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SANTIAGO, May 23 2011 (IPS) - Environmental approval for the construction of five hydroelectric dams in Chile’s southern Patagonia region has triggered nationwide protests in Chile, giving rise to a citizen’s movement whose focus has gone beyond the question of the dams.
As many as 80,000 people (40,000 according to the police) took to the streets Friday May 20 through downtown Santiago; 50,000 did so Saturday in the port city of Valparaíso, 120 km north of the capital, where right-wing President Sebastián Piñera was giving his annual state of the nation address; and tens of thousands of demonstrators protested Saturday in 26 other cities.
The protests were the largest seen since dictator General Augusto Pinochet stepped down in 1990 after 17 years in power.
“We want room for participation, to decide on the kind of development that is good for the people of Chile,” Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Chilean Patagonia Defence Council – an umbrella group of NGOs carrying out the Chilean Patagonia without Dams campaign – told some 5,000 people in Santiago during the demonstration.
The main aim of construction of the dams is to provide electricity for mining corporations operating in northern Chile, more than 2,000 kilometres away, he said.
“I’m not referring to engines that don’t exist yet, but to ‘premium’ engines that exist today at competitive prices on the international market,” she said.
Environmentalists say there are barriers to importing non-conventional technologies which, they estimate, could provide up to 30 percent of the country’s energy needs at competitive prices, especially in the areas of geothermal and wind power.
They say the origin of the barriers lies in the “duopoly” made up of Endesa, a Spanish firm acquired by Italy’s Enel utility, and Colbún, part of the Chilean group Matte, which together control 70 percent of the electricity market in Chile.
Endesa and Colbún are partners in HidroAysén, which plans to build five dams on the Pascua and Baker rivers in Patagonia, two of the wildest and most pristine rivers in the world.
Endesa also holds water rights to both rivers, which has also raised the issue of the need to nationalise water, which was privatised during the dictatorship.
The Baker river has the highest flow of all rivers in Chile. And the southern region of Aysén is home to South America’s second-largest lake, General Carrera, which is one of the world’s biggest freshwater reserves.
The controversy that has raged since the project was presented in 2008 was limited until now to local groups and organisations working to defend the Patagonian wilderness.
At the time, the regional authorities objected to a number of aspects of the project, and the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF – the government agency charged with overseeing Chile’s national parks and protecting endangered tree species) rejected it outright because it encroached on protected forested areas and national parks.
But the objections vanished after Piñera – a billionaire investor and former owner of the LAN airline, which was privatised just before Pinochet stepped down – took office in March 2010.
The project earned environmental approval May 9 without taking into account any of the thousands of citizen inputs made during the public consultation process mandated by law.
The authorities who gave it the green light are all confidantes of Piñera, who confirmed his approval of the project Saturday in the Council of Ministers – the last step in the process, which will be challenged in the courts and in international bodies.
Hundreds of 70-metre-tall high voltage towers will be needed to transport the energy northwards from Aysén. The high tension lines will require the clearing of a 100-metre-wide stretch of forest running through six national parks, 11 national reserves, 26 priority conservation sites and 32 private protected areas, leading to the deforestation of a total of 2,000 square kilometres of land.
In addition, communities will need to be relocated for the dams and the power lines.
The power line project is a separate undertaking, which has made environmentalists and others wary, because it is governed by the law on mining permits.
Total investment in the two plans would amount to more than seven billion dollars, and net profits are estimated at over one billion dollars a year.
Critics point to the political and financial efforts to get the dam project approved, including a donation by Endesa of one million euros (1.4 million dollars) to the foundation headed by First Lady Cecilia Morel, as well as donations for relocation and gifts for local residents of the area that would be affected, which comprises 15 percent of the country’s territory but is home to just two percent of the population.
Nancy Domínguez, in the remote fishing village of Caleta Tortel in the Patagonian fjords, is one of the recipients of this largesse: she got financing from the company for a kiosk in which she sells candy and crafts to tourists who visit the area, which is in the estuary of the Baker river and is at risk of periodic flooding as a result of the dams.
“Of course (the dams) cause environmental damages, but for us, older adults with low incomes, this will improve our lives,” Domínguez told IPS.
Michel Mouré, manager of operations at HidroAysén, called suggestions that the people of Aysén are being bought off by the company “an insult.”
Mouré told IPS that the scholarships, t-shirts, footballs, and support for microenterprise and citizen councils are part of HidroAysén’s “business social responsibility” policy.
The project represents an opportunity to overcome high levels of unemployment and poverty in one of the country’s most neglected areas, he argued.
But the Catholic bishop in Aysén, Luis Infanti, told IPS that the company is “buying off people’s consciences” and trying to divide the community between the “defenders” of the area and the “sell-outs.”
If that was the aim, it has apparently failed, because after the May 9 approval of the project by the Environmental Assessment Committee of the region of Aysén, a regional survey showed that more than 60 percent of the population is opposed to the dams and wants the government to pay more attention to the strategic area.
In a survey carried out in April by the international polling firm Ipsos, 61 percent of respondents nationwide said they did not want the dams to be built, a proportion that rose to 65 percent after the environmental approval, according to a poll carried out for the government-aligned La Tercera newspaper.
But according to Larraín, a full 85 percent of the population is opposed to the dams.
In the past few months, HidroAysén has carried out an intense publicity campaign with television spots showing operating rooms suddenly going dark, families numb with cold, food rotting and other drastic or difficult situations that would supposedly occur due to a shortage of energy if the dams were not built.
Piñera said that without the dams, Chile would suffer “a blackout” in less than 10 years.
The government’s response has been to clamp down harshly on the protests, a step justified by the authorities by the need to control small groups of stone-throwing vandals – although tens of thousands of peaceful protesters were attacked with water cannons and tear gas.
A Santiago judge declared illegal the hundreds of arrests of demonstrators in the May 9 protests by police officers who hid their badges. The detainees included a left-wing legislator.
It is still early to calculate the political costs that the crisis will have for a government that has only been in power for just over a year.
But the focus of the demonstrations is spreading to other areas of discontent, like education, health, transportation or high interest rates.
A large part of the opposition centre-left coalition, which governed from 1990 to 2010, is becoming radicalised, apparently reluctant to miss the bandwagon.
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