Fighting a Faulty ESIA: A Tool in the Campaign to Protect Patagonia

Kate Ross
Monday, March 18, 2013
Protests against Patagonia dams have rocked Chile
Protests against Patagonia dams have rocked Chile
Photo courtesy of Ecosistemas

The campaign to protect Chile’s mountainous Patagonia region from a series of large dams has resulted in a protracted fight – now entering its sixth year – over the project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), and has become the biggest environmental controversy in the country’s history. Local groups have worked diligently to expose the flaws with this critical document, and pressed to have the government respond. Affected communities and the Patagonia Defense Council (CDP) sent in more than 10,000 comments as part of the official public review of the document. According to the original plan, the first turbines were to start generating power in December 2012, yet thanks to the local movement’s efforts, the project has stalled at the ESIA stage.

Some background on the process: Chile’s two largest energy companies, Endesa Chile and Colbún, first submitted the ESIA for their joint venture, HidroAysén, in August 2008. They propose to construct five dams on two of Patagonia’s wildest and most pristine rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. The nearly 11,000-page document was widely criticized by state agencies and the public. Due to serious flaws and omissions in the project plans, three addenda were required to address these shortcomings.

Despite the document’s many flaws, procedural irregularities and charges of misconduct in the review process, HidroAysen’s ESIA was approved in May 2011. Both parties put forward claims contesting the resolution. Although nearly three years has passed, there has been no official response to these claims. At this writing, the government appeals body is expected to meet in March, but it is still unclear whether any decisions will be made.*

International Rivers has over the years worked with dozens of partner groups in reviewing ESIAs for dam projects, but few campaigns have matched the public involvement that the Patagonia project documents have inspired. I spoke with Peter Hartmann, a member of the Patagonia Defense Council, about the role that the ESIA process has played in the campaign Patagonia Sin Represas.

The headwaters of the beautiful Baker River.
The headwaters of the beautiful Baker River.
Photo by Berklee Lowrey-Evans

We have used the ESIA to inform ourselves about the project, as well as educate and mobilize others. The ESIA helps to show contradictions and gaps in project planning, as well as failures on the part of the company and disregard for affected communities. In response to the approval of the ESIA in 2011, the CDP filed seven appeals for legal protection, and when the regional committee rejected these, we took the appeals to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned these appeals, and new appeals will likely be filed in response to the Committee of Ministers meeting in March.

Within the campaign there are distinct organizations that make up the CDP, with their own legal, political, technical and communications expertise. It was decided that each organization would, within their capacity, analyze the EIA and turn in their observations. In addition, technical and legal experts were hired from Austral University to do their own analysis. At one point the experts even prepared a document of observations that could be shared with communities in the region and signed and handed in by anyone.

There was a lot of work by those involved in the campaign to communicate to the broader public about the importance of participating in the review of the ESIA and the subsequent appeals process, and how to get involved in this. Los Defensores del Espiritu de la Patagonia is one of the local groups, from Cochrane, that gave comments on the ESIA.  To give you one story of who is behind this effort, Lilli Schindele is secretary of the group, she and her family would be directly affected by the project. Lilli did extensive analysis of the ESIA, and was the editor for the final observations that were turned in by the city of Cochrane. Currently, Lilli is monitoring the compliance of HidroAysen with conditions made by the Regional Environmental Commission for approval of the ESIA, including communication and visitation with affected communities and plans for resettlement. Lilli is working with other landowners who will be directly affected by the project, and with the CDP’s legal team to take legal action.

The appeals and actions that have been organized in response to the ESIA have paralyzed and delayed the project so that it has not only become very expensive, but also discredited in the public eye. 

When you analyze a project and continue to make more demands, it requires the company to be more precise, to deliver more studies, which takes time and costs money.  At present our legal appeals continue to call into question the viability of the project, along with the legitimacy of the review process itself. The same goes for participation from civil society, which makes the companies nervous and extra cautious, as is the case now with the Committee of Ministers in Chile. When the ESIA was approved in May 2011 thousands of people took to the streets in the south and in Santiago, voicing their opposition to the decision. Another good example is the ESIA for the HidroAysen transmission line, which has been indefinitely postponed due to a lack of public and political agreement within Chile.

One of the greatest obstacles for the Patagonia Sin Represas Campaign has been the close relationship between the government and companies. Politicians are often in the pocket of the companies, or have private interests in certain projects. This is also true for the ESIA process, in which ESIAs are contracted and prepared for the company proposing the project – that is, made to order. And political subordinates, who care little about environmental issues, make the decisions. A critical weakness of the Chilean ESIA system is its bias in favor of project developers.

However, by putting a spotlight on the project and the ESIA, the developers are forced to do a better assessment. The projects whose ESIAs go unnoticed in Chile are approved quickly and without difficulty from companies or the government. By building public pressure, the reviews are forced to be more thorough, to provide more and better quality information. With this information, improvements can be made to the project. ESIAs help to gain useful insight into the project, and create legal wedges. Having a baseline is also important to increase existing knowledge.

But ESIAs should be considered just one tool to engage public pressure and should work in conjunction with other actions and strategies. During the ESIA process, the CDP also released a technical study showing that HidroAysen is unnecessary for Chile’s energy future. Members of the CDP, along with energy experts, have also been working on studies to demonstrate alternatives to damming Patagonia – for example, we have not tapped our immense wind, solar and geothermal potential in Chile. In conjunction with legal actions around the ESIA, 2013 is an election year in Chile and the CDP will be working to ensure that HidroAysen is an election issue, harnessing national support to launch a “vota sin represas” – “vote without dams” campaign.

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*The Committee of Ministers announced that they will not meet in March to reach a decision on 35 claims filed against the project, yet again delaying their decision. According to HidroAysén, if the case is not settled by the end of April, the company will consider legal recourse to force a final decision.