A Blow to HidroAysén: Patagonia Dams on Hold

Monti Aguirre
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
The Baker River in Patagonia breathes a sigh of relief.
The Baker River in Patagonia breathes a sigh of relief.
Photo: Peter Hartmann

I stood in awe next to the Baker River in Chilean Patagonia on a warm, sunny day in early February. Guanacos (a local wild llama) grazed peacefully across the river, and a family of red foxes looked intensively at me, almost catching every breath I took. 

As I stood transfixed by this amazing place, I thought back across the long journey taken by hundreds of dedicated Chileans and their international supporters to protect the immensely beautiful glacial blue-green Baker and Pascua rivers from damming. Although the campaign is not over yet, the pressure is paying off. Most recently, a government body required new hydrological studies, causing another major delay for the project.  

The HidroAysén project’s promoters could not have imagined they would encounter so many obstacles as they sought to build the 2,750-megawatt hydroelectric project. The massive scheme – which involves two dams on the remote Baker River, three on the Pascua, and 1,500 miles of transmission lines – is intended to feed the grid that supplies Santiago, as well as copper mines operated by state-owned Codelco and Anglo American Plc., all far to the north of this beautiful place.

The Chilean government has been exploring the hydroelectric potential of the Baker and Pascua rivers in the Aysén region since the 1940s. HidroAysén is owned by Endesa Chile (ultimately controlled by Italian energy company Enel), and Colbún (controlled by Minera Valparaíso S.A.) – the two most important electricity generators of Chile. Endesa and Colbún presented the first study on the project in 2007 during President Michelle Bachelet’s first term in office, and won the environmental approval to build the dams in 2011, during Sebastian Piñera’s presidency. 

The project has been on a rocky road for years. In 2012, Chilean utility Colbún (49% owner of HidroAysén) indefinitely suspended plans to seek the environmental license needed to build the transmission lines. The transmission line corridor would have been one of the world’s longest between the source of the electricity and its primary distribution center; it would require clear-cutting 1,000 miles of forest, and dotting it with 5,000 new transmission towers. Environmentalists and local communities argued that the power lines would scar protected areas that are home to 13 endangered and vulnerable animal species, including the world’s smallest deer, the huemul. The transmission lines would have also cut across 64 Chilean communas, including some indigenous communities, and would damage 14 areas that, because of unique environmental values and vulnerabilities, have been granted protected status under Chilean law.

A Movement is Launched

When the HidroAysén Environmental Impact Assessment was approved by an 11-1 vote on May 9, 2011, despite outstanding flaws and omissions of critical data, Chile’s citizens took to the streets.  A Supreme Court ruling in April 2012 in favor of HidroAysén caused a resurgence of public opposition, and subsequent legal actions against the project.

Unprecedented, massive mobilizations to protest the approval of HidroAysén throughout Chile (with especially large demonstrations in Santiago) surprised politicians of all stripes. No one had expected such a public response. The campaign to protect Patagonia became the largest environmental struggle in the country’s history. Project proponents pushed hard for a political victory that would allow them to start building the US$10 billion mega-project, but legal roadblocks continued to delay it.

In a continuing series of setbacks, on January 7, 2014, Endesa Chile pulled the project from its list of active projects presented to investors, citing uncertainties surrounding deadlines and the transmission line. 

On January 30 the Committee of Ministers for Sustainability (presided over by the Minister of the Environment) ordered two hydrological studies to better evaluate the project’s impacts, including how to address the impacts of daily fluctuations in flow. Another study required of the company would look at the impacts of 5,000 workers descending upon the quiet town of Cochrane, whose population would almost triple with the influx. The results of the new studies will take at least a year. 

Juan Pablo Orrego, director of Chilean NGO Ecosistemas, says the project originated in malpractice and has yet to meet environmental and social requirements. Orrego warns that the two newly required studies address only some of the unanswered questions about the megaproject; he notes that questions about impacts on flora and fauna, sedimentation, and the damage caused to tourism have not been answered.

Even though the Minister of Environment, María Ignacia Benítez, said that the project is authorized, it is clear that it will be postponed for final review during the new administration of President-elect Bachelet, who said she opposed the project during the run-up to the election. Her new stance – in contrast to her support for the project during her first term – shows just how powerful the public opposition to the project has been. 

Our colleagues at the Council on the Defense of Patagonia (CDP), of which International Rivers is a part, noted this delay is "a citizen triumph." What is needed now is just “putting the tombstone on the grave.” And that is what opponents of the megaproject expect President Bachelet to do when she comes on board in March of this year. We’ll be there with our partners, helping her throw dirt on HidroAysén’s grave.

“This is a great opportunity for the Bachelet government to adopt daring public policies to increase energy efficiency programs and renewables,” said Bernardo Reyes, a member of the CDP. Chile abounds with accessible renewable energy resources. The CDP is now also working on a Special Act to protect Patagonia, its rivers, waters, air, forest and peoples, which will propose a sustainable economy for Patagonia based on healthy ecosystems and democratic decision-making coming from its citizenship.