Decision on HidroAysén Pushed Back Until April 2011

Gary Graham Hughes

In November another wave of demonstrations on a national and regional level confirmed fierce oppostion to HidroAysén
In November another wave of demonstrations on a national and regional level confirmed fierce oppostion to HidroAysén
The proposals to build dams on the largest rivers in Chile’s Patagonia region are being kept alive by the government of President Sebastian Piñera. Political pressures to keep the dam proposals alive are in direct contrast to evidence that opposition in Chile to damming the wild rivers in Patagonia has reached a historic high.

After a flurry of activity in late November this year, the environmental review process of HidroAysén has been suspended yet one more time, postponing the final decision on the HidroAysén dams until at least April 2011. The environmental review process for the 2000 kilometer transmission lines for the project has not yet even begun, and was separated early on from the review of the dams element of the project.

Incredibly, and contrary to the "green" image that he likes to promote, the Piñera government has been doing tremendous amounts of political first aid to support this poorly designed mega-project. Since the HidroAysén environmental impact analysis and project design is so poor, it is only the political pressures of the Piñera government and the hydroelectric industry operatives behind the scenes that have been able to keep the project alive. Truly, the environmental review of HidroAysén has been so plagued by irregularities that the entire review process flies in the face of Chile’s preferred international image as a modern country governed by the rule of law.

An example is the denunciation of the regional staff of CONAF (the Corporación Nacional Forestal, the Chilean agency responsible for the management of protected areas such as national parks) that their most recent report on the HidroAysén project EIA was whitewashed in Santiago by higher ups before being submitted. Apparently, the upper echelon executives of CONAF (appointed by Piñera no less) have been caught removing the text from the original report compiled by CONAF staff in Aysén that described how the HidroAysén project will violate Chilean and international law due to the impacts that flooding from the dams will have on the Laguna San Rafael National Park.

Though some might say that this is only como funciona la cosa (how things work) in Chile, this egregious display of political pressure is another example of how the review process for HidroAysén, which is now well into its third year, is plagued by procedural and legal irregularities that should make potential investors seriously evaluate the legal risks that the HidroAysén project will face if the dam proposals do eventually get approval.

Potential investors in HidroAysén will also want to be aware of the comments from Chile’s National Mining and Geological Service (SERNAGEOMIN as it is called in Chile) during the last round of the EIA review. Though many of the agencies responsible for the review are concerned about procedural and legal irregularities such as those denounced by CONAF staff in Aysén, the SERNAGEOMIN comments did not get so heavily whitewashed, and instead reaffirmed very serious concerns about the seismic and hydrological risks that the HidroAysén project faces. The SERNAGEOMIN comments on the EIA state bluntly that HidroAysén fails to present satisfactory information and methodology for a number of key issues, including seismic danger, the impacts of potential landslides and mass-wasting in the area, and the hydrogeological characterization of the project area. In fact, SERNAGEOMIN raises the simple point that after nearly three years of EIA review, the maps as presented by the company to describe the project are still completely insufficient to estimate the extent of the project on the ground level.

Clearly, the ENEL-Endesa-Enersis conglomerate that is the majority owner of the HidroAysén project is demonstrating a technical incompetence in the EIA process that should make any investor question whether they would want to be associated with such a dangerous and ill-conceived project. The fact that the Piñera government is both covertly and overtly providing political cover for the dam proponents is also technically inexcusable, and runs contrary to the campaign rhetoric of objective environmental management that helped get him elected president.

The recent IPSOS poll confirmed historic oppostion in Chile to building dams in Patagonia
The recent IPSOS poll confirmed historic oppostion in Chile to building dams in Patagonia
Adding fuel to the fire of the Patagonia dams controversy, the poorly planned and dangerous proposals to dam rivers in Chile’s Patagonia are less popular in Chile than ever before. The most recent IPSOS poll from September 2010 shows that a whopping 57.8% of Chileans are strongly opposed to building dams in Patagonia. This only promises a showdown of dramatic proportions in 2011 when the company no longer has any options for suspending the environmental review of the project, and the government has to either approve or reject the dams element of the project. We believe that the river protection and social justice community in Chile is well positioned to stop these dams – but they are going to need all of us to pitch in and bring this successful campaign to a rousing finish. Stay tuned after the new year for our updates, and for the actions we have planned for 2011, as we continue to assist in the resistance to these destructive hydroelectric proposals in Chile’s Patagonia.