the HidroAysén dams will go a long way toward meeting Chile’s increasing appetite for electricity, which is growing by an estimated 6 percent annually. Backers of the dam project question how a developing country such as Chile can continue growing without major new sources of electricity.

HidroAysén critics, however, argue that rather than sacrifice its Patagonian wilderness, Chile ought instead to invest in non-conventional, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. Spain, for example, currently produces nearly 12,000 MW of wind electricity, while Germany’s total wind electricity production is more than 20,000 MW. In contrast, Chile’s total energy matrix – primarily made up of hydroelectric and thermal-electric (fossil fuel burning) facilities – produces just 12,700 MW. (Ed. Note: Please see today’s related feature story.)

Here is the full article.