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CHILE: Environmentalists Defend Patagonian Wilderness from Dams

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Apr 1 2008 (IPS) - Robert Kennedy, senior attorney for the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), is in Chile to support opponents of a plan for building five dams in the southern region of Patagonia.

In his half-hour meeting with President Michelle Bachelet Monday, the environmentalist and son of assassinated U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) offered the president the NRDC’s technical assistance in developing non-conventional renewable sources of energy like wind, solar, mini-hydraulic, geothermal and tidal energy, as well as contacts with foreign investors.

The NRDC is one of 45 local and international organisations making up the Chilean Patagonia Defence Council (CDP), created in 2007 to fight a project by the HidroAysén company which involves building five large hydroelectric power stations on the Baker and Pascua rivers in the southern region of Aysén.

HidroAysén is owned by Colbún, a Chilean firm that holds 49 percent of the shares, and the Spanish company Endesa, which plan to invest some three billion dollars in the complex, to generate 2,750 megawatts of electricity.

Kennedy arrived in Chile a week ago to visit, for the seventh time, the Futaleufú river in the southern Chilean region of Los Lagos, a place he says he has fallen in love with. Before his meeting with the president, the NRDC attorney held a well-attended press conference, together with local representatives of the CDP.

If Patagonia were in the United States, or in any other country in the world, it would be a nature reserve protected by the state, he said, expressing the hope that a policy decision will be taken to prevent the building of the HidroAysén project.

If there were real awareness in Chile, no one would think of building dams in a place like this, said the activist, who also met with Chilean Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman.

Why destroy a national treasure with five dams that will take years to build, when energy can be obtained more cheaply, efficiently and far more quickly from non-conventional renewable sources? asked Kennedy, in whose view Chile probably has the greatest potential in the world for developing renewable energy, because of its wide geographical diversity.

Kennedy said he has been to many countries, but none with an area as beautiful as Chile’s Patagonia region.

The CDP campaign against the five dams, which would flood nearly 6,000 hectares of pristine forest, is following several lines of action.

One of its more aggressive approaches is to boycott Chilean export products, such as wood, copper and wine, that are related to Endesa and Colbún, or stand to benefit from the energy generated by the dams.

The CDP says it will request the 50 largest construction material companies in the United States to boycott wood products from the Matte group, a local firm that controls Colbún.

In addition, the not-for-profit Jane Goodall Institute is coordinating on-line outreach to consumers and high school students in the United States, to unmask the real image of the companies behind HidroAysén.

Artists like country music singer Dana Lyons have also joined the campaign.

Last Tuesday HidroAysén general manager Hernán Salazar met with foreign correspondents in Santiago to present his views on the benefits of the project.

He said that non-conventional renewable energy sources can only provide 10 to 15 percent of the country’s electricity needs, and that to match the power output of HidroAysén would require between 90,000 and 100,000 hectares of wind turbines and 275 mini-hydroelectric stations, with their respective high tension transmission lines.

Salazar emphasised that Chile uses less than 25 percent of its hydroelectric potential – 4,832 out of 20,323 megawatts – and that Aysén, more than 2,000 kilometres south of Santiago, is the area richest in potential hydroelectric power, with over 8,000 megawatts that could be generated from its rivers.

According to the company’s calculations, when the five hydroelectric stations are fully operational they will contribute close to 20 percent of the country’s power consumption.

Furthermore, the executive said that the HidroAysén project is equivalent to seven coal-fired thermoelectric power stations, which unlike hydroelectric plants emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Thus the five dams could save emissions of 16 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

He added that HidroAysén’s environmental impact study is 85 to 90 percent complete, and said the report will be presented in the second half of this year.

At present HidroAysén is negotiating with a Canadian firm, Transelec, for the latter to take charge of the 2,000 kilometres of transmission lines needed to take electricity from Aysén to Santiago across eight of the country’s regions, which is one of the aspects of the project most fiercely criticised by environmentalists.

For technical reasons, he said, the power line, which will carry direct current, will not be able to enter the central grid system (SIC) at a nearer point. The SIC supplies electricity to over 93 percent of the Chilean population, from Atacama in the north to Los Lagos in the south.

He said Transelec is preparing a draft plan, with the approximate locations of high tension towers. If HidroAysén is satisfied with this, Transelec will present its own environmental impact study to the authorities.

HidroAysén’s communications adviser María Irene Soto told IPS that the company intends to counter the CDP media onslaught opposing the project solely with “information.”

The background to the debate on the dams is the power shortage: the authorities are not ruling out the possibility of electricity rationing in the coming months. Chile imports 72 percent of the energy it consumes.

Some of the factors contributing to the shortage are cuts in natural gas supplies from Argentina since 2004, soaring oil prices, and the lack of rainfall in the country since last year, caused by the cyclical La Niña climate phenomenon.

Although several cabinet ministers have said they are in favour of the hydroelectric dams, as long as they respect the country’s environmental regulations, Ana Lya Uriarte, the head of the national environment commission CONAMA, has introduced a note of uncertainty.

On Saturday, she announced that the pilot project for the National Strategy for the Integrated Management of River Basins would be carried out on the Copiapó river in Atacama, the Rapel river in the O’Higgins region, and the Baker river in Aysén, a planned site of the HidroAysén project.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are awaiting the results of a study on the country’s energy industry being prepared by experts from government institutions, like the Energy Ministry and the National Programme for Energy Efficiency (PPEE), and academics from the University of Chile and the Federico Santa María Technical University.

But in the meantime, they are studying all the legal options to block the dams.

Kennedy also plans to meet with members of parliament and with the presidential hopeful of the rightwing opposition National Renewal Party, Sebastián Piñera.

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dan farrelly