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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Campaign Against Dams – and Against the Clock

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Mar 14 2008 (IPS) - On the International Day of Action for Rivers, Chilean environmental groups delivered an open letter Friday to President Michelle Bachelet describing the serious environmental, social and cultural impacts that they say are caused by large hydroelectric dams.

In the three-page letter that marked Mar. 14, formerly the International Day of Action Against Dams: For Rivers, Water, and Life, the groups also asked the president to live up to her commitment to ensure that all investment projects are assessed with a view to the concept of integrated river basin management.

"We hope the president will live up to her promise," said Juan Pablo Orrego, head of Ecosistemas, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO). "We are confident that she will. We are also waiting for the announced reform of the country’s environmental legislation and institutions."

Ecosistemas is one of the 40 local and international environmental, civic, business and religious organisations making up the Chilean Patagonia Defence Council (CDP).

The CDP was created in 2007 to fight against a project by the HidroAysén company involving the construction of five dams in the southern Chilean region of Aysén.

The owners of HidroAysén are Colbún, a Chilean firm that holds a 49 percent share, and the Spanish company Endesa, which will invest some three billion dollars in the complex, to generate 2,750 megawatts of electricity.

The most controversial aspects of the project are that it will flood nearly 6,000 hectares of pristine wilderness, and that the energy will be transmitted to Santiago by means of a 22,000-km power line that will run through eight different provinces.

The company announced that the environmental impact study would be presented to government officials in June, and that if it is approved in 2009, the first plant would come onstream in 2013.

The actions taken by the CDP have involved ads in the media, billboards, a campaign against Chilean export products like copper, timber and wine that in the coalition’s view have links to Endesa or Colbún, or which could benefit from the energy supplied by the new dams.

The government has stated that in June it will introduce a draft law in parliament to create an environment ministry, to replace the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA), as well as an environmental regulatory agency.

Meanwhile, CONAMA has drawn up a National Strategy for the Integrated Management of River Basins, which has not yet been approved by President Bachelet.

The environmentalists are worried that HidroAysén might present its environmental impact study before the legislative reforms are passed, especially since Interior Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma has already publicly expressed his support for the dams.

"I am in favour of construction of the Aysén plants with due respect to environmental questions, which I believe is occurring," the minister said in February.

The activists did not overlook Pérez Yoma’s remarks, in their open letter to Bachelet, which states that "We ask you to require an impartial stance on the part of government officials with respect to projects that have not yet been evaluated."

"As citizens, we consider that statements of support and political signals given by ministers and other civil servants to projects that have not yet been assessed are serious matters. They are anti-democratic and unacceptable, and create public perception of a government that has been coopted by the large companies," the letter adds.

According to Orrego, "the global consensus nowadays is that huge hydroelectric plants and dams are destructive and invasive, and that they degrade communities, towns, and ecosystems and cause the biological death of rivers."

The International Day of Action Against Dams: for Rivers, Water, and Life arose from the First International Meeting of People Affected by Dams, held in 1997 in the Brazilian city of Curitiba.

The roughly 100 people who took part in a demonstration Friday near the government Palace of La Moneda carried placards with legends such as "Energy Without Destruction", and shouted slogans like "Bachelet, understand, life is not for sale!" On Saturday, residents of Aysén opposed to building dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers will be holding their own protest.

But environmentalists are not only concerned about the dams HidroAysén is planning to build. Several initiatives in the southern Bío-Bío and Los Lagos regions have also drawn fire, among them some that would affect Mapuche communities, the country’s main indigenous group,

"An anti-dam movement is taking shape in this country," said the head of the NGO Sustainable Chile Programme, Sara Larraín, who added that the organisations involved in the campaign appreciated hydroelectric power generation, but "not at any cost."

"Chile cannot improvise a response to its energy shortage, which is the result of mistaken policies (of previous governments) and of a business sector that only took market criteria into account when planning electricity services. We don’t want the same mistakes to be made now," the activist said.

Chile, which imports 72 percent of its energy consumption, faces a complex scenario due to cutbacks since 2004 in natural gas supplies from Argentina, record high international oil prices, and a lack of rain in the country since 2007, caused by the La Niña climate phenomenon.

The government has therefore decided to improve energy efficiency and diversify energy sources, especially non-conventional renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.

Environmentalists are cheered by progress in both directions, but they say such measures will not suffice. For instance, on Mar. 5 Congress approved a law to foment non-renewable sources.

The new law establishes that from 2010, five percent of the energy supplied by electricity generators with an installed capacity of over 200 megawatts must be derived from such sources.

This percentage will rise by annual increments of 0.5 percent until it reaches 10 percent of total electricity generated in 2024.

Meanwhile, the CDP continues to insist on its demands. "We are pacifists, but we are also very persevering. There is a huge team of lawyers working for this campaign, and we are convinced that HidroAysén and other similar projects will not be built in this country. The people of Chile will not allow it," Orrego said.

U.S. lawyer Robert Kennedy, of the non-governmental Natural Resources Defence Council, a member organisation of the CDP, is due to arrive in Chile on Mar. 25, and will publicly support the campaign, Orrego told IPS.

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