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Indigenous Rights

Hydroelectric Project Threatens Chile’s Lake Neltume

Panoramic view of Lake Neltume. Credit: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

SANTIAGO, Feb 6 2013 (IPS) - “This is paradise and they want to destroy it. This has had an enormous psychological impact on us,” says Guido Melinao, leader of the Mapuche indigenous community of Valeriano Cayicul, referring to the Neltume hydroelectric power plant project planned by the Spanish-Italian consortium Endesa-Enel.

The plant, to be built with an investment of 781 million dollars, would have an installed capacity of 490 megawatts and generate an estimated average of 1,885 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually.

In addition to the hydropower plant, which will be run with the waters of the Fuy River and empty into Lake Neltume, Endesa-Enel’s plans also include the construction of a high-tension power line to distribute the electricity through Chile’s Central Interconnected System.

The project was submitted to the Environmental Impact Assessment System in February 2010, but was withdrawn after receiving more than 500 observations. It was resubmitted in December of the same year.

In January 2011, the governmental Regional Council turned the project down, on the grounds that it was incompatible with local and community development policies, plans and programmes.

Nevertheless, there has still been no official final decision on the plant’s construction.

The town of Neltume is located in the municipality of Panguipulli, 860 kilometres south of Santiago. The area, known as Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes), is one of the most popular tourism destinations during high season in the Región de Los Ríos (Region of Rivers).

It is an area rich in natural heritage, with a wealth of forests, rivers, streams, lakes and lagoons.

The area has also served as “a refuge for communities who have managed to establish and maintain their own spaces despite the expansion of the forestry industry in the 20th century,” Juan Carlos Skewes, director of the Department of Anthropology at Alberto Hurtado University, told IPS.

“The way in which these communities populate their territory reflects ancient, archaeological patterns,” explained Skewes. These include “the placement of settlements in sites with a view of the sunrise, and the attempt to always maintain the connection between the volcano and the lake.”

Lake Neltume is surrounded by Andes mountain peaks and offers a view of the Choshuenco volcano.

The “rewe” or totem that is a fundamental part of the ceremonial complex of the Huilliche or Southern Mapuche indigenous people who inhabit the area is placed on one of the lake’s shores.

Jorge Weke, the “werkén” (spokesperson) of the Koz Koz Parliament of Panguipulli, told IPS that the company intends to “desecrate this complex, which would be a sacrilege”.

Skewes noted that this complex “is not visible to Chileans and is scarcely documented in the literature. We are talking about a practice that dates back at least 700 years from an archaeological perspective and has remained intact until today.”

At the bottom of the lake there is “a kind of underwater archaeological site that only the Mapuche are aware of,” composed of the bones of bulls, offered up as sacrifices in their ceremonies.

The hydropower plant project will raise the water level of the lake, and as a result, the lakeshore where the rewe is placed will be submerged underwater. The water temperature will also be altered, which will have repercussions for the area’s biodiversity, noted Skewes.

The bones deposited in the lake bed will be moved as well.

In the belief system of the Mapuche, a central role is played by the “ngen” or spirit masters of nature. Each element of nature – the forest, air, water, etc. – has its own specific master who must be respected. If the ngen are not properly respected, they will leave and take with them the element of nature that they govern, explained Skewes.

As a result, the torrential rains that fell during the last “nguillatún” (a religious ceremony), held in December, were viewed by the local Mapuche communities as a “terrible omen”.

“Not only because it rained heavily, but because the rain raised the water level in the lake to the level it would reach if the hydroelectric plant project goes through. This is why they ended up praying to the spirits standing in the water,” he added.

This has caused “tremendous stress” for the Mapuche, who view the behaviour of the weather “as a reflection of the behaviour of human beings”.

Local Mapuche communities have also protested over the dozens of species of medicinal plants that will be destroyed by the project, including orange ball trees (Buddleja globosa), canelo (Drimys winteri) and Chilean laurel (Laurelia sempervirens).

There are currently five communities, made up of hundreds of people, opposed to the power plant.

Only one group from the community of Juan Quintumán is in favour of it, although its leaders declined to share their reasons for supporting the project for this story. However, it is public knowledge that some community members have received money, construction materials for housing repairs, livestock and feed from the company.

These differing stances towards the project have led to rivalries between communities, which will persist for generations to come, believes Skewes. “This is creating internal divisions that run very deep,” he said.

In a press release dated Jan. 21, Endesa Chile stated that it “has been present in the community of Juan Quintumán and the towns of Neltume, Choshuenco and Puerto Fuy since 2007, maintaining close working ties that have resulted in the development of numerous projects in areas like culture, infrastructure, health and education.”

Skewes criticised the “public insanity” of the Chilean government, for attempting to promote a supposed dialogue on equal footing between a multinational consortium and an indigenous family living in the vicinity of Lake Neltume.

For now, the project’s opponents have refused to participate in the consultation established in the country’s new environmental law. In their view, it is being imposed as an alternative to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which requires that indigenous and tribal peoples be consulted on projects that affect them.

Weke travelled to Italy to present his people’s opposition to the project to the Enel board of directors. Melinao, for his part, has visited the embassies of both Italy and Spain in Santiago, and declared that “we will die fighting for our land.”

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the World Bank.

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  • lightweaver1213

    I couldn’t agree with you more. The peoples of the world have “allowed” a severe injustice to be unleashed on earth’s creation of its rain forests, mountains, rivers, oceans, and creatures great and small. We have allowed it because we didn’t stop it to begin with. We were blindsighted in thinking it was all in the name of “progress.” We even went so far as to nearly wipe out civilizations of peoples because they were different than us. Well where has that progress gotten us? Our air is polluted, our waterways are polluted, certain species of insects, wildlife, and animals are now extinct because of man’s negligent behavior; and then we see a pattern of bloodshed since our inception to the point of natives inherent to certain regions of the world being slaughtered because they were different from others. Now here we are again facing global meltdown, warming, freezing, you name it.

    So I say to the people in Chile “speak out,” take a stand, hold your ground, and don’t give in because once you do, then those in higher authority will think because they could gain and inch that now they can take a mile — and believe me, they will! I hope you can protect your Lake. We have a hydroelectric damn near where I grew up and it sits useless not running water, not providing electric, just taking up space and for what? Do not let them destroy your natural environment.

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