Protests as Chile approves mega-scale Patagonia hydro project

A complex multi-dam hydroelectric scheme that environmentalists say threatens a pristine area of fjords and valleys in Chile’s remote Patagonia country was approved May 9 by an 11-to-1 vote of the Aysén Environmental Review Commission, a body appointed by the central government to oversee the project, after a three-year assessment. The 2,750-megawatt HidroAysén project includes five dams—three on the Río Pascua, and two on the Río Baker, Chile’s largest river by volume of water. The dams would flood at least 5,700 hectares (22 square miles) of forest and farmlands in southern Chile’s Aysén region, including part of Laguna San Rafael National Park.

Protests broke out as the decision was announced. Police arrested dozens and clashed with hundreds more in Coihaique, the Patagonian city where the commission met. The commissioners were kept indoors for their safety as protesters hurled rocks and police responded with water cannon and tear gas. Similar scenes unfolded in the capital, Santiago.

Dam proponents say that Chile needs the hydro-power to keep its economy growing, especially in view of a reduction in natural gas being imported from Argentina. Critics assert the HidroAysén approval process was marred by a flawed environmental impact assessment and conflicts of interest on the part of some members of the commission, which was appointed by Chile’s pro-development President Sebastian Piñera. The project would also drown the habitat of the endangered southern huemul deer, a Chilean national symbol, critics charge.

Last week, opponents filed conflict-of-interest charges against members of the commission, including regional governor Pilar Cuevas. The charges were accepted on the day of the commission’s vote, but an injunction to stop the vote was not granted. Several commission members had already recused themselves from the vote due to conflicts of interest, including the regional environmental representative, regional energy minister, and the mining representative.

Patricio Rodrigo, leader of the Patagonia Without Dams advocacy group said: “We are outraged that the regional environmental review commission has approved this destructive and illegal project against the will of the majority of Chileans. We are calling on President Piñera to overturn this decision and protect Patagonia.” (Environmental News Service, May 11; The Guardian, May 10)

See our last posts on Chile and regional struggles for control of water.

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