Is Nothing Sacred When It Comes to Satisfying Our Endless Energy Binge?
COCHRANE, CHILEAN PATAGONIA -- Normally I’m allergic to hyperbole. People who toss around overused (and more often than not inaccurate) words like unique and pristine, or describe everything from the Grand Canyon to a babbling brook in Connecticut as totally awesome, can be deeply annoying. But I will make an exception to this general rule in the case of the Río Baker, here in the remote south of Chile. I will go out on a limb, in fact, and say that this may be the most beautiful untamed river in the world. If you disagree, please send photographs to support your nominations.
There’s a belief, deeply rooted in the 19th century and still passionately held by many environmentalists, that untouched wilderness like southern Patagonia is the true, authentic face of the world, and that encountering it teaches us who we are, what we should be, and how we have fallen from grace. Again, I tend to stop short of such a sweeping view of things. Philosophically, I see our coexistence with the land as necessarily a tough, pragmatic battle, in which we preserve what we can and make bitter compromises where we must. But even for the pragmatist, there are places like the Baker, where the utter wildness and beauty overwhelm all thoughts of compromise, where you want to build some environmental equivalent of the Great Wall of China and hang a sign that says “OFF LIMITS. FOREVER.”
Ironically, it’s the very wildness of the Baker (Chileans pronounce it Backer) that now places it at risk, for there is always someone who looks at this kind of raw power and says, what a waste, what a squandering of potential profits. In Chile, that someone is an energy consortium called HidroAysén. And forever, in the case of the Baker, may mean just another month or so -- the period in which the Chilean government is likely to give its seal of approval to a plan by HidroAysén to bury long stretches of the Baker and the nearby Pascua in cement and steel.
Arguing that the country faces a critical energy deficit between now and 2025, HidroAysén has been lobbying for the past five years, against bitter opposition, to build a string of five colossal dams on these two pristine rivers, producing a total of 2,750 megawatts of power. That’s bigger than the Hoover Dam and equivalent to more than a quarter of the total current capacity of Chile’s central electricity grid. In themselves, these five dams would be no more than ugly, useless slabs of masonry, stuck away in the middle of nowhere. But the even greater affront to the land is that carrying all those megawatts to Chile’s urban and industrial heartland will also mean building a 1,400-mile transmission line, a parade of 6,000 pylons, each as much as 262 feet tall, marching north to the capital, Santiago.
Think of this transmission line as a gigantic power strip. Once it is built, every other wild river in Patagonia can be plugged into it at will like a domestic appliance. And under a unique Chilean law, the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, Endesa, the Spanish-owned majority partner in the HidroAysén consortium, owns the rights to develop most of those rivers, too. (Note: Click photos to read captions.)
When I first came to Patagonia five years ago, I described the fight over the Baker (which was then just beginning) as a "global parable." (See "Patagonia Under Seige," Fall 2006.) I believe that more than ever today, because the HidroAysén project poses some of the most fundamental questions of our time. Where do we draw the line in our insatiable demand for energy? If not in Patagonia, then where? Can we meet our needs in a rational and far-sighted way, or do we mortgage the future to the entrenched interests of powerful corporations like Endesa? At a moment in history when the whole world has to make fundamental choices about its long-term energy strategies, which path will Chile take? That’s more than a parochial question: Chile’s self-image is bound up with the belief that the country represents a model for the developing world, and on March 21 President Sebastián Piñera is scheduled to welcome Barack Obama to Santiago -- the principal item on their agenda being clean energy, no less.
Some great rivers begin as tiny mountain rills. Not the Baker, which emerges full-blown from a lake, Lago Bertrand, and rushes southward, already hundreds of feet wide, in unearthly shades of turquoise and pale emerald. Stretches of fast, unbroken current give way to thunderous waterfalls as the river negotiates its path through dense forests, rocky chasms, and lower, drier hills that hint at the steppes of Argentine Patagonia, on the other side of the Continental Divide.
