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Chilean Government Rejects Massive Patagonia Dam Proposal

June 20, 2014

In what some are calling “the greatest triumph of the environmental movement in Chile,” the government of President Michelle Bachelet rejected an $8 billion dam proposal that would have devastated Chile’s pristine Patagonia region.

The HidroAysén hydroelectric project would have flooded 15,000 acres of land in Patagonia, threatening the region’s biodiversity and cultural significance.

The government’s decision is being hailed by local and international environmental groups, many of whom have been fighting to stop the project since its inception nearly eight years ago.

Among those celebrating are 1997 Goldman Prize winner Juan Pablo Orrego and his team at Ecosistemas, whose work has been instrumental in influencing the government’s decision to halt the project.

In the Q&A below, Juan Pablo gives us his thoughts on the decision:

We understand the campaign had been going on for several years. What is it that finally tipped the scale and got the Chilean government to revoke the permits?

The campaign has been going for 8 years. What tipped the scale was precisely these 8 years of intense work- together with an impressive coalition that reached 80 organizations from Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, USA, Canada, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany. Thanks to these numbers and the diversity of know-how within the coalition, we were able to deploy a multifaceted campaign. Particularly important was the legal, technical, political, educational and communicational work. Also key was having partners at the local/regional level in Chilean Patagonia, at the national level in Santiago, given that Chile is a highly centralized country, and at the international level given that the company controlling the project is Italian.

What role did the voice of grassroots activists and Chilean citizens play in this victory?

Chile’s development model is based on mega-mining, agroindustry, and an industrial forestry sector of massive pine and eucalyptus plantations. The negative social, economic and ecological impacts of this extractive and neocolonial model has negatively affected ecosystems, species, and the quality of life of local populations.

We opposed HidroAysén because it would be highly intensive in the use of electricity and water, poses severe contamination threats, and wouldn’t generate quality jobs, or, in other words, human development.

HidroAysén became the symbol of everything the Chilean people no longer accept in terms of corporative abuse of their territory and communities, and is also the symbol of the aspirations of the population to revert this situation. This is why a vast majority of Chilean citizens opposed the project and expressed this in many ways, including massive and recurring demonstrations throughout the country. This universal support of grassroots activists and citizens was politically crucial to influencing the decision of the Ministers Committee through which the project was cancelled.

What, if anything, does this decision mean for future development interests in Patagonia and elsewhere in Chile?

This is just one project that has been cancelled. As long as the companies have the water rights in these rivers, and as long as the rivers flow abundantly due to glacier melting, the danger of another similar project is latent.

The government has declared that Chile needs to develop its hydro-electrical potential, including in Patagonia, even with large dams. The main energy problem in Chile is the constantly growing demand of mega-mining. There is much work to do questioning the sustainability of the model. Regulating much more strictly the three industrial sectors mentioned above is fundamental, and in doing so we need to utilize social pressure, but also legal, normative and regulatory changes.

Chile inherited a constitutional and legal system which empowers corporations and disempowers citizens, which privatized natural resources, such as water, minerals, industry and all public services. Campaigns such as “Patagonia without Dams” have helped to make all this visible, not only through denouncing the status quo- but also through proposing alternatives.

Patagonia was not well known by Chilean people 8 years ago. Now every Chilean person knows and values this precious bioregion, a ‘biogem’ for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of our US partners. The campaign also triggered the discussion about the potential for energy efficiency and the potential of the abundant non-conventional sources of energy in Chile.

What’s next for you?

Watching for the appearance of other large hydroelectric dams in Patagonia and Chile, as well as intensifying our work in all the related areas, such as energy policy and energy development.

Our ‘deeper’ mission at Ecosistemas is environmental divulgation, or education. We think our crucial challenge is to contribute to a cultural shift towards an ecological, normative paradigm.

We are still acting as if we were blind to the impending collapse of the actual biosphere of which we, humanity, are a part. Our challenge is not how to generate more and more energy and more and more GDP, but how to curtail demand and consumption of everything.

The ecological imperative demands a decrease in humanity’s production, and the ethical/humane imperative demands that we distribute these products with fairness and equality. The ecological clock is ticking even faster and louder than the social clock, which is a lot to say.

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