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CHILE: International Campaign for a Dam-Free Patagonia

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 10 2007 (IPS) - “Patagonia is THE symbol of nature in the world,” says U.S. lawyer Aaron Sanger, who is leading an international campaign against Hidroaysén, a joint venture that is planning to build five huge hydroelectric stations in the south of Chile.

Sanger, who lives in Washington, was hired by the U.S.-based International Rivers Network (IRN) to lead a campaign against Chilean export products “like copper, timber and fruit,” that in its view are directly associated with the electricity supplied by Hidroaysén.

The IRN is part of the Chilean Patagonia Defence Council (CDP), a collective of 35 local and international environmental, civic, business and religious organisations, to which artists, academics and politicians also belong.

“The international campaign is a tool to make buyers of Chilean products aware of the connections between these goods and Hidroaysén,” but the campaign’s actions have not yet been precisely determined, Sanger said at a meeting with a select group of foreign correspondents on Tuesday.

The mining companies that extract copper, Chile’s main export product, have the most to gain from the 2,750 megawatts to be generated by the five dams on the swift-flowing Baker and Pascua rivers in the Aysén region of Chile, 2,000 kilometres south of the capital, said the lawyer.

Hidroaysén is the result of a partnership established in 2006 between energy companies Endesa Chile, owned by the Spanish firm Endesa, and Colbún, controlled by the Chilean Matte Group. They plan to invest more than four billion dollars in the project.

Endesa owns 51 percent of the shares of Hidroaysén, which will flood 5,910 hectares of pristine wilderness to transmit electricity to Santiago along 2,200 kilometres of power lines running through eight regions in the south and centre of the country.

If the project goes ahead, it will be “the largest clear-cut area in the world,” said Sanger.

In 2002 and 2003, he formed part of a campaign by another U.S. NGO, Forest Ethics, against the main forestry companies in Chile, both of them pulp and paper manufacturers: CMPC, belonging to the Matte Group, and Celco, owned by the Angelini Group.

The Forest Ethics campaign resulted in the signing of an agreement by both companies to protect native forests in southern Chile.

“The IRN cannot see how the Matte Group will fulfil its commitment, and at the same time destroy so many hectares of native forest,” said Sanger, who in 2006 lived in the city of Villarrica in the Araucanía region, 750 kilometres south of the capital.

“We have three times as many organisations involved in this campaign against Hidroaysén as we had in 2002-2003, and the budget is 10 times higher” than that available to fight the Chilean forestry companies, said Sanger, without mentioning the actual amounts.

The money comes from “Chile, Spain, the United States, Canada, and to some degree from all over the world. There’s a great deal of interest in Patagonia, because Patagonia is a unique symbol of nature,” said the activist.

Sanger arrived in Santiago on Oct. 3 to attend the launch of the book “Patagonia chilena ¡sin represas!” (Chilean Patagonia: Without Dams) written by the CDP in order to inform people about the area’s natural wealth and warn of the serious harm the dams would cause.

The book also contains reflections and proposals on appropriate energy policies for Chile, which at present imports 72 percent of the energy it consumes.

Sanger rejected the arguments in favour of the dams to the effect that they are less polluting than diesel and petcoke, a solid high-carbon fuel from the refining of crude oil, which are widely used because of the restrictions on imports of natural gas from Argentina.

“The current energy production system based on diesel and petcoke is horrible, but so is Hidroaysén,” he said, emphasising that thousands of hectares of native forest will be flooded, 12 wildlife reserves will be harmed by the high-tension wires, and the construction of the power stations will have a huge impact on the peaceful existence of the people of Patagonia.

Sanger and Chilean environmentalists believe that the country has a historic opportunity to become a leader in the development of unconventional renewable energy sources – based on free-flow or kinetic hydropower, wind, solar and geothermal energy, and biomass, for example – to meet its energy needs in a sustainable manner.

They also stress the need for an effective programme for efficient energy use.

Bernardo Matte, Colbún’s chairman of the board, questioned the expertise of the U.S. environmental organisations involved in the campaign, like the IRN, Free Flowing Rivers and the Natural Resources Defence Council, in an Oct. 5 interview with the Chilean magazine Qué Pasa.

“I’d ask these people to leave us alone, because they are not the best representatives of unconventional renewable energy sources, which supply only one percent of U.S. energy,” said Matte, referring to the launch of the Chilean Patagonia: Without Dams book.

“They seem to be fighting the battle more enthusiastically here than in their own country. The U.S. is the greatest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, yet they’re trying to impose their ideas on other countries instead of applying them in their own,” he said.

“These environmentalists are the children of (U.S. President George W.) Bush, and they have the same mentality. What he believes, is imposed on the Middle East because he says so. They believe Chile should not develop hydroelectric power, but they use it themselves,” he said.

“Bernardo Matte, it seems to me, has his mind stuck in the past. If he wants Chile to progress, the best thing he can do is switch his investment from Hidroaysén to alternative energies,” replied Sanger, who is not interested in talking to the businessman.

Hidroaysén plans to present its environmental impact study to the authorities in 2008. If it is approved, construction would begin in 2009 and the first hydroelectric station would come onstream in 2012.

But Sanger said he doubted whether Chilean institutions have the capacity to monitor and regulate projects like this one.

The activist called to mind the serious pollution of the Carlos Anwandter wildlife sanctuary, in the southern Los Lagos region, by effluent from the Celco pulp and paper factory, which was responsible for the die-off of hundreds of black-necked swans, an environmental disaster from which the area has not recovered.

He added that in February or March 2008 his organisation will present a study on potential alternative energy sources in Chile, which is being prepared “in collaboration with the state University of Chile, government agencies, and experts.”

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