International Relations Center: Damming Patagonia's Rivers: A Dirty Energy Business

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Originally published by Americas Program, Center for International Policy 

The Pascua River, in Chilean Patagonia, has many qualities that have kept its stunning, rugged beauty intact and virtually unknown–so far. Only one road leads anywhere near the Pascua, and that’s a rough road that takes you to the end of the river’s course. To get to the head of the Pascua, because of the impassable terrain along both its sides, you have to backtrack up that lonely road and travel away from the river and into the town of Villa O’Higgins, located near Chile’s border with Argentina. There you catch a ride on a boat and journey six hours across Lago O’Higgins–South America’s deepest lake. First you’ll motor south along the full length of one of the lake’s fingers, which is split by the Chile-Argentina border. Then you’ll turn north to follow another far finger of the vast lake all the way to its tip.

There you’ll find the cascading source of the Pascua River. The river literally jumps out of Lago O’Higgins into a series of class-6+ rapids and waterfalls that make it one of the fastest, wildest rivers on the planet. From Lago O’Higgins, it churns its way down through a maze of canyons that for thousands of years have delivered pristine freshwater into the Pascua from the jagged, snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the two largest ice fields on earth outside Antarctica and Greenland.

“Clean” Energy, Dirty Business

Unfortunately, if you have the money you can also get there by helicopter. That’s how a consortium of gigantic transnational companies has been dropping its engineers into the Pascua’s wilderness for the past several years. The consortium and its engineers are not there to enjoy the wild beauty of the river, or to learn about the fragile ecosystems that depend on the Pascua’s continuing to run free. These engineers have been hired to advance plans for three mega dams that would turn the 40-mile long Pascua into three “hydropower” lakes.

The consortium–known as “HidroAysen”–hopes that these dam-created “reservoirs” will generate abundant electricity for Chile’s largest cities and growing mining industry. HidroAysen is owned by Chile’s two biggest wood and pulp producers, the Matte Group and the Angelini Group, and also by two of Europe’s biggest utility companies, Enel from Italy and Acciona from Spain.

These global profit-seekers also want to put two mega-dams on Chile’s picturesque Baker River, located to the north of the Pascua. The Baker has just begun to support local tourism businesses that would be virtually wiped out by the dam development. Worse yet, according to HidroAysen’s plans, all the electricity from the Baker and Pascua rivers would be sent north through 1,500 miles of transmission lines, requiring one of the world’s longest clearcuts–a long nasty scar through ancient temperate rainforests. The objective is to supply Chile’s growing industry and large cities. Current estimates for the cost of the dams and transmission lines together exceed four billion dollars.

HidroAysen’s most vocal owner-advocate, the Matte Group, claims that its plans will bring “clean” energy to Chile. But it turns out that Matte’s definition of “clean” ignores the many dirty environmental and social impacts of the proposed dams and transmission lines.

These include scores of displaced families, disrupted traditional livelihoods such as farming and ranching, spoiled local tourism, and destroyed forests. The transmission lines alone would require clearcutting thousands of acres of forest types found nowhere outside of Patagonia, dividing many Chilean communities, and irreversibly damaging several national parks, including some of earth’s most scenic, such as Hornopirén National Park and Corcovado National Park. Victims of these dams would include critically endangered species such as the huemul deer, of which only 3,000 survive today.

Choosing Patagonia over Private Profits

Fortunately, there is a powerful grassroots campaign against HidroAysen. As a result, in Chile, according to the most recent credible survey, most Chileans oppose these plans because of the environmental damage they would cause. The campaign in Chile includes over 40 environmental groups united for a “Patagonia without dams.”

Internationally, thousands of activists have joined the campaign by writing personal letters to Eliodoro Matte (leader of the Matte Group) or by taking action online against Home Depot (Matte’s biggest U.S. customer for wood products). They have also launched an effort to demand that Italy’s Enel, the largest single shareholder, divest itself of its interest in HidroAysen.

And, since Canadian pensioners happen to own the Chilean company that wants to cut that 1,500-mile long swath for transmission lines, the powerful Council of Canadians has called for shareholder action against the plan and weighed in against HidroAysen as well.

International Rivers officially launched its Patagonia Campaign this past March 14 on the 11 th Annual Day of Action for Rivers. The pressure tactics unleashed that day against the Matte Group, Enel, plus Home Depot and 49 other large U.S. customers of Matte have fueled a distinct trend in international media coverage. Beginning on March 14 the UK Guardian published a feature story on the Patagonia dam controversy. In April, The New York Times published a blunt editorial advising reconsideration of HidroAysen by the “international owners of the rights to the water in [the] rivers” to be dammed. Also in April, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe published lengthy, high-profile stories about the natural beauty and ways of life threatened by the proposed dams on Chilean Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua rivers.

Local residents fear that dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers would only be the beginning.

“They [local residents] know that if the power transmission line is built for the Baker and Pascua River project, it will expedite [dams] on all our rivers,” says Peter Hartmann, spokesperson for the Citizens’ Coalition for the Aysén Life Reserve (named after “Aysén,” the short name for Chile’s 11th Administrative District where the Baker and Pascua rivers are located).

“A few years ago a process began to convert this zone, considered a life reserve in Chile and internationally, into an electricity source for the country,” Hartmann says.

The Pascua River–like much of the Patagonian region–nourishes a unique web of life. Many of the animals have had so little contact with humans that they have not yet learned to fear them. The river’s remoteness and ruggedness protect the sanctity of an untouched natural beauty found nowhere else on the planet.

With the exception of the rare intrepid explorer, human beings have never been a part of this web. The fearsome energy of the Pascua literally repulses humans, and previous generations have had the good sense to leave it alone.

A rapidly growing movement of citizen activists believes that any energy development that destroys the little remaining wilderness on the earth such as that found in Patagonia is dirty energy. This movement, supported by International Rivers in its Patagonia Campaign, seeks to keep Patagonia free of the dirty dam energy on which huge companies like the Matte Group and Enel hope to profit.

Truly clean energy, such as that from the sun, the wind, the tides, and underground heat–all abundant in Chile–can fulfill human needs while leaving Patagonia’s rivers to flow freely through their canyons as they have for millennia.

Aaron Sanger is Patagonia Campaign Coordinator at International Rivers and an analyst with the CIP Americas Policy Program ( He worked previously with ForestEthics and was founder of the Chile Native Forest Campaign.

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