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Viva Patagonia!
Five lessons on how to save the planet’s most beautiful places from development by the big and powerful.

Yesterday Chile witnessed a truly remarkable moment in the history of environmental protection. And it’s one that holds lessons for all of us, whether the fight is against destructive mines, fossil fuel extraction, tar sands pipelines, or, in this case, a gargantuan hydroelectric project that would have disfigured one of the most pristine landscapes in the world.

By a unanimous vote, Chile’s Council of Ministers—the country’s highest administrative authority—rejected the environmental permits for five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, which flow through the remote untouched rainforests and glaciers of southern Patagonia. The two partners in the scheme are both industrial giants—Endesa, which is owned by ENEL, the largest power company in Italy, and Colbún, which is owned by the Matte family, the second-richest in Chile. The scale of their project, known as HidroAysén, was jaw-dropping: 2,750 megawatts of electricity, more than the Hoover dam, the equivalent of four large coal-fired power plants; an initial projected cost of $3.2 billion, which rose steadily, as the project faced continual delays and mounting opposition, to anything from $7 to $10 billion; and a 1,200-mile transmission line, with towers more than 260 feet high, that would have brought all that energy to Chile’s central grid, much of it destined for the country’s booming mining industry.

The landscape of southern Patagonia is unforgettable. The Baker is an overpowering torrent of transparent turquoise water; its valley is lined with snowpeaks and dense, primeval forests. It’s one of those unique places that it would be a crime to despoil for any reason. I went there for the first time eight years ago, when the idea of HidroAysén was first being discussed. What remains with me from that trip, other than the astonishing beauty of the land, is the memory of how utterly futile it seemed for people to oppose a scheme of this magnitude, backed by such powerful political and economic forces, especially in a developing country with a rampaging appetite for new energy sources.

I met those who were beginning to talk of opposition. There was Doug Tompkins, an American deep ecologist who had made his fortune from the North Face apparel company and was, with his wife Kris, buying up millions of acres of Patagonian wilderness to shield it from all human development. There was Peter Hartmann, a long-haired, white-bearded former architect and mountaineer in Coyhaique, the principal town in Chilean Patagonia. In Santiago, the capital, there were a handful of individuals in Chile’s tiny community of professional environmentalists, people like Juan Pablo Orrego, who had worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) and other international groups to oppose (with partial success) an earlier big dam project. But they were physically isolated from one another, and their efforts were largely uncoordinated. I’d never seen a more extreme case of David against Goliath.

When I went back five years later, a lot had happened. HidroAysén had produced its assessment of the environmental impact of the dams, a 10,400-page doorstop, but the government of the day, led by the Social Democrat Michelle Bachelet, had slammed it for its “lack of relevant and essential information.” More than 10,000 public comments poured in, almost universally critical. The ragtag band of opponents had morphed into an impressive coalition of 70 groups calling itself the Patagonia Defense Council. And the movement had gone nationwide, fusing with massive student protests that began in August 2011 and brought tens of thousands into the streets of Santiago, the biggest demonstrations Chile had seen since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship.

This was an extraordinary thing to see in this long, skinny, disarticulated country. Many Patagonians, when they travel north, still speak of “going to Chile.” And for most Chileans, Patagonia was always a vague concept, an abstraction of beauty, poverty, and remoteness. But now polls were showing 60, even 70 percent of people opposed to the dams. And influential technical studies by NRDC and Chilean academic experts were showing that Chile didn’t even need all these extra megawatts in the first place: the same goals could be accomplished with a national energy policy that prioritized efficiency and renewables, especially industrial-scale solar (the Atacama desert, which takes up most of the northern third of the country, has the clearest and sunniest skies on the planet).

Even so, while David had grown stronger and Goliath weaker, it was still hard to see how the project could be stopped, especially under the conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera, which had taken office in 2010. And in April 2012, Chile’s Supreme Court issued what seemed to be a landmark ruling, tossing out seven separate legal challenges to HidroAysén. Yet still the battle dragged on, and just a few weeks after the court’s decision, Colbún announced an indefinite delay in presenting its environmental impact assessment for HidroAysén’s transmission line (an entirely separate exercise from the EIA for the dams themselves).

By the time I made my third trip to Patagonia last year, the people I’d first met seven years earlier had begun to scent victory. The singular tactical brilliance of the movement against HidroAysén became clear: it was the ability to run out the clock through a long, slow war of attrition that blended grassroots activism and street demonstrations with effective public relations campaigns, legal challenges, and expert technical analyses, until the issue could eventually be pushed into the 2013 presidential election season. Bachelet, seeking a return to power, was the clear front-runner, and she drew a clear red line, the kind that politicians cross at their peril. “HidroAysén is not viable,” she said in one debate, “and it will not have our support.” Bachelet took office in March, and the stage was set for yesterday’s decision by the Council of Ministers, Chile’s highest administrative authority.

As I said, the HidroAysén campaign contains lessons for all of us. Here’s what I think they are:

  1. Be patient and persistent; never give up. Even if the fight seems unequal, wars of attrition work.
  2. Whether it’s a gold mine in Alaska, a drilling permit at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or a fracking rig in the Catskills, there are special places left in the world that should simply be placed off limits for industrial development; this message can resonate with people regardless of their politics.
  3. People can be motivated to engage in political issues that initially don’t seem to affect their lives directly if the right connections are made (in this case, the soaring cost of private college education and anger at growing levels of economic inequality).
  4. Always have scientifically and economically credible alternative to the thing you’re criticizing. It was vital in Chile to show that building these dams wasn’t even necessary; regardless of the country’s energy needs, they could be met in more environmentally responsible ways.
  5. Bring local and national concerns together under a single umbrella. HidroAysén was about the need for a coherent national energy policy and the preservation of a traditional rural way of life. Fracking is about the transition away from dirty energy sources and the protection of clean groundwater. Keystone XL is about climate change and the Alberta tar sands and the rights of Nebraska landowners. This one may seem obvious, but the righteous indignation we feel about our particular slice of the issue can sometimes make us forget it.

No doubt the lawyers for Endesa and Colbún are at this moment huddled together in Santiago, deciding whether to file a challenge to yesterday’s decision. But to all intents and purposes the dams are dead. And that’s good news—as well as a teachable moment—for environmentalists everywhere.

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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 exploration of Yellowstone. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (4)
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Reading about how the fight against the building of damns on Padagonia's magnificent rivers is the best news that I have heard thus far this year. I seldom shed a tear but the joy of learning that the dams are out... completely overwhelmed me! I do not live down there, nor have I ever seen the beauty for myself other then in a wonderful documentary that made me aware of their struggle a few years ago. I bow to these committed citizens for the courage and determination in doing the right thing. All of us can take a lesson from these dedicated Earth lovers. Thank you for saving another part of our home. God Bless you all.
I find it ironic and frankly criminal that so many excuses made for giant wind turbines in scenic areas, using the buzz-phrase "careful siting." These huge machines are being plastered all over rural landscapes, and wilderness when they can get away with it (Maine and Vermont are good examples). I don't favor dams, but I don't see anything green about carving up ridgelines for 400-foot spinning white towers that can be seen on horizons at much greater distances than many dams and reservoirs. Dams at least create semi-natural looking landscapes that could have occurred by nature's forces. Wind turbines rarely blend in and I'm tired of people claiming they're "beautiful" as if the original landscape needed human meddling.
There are certainly legitimate concerns about the siting of wind turbines, and about other renewable technologies that have yet to be perfected - or may never be perfected. But before you whine too loudly about losing the privilege of your perfect view you might want to think a bit more about the catastrophically poisonous and wasteful energy technologies that have for so long made our spectacular lifestyles possible: Have a look at what mountaintop removal looks like in coal country, and what its many extraordinary consequences are. Really. It's awful. Then look at some of the areas whose farmlands and watersheds have been devastated by hydro-fracking; spend some quality time investigating the long-term consequences of the many major oil spills around the world. While you're at it, do some investigation of what exactly nuclear power plant waste is. Let me know what part of Vermont you think it should be stored in - it doesn't spoil the view at all! Most importantly, familiarize yourself with the massive and irreversible consequences of the air pollution resulting from most of the energy technologies that we take for granted. In order for you to have your warm home, convenient electricity, ridiculously powerful car/pickup/SUV, television, electric light any time you want it, internet access, fresh vegetables in winter, air travel to anyplace in the world, etc, etc, etc, AT THE SAME TIME THAT YOU ENJOY your pristine New England views, other parts of this country and the world are suffering massively. So the question for you - and for me - is "Exactly what aspects of energy use are YOU willing to give up NOW in order for you to preserve that view?"
Agree with the windmills being obtrusive to the view, but they really do no long or short term damage like tradition energy. The main thing I think should be considered is that in the future when a better solution comes along, you just take down the windmill.