Support Of Patagonia Dam Project Will Come At A Very High Cost, Says U.S. NGO

Benjamin Witte, Santiago/Patagonia Times (Chile)
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Opponents of a plan to build five large hydroelectric dams in Region XI are welcoming a new partner in their campaign to protect Chile's majestic, glacier-fed rivers in the southern Chile area known as Aysén.

This week, an influential U.S. environmental group called ForestEthics joined the fray with a stern warning to two of Chile's largest economic groups: the Matte and Angelini consortiums. The Matte Group is a majority owner of Colbún, a Chilean energy company that, together with Spanish electricity giant Endesa, is planning to build five dams in Region XI - three on the Pascua River and two on the Baker River. The Angelini group has a minority share in Colbún.

"We insist that the Matte Group and the Angelini Group withdraw from the HidroAysén Project if they want to continue working with ForestEthics and its Chilean allies," said Aaron Sanger, Forest Ethics' former Chile program director.

Sanger recently agreed to work with U.S. and Chilean NGOs to lead an international campaign against the Aysén Dam projects. Given Sanger's track record at Forest Ethics in fighting corporate abuse of Chile's native forests, dam opponents have gained an important new ally.

ForestEthics is a San Francisco-based organization that works to protect endangered forests by drawing negative attention to companies profiting from their destruction. Several years ago those efforts brought ForestEthics in direct conflict with the Matte and Angelini Groups, both major players in Chile's lucrative forestry and paper pulp industry.

ForestEthics and other Chilean and international NGOs mounted a serious consumer awareness campaign in 2002 that threatened Chilean wood product sales in the United States. The campaign climaxed with the publication of a full page ad in the New York Times lambasting the devastation of Chile's native forests by Chile's forestry industry (ST, April 5, 2004). A year later, the Matte and Angelini Groups, together with U.S. Company Home Depot, signed an agreement with ForestEthics committing themselves to protecting engendered Chilean forests.

The highly controversial HidroAysén Project, however, jeopardizes that agreement, ForestEthics warned this week. "ForestEthics believes that this (dam) project will destroy Chilean native forests, thousands of hectares of Chilean native forest, and ForestEthics has invested more than eight years in working to protect those forests. If Angelini and Matte are serious about their commitments to protect those same forests, they will withdraw from this project," Sanger told the Santiago Time's sister newspaper, the Patagonia Times.

ForestEthics is just the latest in a growing list of international NGOs that have thrown their weight behind the ongoing anti-dam campaign. Other influential U.S. environmental groups opposing the project are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the International Rivers Network (IRN).

The organizations join a number of Chilean groups - including Ecosistemas and the Region XI-based Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve (CCARV) - in arguing that the proposed dams would be environmentally devastating for the pristine region. Not only does the project call for flooding large tracts of both native forests and valuable farm land, but it also calls for construction of a 2,000-kilometer transmission line that would literally cut through acres upon acres of both protected and unprotected wilderness area.

"These projects are immense, on a scale that is absolutely unmanageable for this region. They're unmanageable because this region is very fragile, ecologically, geologically as well as culturally," said Peter Hartmann, a Coyhaique resident and leading member of the CCARV.

The campaign's two flanks - one in Chile, the other in the United States - very much complement each other, according to Sanger. While the environmental and social impacts of the project would, if it gains government approval, be very much a Chilean problem, the project itself is nevertheless international by its very nature, he said.

"It has international financing from the United States, based upon the bond sales recently made by Endesa - many of which were bought by U.S. companies. It has direction and financial support obviously from Europe, given Endesa's headquarters in Spain and their new ownership in Italy. The two economic groups, Matte and Angelini, have very large markets, if not their primary markets, outside Chile. The entire project is international in its essence. So I think you're seeing now the campaign will develop an international component that is the necessary counterpart to the international nature of the project," said Sanger.

While ForestEthics plans to continue pressuring the Matte and Angelini Groups, Sanger himself will soon be joining the IRN as its new anti-HidroAysén campaign director. In his new role, Sanger plans to employ many of the same tactics he developed during his time with ForestEthics.

"We're investigating the Chilean, Canadian and Spanish companies involved in the project and looking at how and where we can best focus international pressure to persuade them to withdraw from the project," he said.

Endesa and Colbún, working together through a jointly created company called HidroAysén, are hoping to begin construction on the mega-project beginning in 2009. The estimated US$2.5 billion project (US$4 billion including the transmission line) has yet, however, to gain approval from Chile's environmental authorities.

HidroAysén insists the estimated 2,750 MW of electricity the project would produce are necessary for Chile's continued economic growth. The country's energy needs, HidroAysén estimates, are growing by 6.8 percent annually.

"This is a zone with huge hydroelectric potential that has been studied for more than 40 years, going back to the time when Endesa Chile was state-owned," the company told the Patagonia Times in an e-mail. "Its development is closely linked to Chile's medium and long-term energy needs. We're using a renewable and competitive resource that's clean and available domestically. (Also) the Baker and Pascua Rivers basin is much more stable than those located in the central part of the county, which allows for energy production that is not as subject to the arbitrary nature of seasons and the climate."

Dam opponents claim Aysén's hydo-energy will be used primarily to fuel mining and industrial projects - not households - and that less capital intensive production alternatives , such as wind and solar power generation, could meet all of Chile's energy needs without destroying the nation's pristine Patagonia region.

By Benjamin Witte (