In this interval of arid land, the Río Chacabuco enters from the east, carrying its load of milky blue glacial silt. This is where the 660 MW Baker 1 will be built. Ten miles or so farther downstream is the chilly outpost settlement of Cochrane, the only town of any consequence for hundreds of miles. ("Consequence" meaning two and a half thousand people.) Cochrane is an end-of-the-road kind of place that still carries the aura of the pioneers who began to hack out a living in southern Patagonia a century or so ago. It is a small collection of grid pattern streets lined with homes that are rustic yet charmless, with walls of bare boards or unfinished cedar shingles and roofs of corrugated metal. Smoke from wood fires drifts from tin chimneys. Yet Cochrane would be the nerve center of the HidroAysén enterprise, the hub of a network of trucking routes, port facilities, storage depots, and temporary encampments for the 5,000 or so transient workers building the dams.
South of Cochrane, the washboard dirt road to the Pacific follows the river, past the site of the Baker 2 dam (360 MW), through an ever-lonelier land. On the 80-mile drive to Caleta Tortel, where the river meets the salt, I count fewer than a dozen vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Most are pickups driven by local colonos who work a scattered handful of farms and ranches in the back country. One is the morning bus to Cochrane. A pair of Nordic-looking bikers in Spandex labor their way up a steep incline. A father and son in brown ponchos and the traditional Basque beret of southern Patagonia wheel their horses onto a dirt track leading off into the hills.
Along the way, the Baker picks up one tributary after another. By quirks of geology, soil, vegetation, and gradient, these contribute waters of staggering variety. There are rivers that are chocolate with mud, others that run as clear as gin, others that meander deep-green through forests of native ñirre, coïgue, and lenga. Many carry the runoff from glaciers, tinted every imaginable shade of green, blue, white, even yellow. By the time the Baker reaches its final, open floodplain, it is a surging brown flood a half-mile wide. Brian Reid, an American limnologist, tells me, "The Baker and undammed glacial rivers like it probably contribute 95 percent of the dissolved silica in the fjords of southern Chile. That’s essential for diatoms, the base of the food webs that drive ocean productivity." Dams put an end to all that.
Tiny Caleta Tortel is tucked into a misty fjord between the great (though rapidly melting) northern and southern Patagonian ice fields, the largest reserves of frozen water on the planet other than those in Greenland and at the poles. Tortel is one of the stranger human settlements. The road stops short of town. The 500 or so inhabitants are served only by a network of red-cedar walkways, which give the whole place the faint smell of a mothproof closet. Boats, more dead than alive, are strewn about on the foreshore among the reeds and fallen cedar limbs.
A few windows have stickers that say Patagonia Sin Represas -- "Patagonia Without Dams." Others have hopeful signs directed at the few tourists, offering boat rides to the Montt and Steffen glaciers, or to the Island of the Dead, a scrap of dry land in the estuary of the Baker that contains the graves of 120 men. They were employed by the Sociedad Explotadora del Baker, an early, failed attempt to colonize this region for cattle ranching. They died in 1906. The official version is that they succumbed to scurvy after a supply ship failed to arrive. But locals tell me darker rumors, that the men were poisoned en masse by their employers to save on wages. Even the limited human history of the Baker is wild and mysterious.
Looking down on the deep-green fjord from the highest point of Tortel’s cedar walkways, my mind turns again to the problem of hyperbole. Crimes against nature is another of those overused phrases that grate on me. But if there was ever a case that justified its use, it is the proposal to dam the Baker, surely a crime against nature on an epic scale.
1: In a swirl of glacial colors, the Río Manso meets the Río Ibáñez. The rights to develop the Ibáñez are also owned by Endesa. Return to story.
2: This channel connects Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca, with Lago Bertrand, the source of the Baker. Return.
3: The Baker surges through a canyon close to the site of the proposed Baker 1 dam. Return.
4: The Río Chacabuco (entering the Baker from the right) runs through land owned by American millionaires Doug and Kris Tompkins, who hope to turn it into a national park. Return.
5: The valley of the Río Baker has long, desolate stretches framed by distant snowpeaks. Return.
6: Four miles of cedar walkways link the scattered houses of Caleta Tortel and climb into the surrounding hills. Return.
7: In Caleta Tortel, local boatmen offer trips to the Steffen Glacier, named for one of the earliest explorers of southern Patagonia. Return.
Photos by George Black.