Dam the Puelo River Basin? No Way!

Monti Aguirre
Puelo River Basin
Puelo River Basin
Andres Amengual

I’ve just returned from visiting the Tagua Tagua Park, which borders the beautiful blue-green waters of the Puelo River in Chile. The Puelo is an astounding, emerald-toned river surrounded by snow-packed mountains, massive granite walls and waterfalls. The pristine forests around it are home to high-diversity ecological areas and numerous species, including Darwin’s frog. The Puelo River Basin begins at Puelo Lake in Argentina, and it flows northwest through the Andes into Chile, ending up at the Reloncaví Estuary on the Pacific Ocean.

Yesterday, we learned that the Comité de Ministros approved the construction of the 210 MW run-of-river Mediterráneo Dam at the confluence of the Torrentoso and Manso rivers, tributaries of the Puelo, on the Province of Llanquihue in the Lake region in Chilean Patagonia.

The dam would capture 75% of the waters of the Manso for 5.5 kilometers. Most of the project works would be subterranean. It is estimated that the project will cost more than US$400 million.

A Questionable Project

One of the major issues for opposition is the projected 63-kilometer transmission line, which would border the Puelo from the Valle del Puelo to the Central Interconnected System (SIC) in Canutillar.

In 2014, indigenous Mapuche communities of the Santo Domingo Cayun Panicheo presented a legal case before the Court of Appeals of Puerto Montt against the Commission for Environmental Assessment of the Los Lagos Region.

The communities claim that the Mediterráneo Hydroelectric Project, which would affect the Manso River and Mapuche territories, has not complied with ILO Convention 169, which requires that indigenous peoples are consulted before project approval. As of now, this consultation has not taken place.

Who’s Making the Decisions?

The Comité de Ministros comprises the ministries of the Environment, Health, Agriculture, Energy, Mining and Economy, and their duty is to examine and resolve claims presented by agencies, organizations and individuals relative to deficiencies in project’s environmental impact studies.

But the Comité’s objectivity is being called into question by the way they approved this project.

The Comité de Ministros requested modifications on the transmission lines project, but did not make any comments on the need for the company to address the impact on ecosystems, such as the logging of native forests.

Organizations concerned with the defense of the Puelo River noted that the approval of this project is further proof that the system of environmental impact assessment is, to say the least, sloppy and it is not concerned with environmental protection. In Chile, they say, “EIAs are a only a formality to approve investments with low requirements for environmental stewardship."

There are questions of financial influence, as well. Mediterráneo S.A. is owned by the Fondo de Inversión Privado Los Andes S.A. and Radal S.A. Both  funds are comprised of investment groups, some of which are linked with president Michelle Bachelet.

What’s Next for the Puelo River Basin?

On Monday, November 2, the Comité de Ministros rejected all 27 claims presented by communities of the Puelo River against the Mediterráneo Hydroelectric Project, paving the way for the dam builders to proceed with construction. 

“This decision is a slap on the face to national interests seeking to not sacrifice unique ecosystems and local sustainable enterprises instead of prioritizing private damaging business to public interest and natural patrimonies, “ said Rodrigo Condeza, president of the Puelo Patagonia Corporation. “It is clear for us that our objective is to not let this nefarious project be built.…We civil organizations will demonstrate that this is a bad project.”

Macarena Soler, an attorney in charge of the legal defense, explains that "we will take the case to the environmental courts in order to uncover the many irregularities and shortcomings presented in both the process and the faulty EIA.” The lawyers are preparing the case to be taken to the Environmental Court of Valdivia.

Finally, they stressed that they will continue "to defend the territories from an extractive model that destroys  ecosystems and communities alongside with concerned Chileans."

Tuesday, November 3, 2015