Save Patagonia and We Will Save the World

Pinochet gave away the water rights to Patagonia's rivers in the last weeks of his dictatorship
Pinochet gave away the water rights to Patagonia's rivers in the last weeks of his dictatorship
The cold hard facts of Chile's history make the Patagonia dams controversy one of the planet's emblematic natural resource conflicts.

Regardless of Chile's desire to rid itself of the shadow of 17 years of dictatorship, the unsustainable nature of dam construction proposals such as HidroAysén are rooted in the exploitation and abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).

Coming from such a dark place, it is a wonder that so many Chileans can have such a bright outlook for the future of their rivers. The saying, "If we can save Patagonia, we can save the world" is a popular sticker slogan in the south of Chile. Where did these folks get such a cheery look at things? How can they can keep up such positive activist spirit, especially when confronted with the limited public recourse available in a legal and resource management system that was installed by the dictatorship? In many ways, the dictatorship continues to run roughshod over most contemporary parameters of environmental review and equal access to participation in decision making. The situation is so extreme, you can almost hear the HidroAysén public relations team at Burson Marsteller saying "exactly!! bow down! these dams WILL be built!"

How do people keep the spirit in the face of such daunting odds? From Patagonia to Burma, from the Amazon to México, the spirit is in knowing the true value of a free-flowing river in a time of ecological crisis.

It is the glorious glimpse of a healthy environment that rivers like the Baker and the Pascua provide that gives defenders of Patagonia hope and a hard-working spirit. And there is still lots of hard work left!

At this point in time, the review of the HidroAysén project is in suspension (again!) until Oct 20, 2009. Buoyed by a multi-million dollar public relations campaign, HidroAysén wants to sneak in under the radar during the election and place itself for approval with a new president taking charge in March 2010.

In the meantime, the Energía Austral project currently is in review, the San Pedro project is under construction, and up on the Bío Bío the fate of the La Angostura project is underwritten by Codelco contracts with Colbún--before the project is even approved!.

Satellite image of Chaitén Volcano, April 2008
Satellite image of Chaitén Volcano, April 2008
With such realismo mágico, it is a wonder that we are not in the middle of an Isabel Allende novel--giant dams are to be approved with no transmission lines reviewed to carry the electricity, the electicity is purchased by mining interests before the dams are even approved, workers dissapear into rivers with hardly a mention in the press, and companies and government officials alike refuse to admit that the Andes are a volcanic and earthquake prone region - even as the ground shakes under them.

This surrealism demands that we be on our guard! For instance, though here in the US we have quieted our offense against The Home Depot, we have continued to gather grass roots support in the US and Chile to demand that this US retailer sever ties with the Matte Group. The Matte Group, by the way, made all of 382 million dollars in one week after Codelco sealed the futures deal with Colbún. And The Home Depot says that they do not do business with the interests building dams in Patagonia? Yet another surreal twist to this story of corporate abuse of the planet.  We can only say at this point in time "poor Home Depot" -- Patagonia is going to come back to haunt them.

Yes, the story of the wild rivers of Patagonia is still long from over. It is a story of our future, and it is a story of committing to the work knowing that it is not that Patagonia is more special than the Amazon, or than the Omo River, or than the Mekong -- actually, for many people, Patagonia may not be that one special place that calls them. Yet, river lovers everywhere recognize the immense ramifications in protecting the rivers of Patagonia for other free flowing rivers around the world.

Patagonia is a region that is being battered by climate change. How rivers and forests are treated in this incredibly sensitive region while responding to this planetary emergency will set parameters for global environmental management for years to come. A serious shift in Chile towards a more innovative and efficiency oriented energy matrix would also set a global standard.

As well, recognizing that wild and free flowing rivers inherently have high environmental value, as does a frontier or "old growth" forest, will change the false discourse about large dams as a response to the excessive green house gas emissions of fossil fuel based energy sources. The first response to the clmate change challenge should be "Do No Further Harm," not "Break one of the few natural jewels left that is not broken." There is an important environmental protection precedent to be set in Patagonia that will mark a tide shift of natural resource use on the planet.

Yes, Save Patagonia and We Will Save the World! It may sound trite, but it is true. It will take everyone integrating the case study of Patagonia into their work to make it a reality. Thanks to everyone for the support, keep up the spirit, and keep watching for more Patagonia and International Rivers blogs, updates, and action alerts from Intenational Rivers staff.

Postscript: This will be my last blog update for the International Rivers Patagonia Campaign for a while. Any philosophical wanderings about the FUTURE in this blog are probably due to the fact that my partner and I are expecting a baby, and as such I think alot about things like healthy rivers, avoiding species extinction, and having a say in decisions that affect me. Bringing a baby into the world is probably the most hopeful thing I have ever done. And it will probably be the funnest -- at least a three month leave to just do baby things, nothing else! Now that is a future to look forward to! Catch y'all on the flip side of the diaper pail!