Civil Society, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Global Governance, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Widespread Opposition to Power Plants

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 19 2008 (IPS) - Not only the five mega-dams planned for two pristine rivers in southern Chile have drawn opposition from environmentalists, local residents and indigenous groups, but other major hydropower and thermoelectric projects have as well.

“Today, citizens have taken on a role that should be played by the state and by government officials,” Juan Pablo Orrego, with the Ecosistemas environmental group, told IPS.

Ecosistemas is fighting the five dams that the private Chilean-Spanish energy company HidroAysén plans to build on the Baker and Pascua rivers, located around 2,000 km south of Santiago, in the Patagonian wilderness.

“Chile is an ecologically fragile country. We are just a step between the Andes mountains and the sea,” said Orrego, who previously fought battles against the construction of the Pangue and Ralco hydroelectric dams on the Bío-Bío river, also in southern Chile. The dams, built by the Spanish utility Endesa, began to operate in 1997 and 2004, respectively.

The campaign against HidroAysén waged by the Patagonia Defence Council (CDP), an umbrella group of 50 Chilean and international organisations opposed to the planned dams due to concerns over environmental and social impacts and effects on the tourism industry, is “setting legal precedents and forging new paths in the areas of communications and citizen participation that could help other environmental conflicts in the country,” said Orrego.

The CDP celebrated in November when the company requested a nine-month extension of the environmental impact assessment phase after receiving thousands of observations on the project from the government.

Fishing villages and coal dust

In the villages of La Higuera and Punta de Choros, in the north central region of Coquimbo, a group of fisherfolk and other local residents are fighting the construction of three coal-fired thermoelectric plants.

The Farellones plant, which would produce 800 megawatts of energy, is to be built by the state-owned mining company CODELCO; Barrancones, which would generate 540 MW, is a project of the Franco-Belgian utility GdF Suez; and the 300-MW Cruz Grande is planned by the Chilean Compañía Minera del Pacífico mining company.

The La Higuera Environmental Defence Movement and people from the small fishing village of Punta de Choros argue that the coal dust from the power plants will hurt marine biodiversity, human health and tourism.

An island off Punta de Choros cove is home to the world’s largest colony of Humboldt penguins, an endangered species, which draws thousands of tourists to the village every year.

The people of La Higuera and Punta de Choros have been mobilising against the coal power plants since 2007, and have met with local and national authorities and members of Congress.

In July, Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman announced a study to determine the impact on the area of the three plants. And in November, CODELCO withdrew its environmental impact study for the Farellones plant, asking for more time to flesh it out. Local residents took the withdrawal of the report as a partial victory.

The decisions reached by authorities with respect to environmental impact studies are “purely political; the technical aspect is merely to comply with the law requiring an impact assessment,” Óscar Avilés, president of the Asociación Gremial de Pescadores de Punta de Choros fishermen’s union, told IPS.

He also said the community is divided over the projects, as a result of “donations” made by some of the companies in question.

Back in the capital

In the Santiago metropolitan region, a movement of environmentalists, professionals and local artists has emerged to fight plans by AES Gener, a U.S. firm, to built the Alto Maipo power plant.

On Dec. 2, the Coordinadora Ciudadana Ríos del Maipo citizen movement published an insert in the local newspaper La Segunda explaining why it is opposed to the plant.

Engineer Edison Acuña, one of the spokespersons for the Coordinadora, told IPS that Alto Maipo, which would produce 531 MW, would threaten water supplies for human consumption and agricultural irrigation, public infrastructure, and mountain tourism in the region, which is home to 40 percent of the Chilean population.

The company has submitted a second environmental impact study, after withdrawing its initial project. Although the Coordinadora celebrated the withdrawal of the original project, it has not let down its guard, and has sent reports detailing what it sees as the project’s shortcomings to the state’s regulatory agencies.

According to Acuña, this is the only way to fight the lobbying in favour of AES Gener by several leading figures in the centre-left ruling Coalition for Democracy, which has governed the country since 1990.

