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Pop a Cork for Patagonia!

The Pascua River flowing into Lago Chico.

Sometimes the biggest and best news about the environment can be hidden away in the inside pages of the business press. Last week it was a Bloomberg news item that caught my attention. It was a brief report on the announcement by a big Chilean energy company, Colbún, that it was looking to sell its 49-percent share in a hydroelectric project known as HidroAysén. At first blush this might appear to be an obscure matter. But to me, it was a hugely important signal that one of the most significant environmental battles in the world today may be tilting in favor of the white hats. Given the history of the project, this is nothing short of astonishing.

Almost six years ago, when I first saw the rainforests and snowpeaks of Patagonia, it was like enduring a two-week bout of bipolar disorder, inspiration and gloom in equal measure. Inspiration, because I was seeing one of the wildest and most beautiful places on Earth; gloom, because HidroAysén would tear out its heart, and there was no apparent reason to think that anyone could stop it.

The plan was to build five dams on the pristine Baker and Pascua rivers in the remote wilderness of southern Chile. But this was no ordinary dam project. By any standards, it was a monster. HidroAysén would generate 2,750 megawatts, considerably more than the Hoover Dam, increasing Chile's energy supply by almost one-fifth. Perhaps worse than the dams themselves, all this power would be brought to the country’s heartland by a 1,400-mile transmission line. It’s hard to think of anything much uglier than a 260-foot-tall electricity pylon planted next to a churning turquoise river or a shimmering glacier, but try imagining a parade of 6,000 of the things.

At the time of that first trip, early in 2006, the fight was only just beginning, and the outcome felt preordained. On one side was a partnership of two immensely powerful corporations -- Colbún, which is owned by one of the richest families in Latin America, and the Spanish majority shareholder, Endesa.  On the other was a motley handful of activists who had been badly outgunned in the two biggest battles they had fought over the previous decade -- first to stop the damming of the beautiful Bíobío, Chile’s second-longest river, and then to block the development of the multi-billion-dollar Pascua Lama gold, silver, and copper mine. Now they were up against a new adversary that in both its price tag and its strategic importance was bigger than both of these.

In the Chilean capital, Santiago, I met some of the veterans of those earlier battles, people like Juan Pablo Orrego, whose efforts on the Bíobío campaign had been recognized with the 1997 Goldman Prize and the 1998 Right Livelihood Award (sometimes known as the “Alternative Nobel”). They were savvy, determined people, and they had forged close working relationships with big international NGOs like International Rivers and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which publishes OnEarth. But they had few financial resources and they were isolated from their own country’s political mainstream.

Down in Patagonia, opposition to the dams was an even more ragtag affair. Much of it was driven by the American apparel industry magnate and deep ecologist Doug Tompkins, who had bought up a 1,250-square-mile chunk of rainforest, fjords, and glaciers, turning it into a nature sanctuary called Pumalín. (For his temerity, Tompkins was accused at various times of using Pumalín as cover for a Zionist plot to split the country in two and of spearheading a covert plan to promote abortion in Chile, where it remains illegal.) There was a maverick conservative local politician, Antonio Horvath, a.k.a. the “Ecosenator.” In Coyhaique, capital of the Aysén region, there were a few passionate but impecunious activists who could rally a couple of  hundred local residents for anti-dam protests but felt isolated and estranged from the “professionals” in Santiago, a thousand miles away.

Fast forward five years to my second visit, in March 2011. By now, the anti-HidroAysén movement had grown into a loose coalition of several dozen small organizations, but at least on the surface it still seemed a case of David and Goliath. The government had changed since my previous trip -- President Michelle Bachelet, a center-left feminist and torture survivor from the Pinochet era, had been replaced by a wealthy conservative businessman, Sebastián Piñera. HidroAysén had engaged the public relations giant Burson Marsteller, which was churning out TV commercials with dire images of what would happen if the project was blocked -- one especially scary one showed the lights going out on a surgeon in the operating theater. And then, in May 2011, the government approved the bitterly contested environmental impact assessment of the Baker and Pascua dams. All that remained was to approve a separate EIA for the transmission line. Game over, it seemed.

But sometimes a political dynamic can shift almost invisibly beneath the surface for years before the mounting anger finally boils over. In March, I’d attended another of the frequent small demonstrations in Coyhaique, with a crowd of maybe three hundred people, high school students for the most part, gathering in the plaza with hand-lettered signs to listen to protest songs from a punk band. But now, quite abruptly, there were tens of thousands of demonstrators outside the presidential palace in Santiago, venting their rage at the despoiling of Patagonia. Within weeks these displays of anger began to coalesce with a mass student movement disgusted at the inequities of the Chilean educational system. The result was the biggest protests the country had seen since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship. Polls showed more than 60 percent of Chileans opposed to HidroAysén. Piñera’s approval ratings dropped off the cliff. A Supreme Court decision in April 2012, rejecting appeals filed by opponents of the dams, only brought fresh waves of protesters into the streets, where they were again greeted by riot police with water cannons. Meanwhile, on the corporations’ side, there were signs of cold feet for other reasons. Cost estimates for the dams and the power lines edged steadily upward: from $3.2 billion to $5 billion to $7 billion -- even $10 billion, some said.

Then, just a month after the Supreme Court decision, Colbún announced that it was suspending work on the EIA for the transmission line. And last week came that Bloomberg report, saying that the company was looking to sell its stake in HidroAysén. Goliath, if not yet dead, seems at least to be badly wounded.

Of course, with $10 billion at stake, the fat lady may take a long time running through her scales before she finally sings. Several things may yet breathe new life into HidroAysén. Last year, the State Grid Corporation of China expressed interest in investing in the project. (Chinese state-owned companies are swarming all over the energy and extractive industries in Latin America; in 2010, SGCC bought up seven Brazilian power distributors for almost a billion dollars.) Chile and Argentina have held talks about the possibility of routing the Patagonian power line through Argentine territory. And Colbún’s announcement last week let slip a very significant admission. For years the company and its Spanish partner, Endesa, had denied charges that HidroAysén had a hidden agenda -- to generate power for the country’s mining industry rather than just to provide electricity to newly prosperous consumers. But now Colbún CEO Ignacio Cruz was warning that opposition to the project could stunt Chile’s economic growth over the next decade by delaying energy-hungry copper-mining projects. And no Chilean government will take that warning lightly, since copper accounts for a third of the country’s income.

But while this epic fight may not be over, I think it’s time, in the spirit of this season of celebration, to raise a glass to the environmentalists of Chile. Despite the hurdles that lie ahead, they have already shown what a small group of determined people can accomplish against great odds when they set their minds to it. And the rainforests and snowpeaks of Patagonia, for now, remain as pristine as ever.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >