Chile: HidroAysén dam project is scrapped

Chile's environment, energy, agriculture, mining, economy and health ministers voted unanimously at a June 10 meeting to terminate plans for the $8 billion HidroAysén hydroelectric project, a complex of five dams that was to be built on the Baker and Pascua rivers in the Aysén region in southern Patagonia. Environmentalists and many area residents had vigorously opposed the project since it was first proposed in August 2007. HidroAysén supporters said the dams were necessary to meet energy requirements for the country, which currently gets about 40% of its power from hydroelectric projects. But Socialist president Michelle Bachelet, who began her second term on Mar. 11, has indicated that her government will push instead for more use of alternative sources and for the importation of liquefied natural gas. The companies behind the project—the Spanish-Italian electric energy consortium Endesa-Enel, which owns 51%, and the Chilean company Colbún S.A.—have 30 days to appeal the ministers' decision.

Project opponents in Coyhaique, Aysén's regional capital, gathered in a local movie theater while the ministers met; they celebrated with a march after the decision was announced. "It's an historic day," Juan Pablo Orrego, coordinator of the organization Patagonia Without Dams, told the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency. "It thrills me that the citizens—for this is a citizens' victory— finally succeeded in inspiring the government to do the right thing about a giant project." Opinion polls taken at the beginning of 2011 showed 74% of Chileans opposed to the HidroAysén project. (Miami Herald, June 10, from AP; IPS, June 11) Another Endesa-Enel project, a $781 million hydroelectric dam at Lake Neltume in Los Ríos region, is facing strong opposition from the indigenous Mapuche.

Meanwhile, the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation, the world's largest gold producer, is working to restart construction on its mammoth Pascua Lama gold and silver mine high in the Andes on the Chilean-Argentine border; the company suspended operations last November because of decisions by Chilean courts and an environmental agency, combined with a fall in the price of gold on international markets. The company has now signed an agreement with 15 of 18 local Diaguita communities in an effort to end indigenous opposition to the project, Lorenzo Soto, one of the communities' lawyers, said on May 28. The agreement gives the company six months to provide the communities with details on the project, after which Barrick and the Diaguita may start two years of talks in which Soto said they could discuss payment of an "indigenous royalty." Mining Minister Aurora Williams questioned the plan. "In practice that's paying to resolve the situation, and we think that dialogue is what is needed," she told reporters on May 28. (Reuters, May 28)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 15.