“Today, we citizens are monitoring everything and trying somehow to fight the discretional nature of public decisions. We want such decisions to be transparent and open to scrutiny by public opinion, and to be founded on solid, well-substantiated arguments,” he said.

Third dam on Bío-Bío

The Chilean energy company Colbún, which along with Endesa makes up the HidroAysén consortium, also wants to build a third hydroelectric dam on the Bío-Bío river in southern Chile. The projected 316-MW Angostura plant would cost 500 million dollars.

Local residents in the towns of Quilaco and Santa Bárbara began to organise against the project in 2007. The environmental impact study presented by the company on Sept. 2 foresees the relocation of 126 people, including a number of Mapuche Indian families who had already been relocated from their homes when the Pangue dam was built.

Orrego said that relocating the families twice would be a cruel sort of joke.

Representatives of the movement opposed to the initiative met Nov. 26 in Santiago with the head of Chile’s environment agency (CONAMA), Ana Lya Uriarte, to remind her that the government promised in 2004 that it would not approve any more dams on the Upper Bío-Bío, as part of a friendly settlement agreement signed at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

Uriarte merely responded that “there is neither pre-approval nor pre-rejection of the project.”

Colbún argues that Angostura is not covered by the settlement agreement because it is located outside of the area known as the Upper Bío-Bío.

Berta and Nicolasa Quintremán, two Mapuche sisters who were symbols of the opposition to the Ralco dam, took part in the meeting with Uriarte, and will help strengthen the media campaign against Angostura.

So far, 4,000 signatures against the projected dam have been collected in Santa Bárbara and Quilaco, Freddy Pérez of the Movimiento Aguas Libres y Huequecura Libre (Free Waters and Free Huequecura – a tributary of the Bío-Bío – Movement), told IPS.

“We don’t think the project will be approved, because it was flawed from the start,” and there is a Mapuche archaeological site in the area that cannot be destroyed, said Pérez, who did not rule out the possibility of legal action to block the initiative.

During the campaign against the Pangue and Ralco hydropower plants, it was driven home to environmental groups that “there are serious structural problems in Chile’s legislation: in the constitution approved in 1980” and in the 1981 water code and the 1982 law on electrical services, said Orrego.

The legislation in question, which grants “disproportionate power to the private sector…stands in the way of objective, balanced assessments that include true citizen participation,” and this is added to the “strange collusion or complicity between private companies and the public apparatus” seen in the 18 years that the Coalition for Democracy has been in government, said Orrego.

“The profound loss of confidence in the public services and regulatory bodies…has led people to literally oppose everything, on principle,” he said.

In an acknowledgement that the current environmental impact assessment system does not work properly, President Michelle Bachelet sent Congress a project that would create an environment ministry, to replace CONAMA, as well as an environmental regulatory agency. The government also created a National Strategy for the Integrated Management of River Basins, which is in the pilot phase.

But Chileans are not willing to wait.

All of the sources interviewed for this report complained that the government has not made a major shift to non-conventional renewable sources of energy, given the country’s wealth in such resources, as pointed out by the study “Aporte potencial de ERNC y eficiencia energética a la matriz eléctrica 2008-2025”, on the potential contribution of such sources to the country’s energy matrix over a 17-year period, carried out this year by two universities with the support of the government and civil society.

Environmentalists argue that thermal power plants run counter to the government’s goal of cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. And they are only in favour of hydroelectricity in the case of small “surgically designed” dams, in the words of Orrego.

But the trend continues. On Dec. 10, an environmental impact assessment was submitted to the authorities by MPX Energía, owned by Brazilian tycoon Eike Batista, for the Castilla dam, which would be the largest thermoelectric plant in the country.

The power plant, which would be built at a cost of 4.4 billion dollars in the northern region of Atacama, would generate 2,100 MW.

“Since companies so far have been given carte blanche, they will keep trying to build backwards, primitive and destructive power plants,” said Orrego.

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