Civil Society, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CHILE: Mega Dams, Mega Impacts, Mega Half-Truths

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 25 2007 (IPS) - An organisation in the Aysén region in the south of Chile which opposes the building of five hydroelectric stations on two large rivers has made a documentary film about the reactions of communities affected by dams and power lines in Chile and Argentina.

“People who watch the documentary have their eyes opened immediately,” Marco Díaz, president of the Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia, told IPS. The group has 600 members and is located in the city of Cochrane in the Aysén region, 2,000 kilometres south of Santiago.

In May, Díaz and journalist Carlos Garrido recorded on film the testimonies of people affected by the Pangue and Ralco hydroelectric stations in the Bío-Bío region of Chile, and by the high tension lines from the General San Martín dam in the southern Argentine province of Chubut.

The aim of the film, titled “Mega represas, mega impactos, mega verdades” (Mega Dams, Mega Impacts, Mega Truths), is to alert the population of Aysén about the potential effects of the five hydroelectric power stations that the HidroAysén company intends to build on the Baker and Pascua rivers.

The dams and power stations are projected to be built from 2009 onwards, with an investment of close to 2.5 billion dollars.

The plan for the five generating stations was presented in mid-2005 by Endesa, a Spanish energy company, but the sheer size of the project led the firm to form a partnership in 2006 with Colbún, a Chilean energy company controlled by the local Matte group, giving rise to HidroAysén.

Endesa holds 51 percent of the shares in HidroAysén, and Colbún 49 percent.

The five dams would generate a total of 2,750 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to 18,430 gigawatt-hours per year. Transmitting the power to Santiago will entail the construction of 2,000 kilometres of towers bearing high tension cables running across eight of the country’s regions.

The initial plan was to flood 9,300 hectares of pristine wilderness, but due to objections raised by the ministry of Public Works, on Aug. 9 HidroAysén announced that the area to be flooded by the dams would be reduced by 36.5 percent, to 5,910 hectares.

Environmental organisations are not satisfied with this, however, because they are only in favour of small dams that do not involve damming entire rivers or flooding lands, in order to preserve livestock raising and tourism activities in the south of Chile.

In contrast, HidroAysén argues that the two hydroelectric stations on the Baker river and the three on the Pascua offer a development opportunity for the country and for the region, which has a population of 91,492 and an area of 108,494 square kilometres. The company is also promising to improve road, airport and telecommunications infrastructure in the region, reduce the local cost of electricity, create 4,000 jobs, invest in schools and hospitals, and develop cultural and tourism activities.

At issue is covering the country’s energy demand, which is expected to grow by 6.8 percent a year between 2008 and 2017.

Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman and Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte have avoided making any pronouncements on the project, as the company’s environmental impact assessment will not be presented for evaluation until next year.

Tokman has stressed that the electricity the dams would generate “is not surplus to requirements,” since by 2010 an extra 10,000 megawatts will be needed in the central grid system which serves over 90 percent of the country’s population.

To inform local residents about the dams, HidroAysén has laid on a permanent, mobile “open house” programme, as well as a major advertising campaign in the local media, Díaz said.

But the “Mega represas, mega impactos, mega verdades” film shows what the company has not wanted local people to know, the activist said. It has been screened in more than six locations in the region, and there have already been requests for copies from other regions in Chile and from abroad.

The first case addressed is that of the Argentine village of Aldea Escolar, which is beneath the high tension lines of the General San Martín power station, owned by Hidroeléctrica Futaleufú. Inaugurated in 1978, it is located in the Futaleufú river valley, in the south of the country.

A decade after the cables were strung, local people began to experience the first effects, which included congenital malformation in animals, a high number of cancer cases, and neurological problems in children and young people.

The documentary also investigates the Pangue and Ralco dams in the headwaters of the Bío-Bío river, 500 kilometres south of Santiago. They are both owned by Endesa, and came onstream in 1997 and 2004, respectively.

Construction of the Ralco dam began amidst fierce opposition from environmental and indigenous organisations, because 92 families of the Pehuenche people (a branch of the Mapuche indigenous people), who were living in the area of the upper Bío-Bío, had to be relocated to lands higher up the valley.

The film shows sisters Berta and Nicolasa Quintremán, who resisted pressure from Endesa for years, and other Pehuenches who accuse the transnational corporation of not fulfilling its promises of jobs, improvements to houses and roads, student scholarships, health centres, and technical advice for production on the families’ new lands.

The indigenous people complain that they were tricked by Endesa personnel when they signed the papers to exchange their land for other property.

The company officials told them that the government had already approved the construction of the hydroelectric station, and if they did not agree to the exchange they would be forcibly evicted from their homesteads.

The people interviewed in the documentary say that the company gave them gifts, took them to health centres to consult doctors, and provided alcoholic drinks. Once they were drunk, they were persuaded to sign the contracts.

“It’s the same ‘modus operandi’ that HidroAysén is using now. They bring in ophthalmologists, they give away bales of hay, mate (a traditional herbal tea) and flour. That’s why, when people see the documentary, their eyes are soon opened,” said Díaz.

The Pehuenche also say that their new plots of land are not as good as the ones they left behind. They cannot raise animals because the lands are covered with snow in winter, and there is no good wood to be had. Some families lack electricity because they cannot afford to pay the bills.

“What hit me most (during the filming of the documentary) was the sense of bitter regret the Pehuenche have, for not having fought on to the end. This feeling arose when they assessed the quality of life that they have now,” Díaz said.

People affected by the Pangue hydroelectric station are also interviewed in the film. They blame the dam for the destruction of their houses and the deaths of 25 people in July 2006, when the dam opened its floodgates to cope with the rise in the reservoir level after a torrential rainstorm.

Environmentalists and lawmakers accused the company of not giving sufficient warning before opening the gates and flooding communities 100 kilometres downstream. “In Santa Bárbara when it rains for two or three days in a row, people think that the dam will burst and they will all be drowned,” Díaz said.

Endesa declined to comment to IPS on the accusations made in the film.

“In Aysén, the population is divided into four groups: those who are against the dams, those who are in favour, those who are against but think that they’ll be built anyway, so it’s not worth fighting them, and those who want to negotiate for compensation,” Patricio Segura, of the Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve (CCARV), told IPS.

The CCARV is an umbrella group for seven organisations, including the Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia presided by Díaz.

As part of the campaign against the project, there will be a book launch in October in Santiago of “Patagonia sin represas” (Patagonia Free of Dams), and on Nov. 11 people will trek on horseback from the city of Cochrane to Coyhaique.

“Over 50 people have already registered. On the way we plan to hold traditional events and give out information about the dams,” Díaz said.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags