Third Suspension for HidroAysén Environmental Review

Endesa, controlled by the Italian giant Enel, is the majority stakeholder in HidroAysén
Endesa, controlled by the Italian giant Enel, is the majority stakeholder in HidroAysén
HidroAysén is an Italian-Chilean joint venture to build 5 dams on the biggest and wildest rivers in Patagonia. The environmental review process for the HidroAysen project has been delayed for another six months due to the poor quality of the company’s studies.  In January, Corema, the regional environmental authority, submitted an additional 1000 comments on the project EIA to the company and asked for a response. HidroAysen requested another 6 months to prepare their response. The current EIA is so deficient that 14 Chilean public agencies have stated it should be rejected. This is the third time that HidroAysén has requested more time to clarify doubts about their poorly designed project—last year, after failing to meet a nine-month suspension deadline, the company asked for two additional months to prepare their addendums. Notably, the bureaucratic maneuvering of HidroAysén’s third suspension comes directly on the heels of the presidential election victory of right-wing billionaire Sebastian Pinera over the ruling Concertación coalition.

HidroAysén has not had a very good start to 2010. Along with the EIA suspension, the news became public that the Spanish bank BBVA would not consider financing the HidroAysén project because the proposal to build dams in Patagonia does not meet with the bank’s parameters of sustainability. Also, the projected costs of the transmission lines are dramatically escalating, pushing the total cost of the project well above 6 billion dollars, and hinting at future cost increases and significant cost overruns. Then, though there is no guarantee that Piñera will oppose the bad business of forcing large dams on Patagonia’s rivers, the losing presidential candidate Eduardo Frei was an unabashed proponent of the HidroAysén project. Of interest to river defenders, Frei was also one of those politicians most responsible for the damming of the magical Bio Bio—Frei’s January election loss could be seen as a kind of blowback for his involvement with the Bio Bio dams.

Seeing Chilean politics through the filter of river protection, Piñera has little history as a strong advocate for environmental protection - yet he is recognized for a couple of fairly notable conservation achievements. As a matter of fact, Piñera has invested millions in the stewardship of a private protected area, resulting in the protection of thousands of hectares of rare rainforest on the island of Chiloe. As well, he has been a vocal proponent of protections for the blue whale in the fjordal waters off the southern tip of the island. Interestingly, Piñera is known for occasionally having noted “environmentalists” in his circles of advisors. Can his knack for talking up green business make for green governance?

Maybe he has an eco-sensibility, but it is clear that Piñera will not immediately correct the infinite number of irregularities surrounding the EIA of HidroAysén by throwing the proposal out. Still, it will be the Piñera government that assumes responsibility for reviewing and making crucial decisions about the HidroAysén project, and the future of Patagonia’s rivers. Our job as river defenders is to ensure that a businessman like Piñera recognizes the real wealth of Patagonia’s natural and cultural heritage, and that his government invests wisely in future generations by protecting Patagonia’s free flowing rivers and the diversity of life that depends on them - and the sooner the better!

Note: This first blog post since last October comes as part of my slow return from a parental leave to the International Rivers Patagonia campaign. There is nothing like having a child to make one remember the importance of having healthy rivers for future generations. Your support for this work is greatly appreciated, thanks!

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