Chilean Elections Shaping Energy Future

Emily Jovais

On November 17, Chileans will choose their next President – and arguably the country’s energy future as well. Energy issues including the proposed mega-dam project in Patagonia, HidroAysén, have dominated election discourse and will determine how many Chileans vote on Sunday. Over the past few years, widespread opposition to HidroAysén has helped inspire a national environmental movement with Chileans taking to the streets in protest, organizing through social media, and speaking out to the media. This same movement has found a powerful place in the upcoming elections, helping to shape much of the debate around HidroAysén, energy planning and environmental issues in Chile.

The first mobilization against the proposed 2,750 MW project took place on May 9, 2011 after a majority of the Aysén region’s Environmental Evaluation Service (Servicio de evaluación ambiental) approved the proposal, effectively giving the project the green light. Following the ruling, the Consejo de Defensa de la Patagonia (Patagonia Defense Council) organized a peaceful protest in Santiago. More than 30,000 people gathered in the capital along with hundreds of others in 16 other cities throughout Chile, chanting “Piñera, entiende, Patagonia no se vende” (Piñera, understand, Patagonia is not for sale). Protests continued for several weeks in Chile and around the world – including one we organized in San Francisco – and according to Adimark, a Santiago-based research group, the President’s approval rating fell from 41% in April of 2011 to 36% in May, after approval of HidroAysén.

Chileans protest in Santiago following the initial approval in May 2011
Photo courtesy of Ecosistemas

There are nine presidential candidates for 2013. They are:

  • Michele Bachelet, Partido Socialista (PS)
  • Marcel Claude Reyes, Independiente
  • Marco Enriquez Ominami, Partido Progresista
  • Ricardo Israel Zipper, Partido Regionalista de los Independientes (PRI)
  • Tomas Jocelyn-Holt, Independiente 
  • Evelyn Matthei Fornet, Partido Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI)
  • Roxana Miranda, Partido Igualdad
  • Franco Parisi, Independiente
  • Alfredo Sfeir, Partido Ecologista Verde

Eight of the nine candidates have spoken out against HidroAysén, and six have committed to stopping the project if elected. Notably, former president and current frontrunner Michelle Bachelet said in a televised debate about the project: “It clearly is not viable, and I therefore think it should not move forward.” Only right-wing candidate Evelyn Matthei has come out in favor of HidroAysén. Meanwhile, the project remains stalled due to a combination of administrative appeals, government inaction, and the decision by Chilean energy company Colbún – the project’s 49% owner – to stop work while there is no political or social consensus in support of the dams. 

While there is consensus amongst the candidates that Chile's energy matrix must be cleaner, less costly and more independent, there are many differing views on how best to go about this change. Many candidates have expressed that criteria for sustainability, equality and citizen participation should be incorporated into energy planning and that all energy infrastructure should be consistent with the level of development that Chileans want as a country. All the candidates except Matthei and Ricardo Israel have stressed the importance of energy efficiency, and all the candidates oppose nuclear energy except Tomas Jocelyn-Holt and Matthei. With regard to fossil fuels, Alfredo Steir proposes a moratorium on new thermoelectric power plants while Matthei supports these sources as a reliable backup system.  

The wild Pascua River with would be dammed by HidroAysén
The wild Pascua River which would be dammed by HidroAysén
Photo by Aviva Imhof

Across both sides of the debate, one thing is certain: the discussion surrounding Chile’s energy future can no longer be delayed. The time is now for Chile to create a comprehensive plan that will bolster a clean energy economy and meet future energy demand. Chile has world-class non-conventional renewable resources for solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and ocean power, as well as significant potential for energy efficiency. The recent boom in non-conventional renewable energy sources and the new national renewable portfolio standard are evidence of the growing national and international interest in seeing this sector become a major contributor to Chile’s future energy supply. 

Beyond influencing the outcome of the election, HidroAysén has become representative of government priorities and policies that are no longer acceptable to many Chileans. The anti-HidroAysén campaign is unfolding at a moment in Chile’s social history when Chileans are becoming more aware of and frustrated with what they believe to be a flawed political system. Chilean students, miners, workers and professionals are insisting that the political system be democratized and that the country’s resources be more fairly distributed. Many hope that the new administration will reform the Constitution that was put in place by the military dictatorship, which ruled from 1973 to 1990. 

Chile will now be added to a long list of countries whose political systems have been shaped by anti-dam movements. Dam struggles played a crucial role in pro-democracy movements in the 1980s including those in Eastern Europe and South America. Chile serves as a contemporary example of the ways in which dam movements continue to represent efforts to create more equitable and transparent political systems. As people go to the polls on Sunday, I am eager to watch Chileans continue to make their voices heard, this time through the ballot box. After the election, the Patagonia Defense Council and the general public will need to hold the new president and other candidates accountable to their election promises in order to put the controversial HidroAysén dam project to rest once and for all.   

To see a full profile of what each candidate has said about HidroAysén, visit the Vota Sin Represas website

Elections Update

Chileans elected their new president on December 15, and the winner – former President Michelle Bachelet – will take office in March 2014. Bachelet won with about 62% of the votes, the highest percentage for any presidential candidate since the country returned to democratic elections in 1989.

Chilean Presidential Candidates on HidroAysén by InternationalRivers

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Thursday, November 14, 2013