Your Correspondent from Chile

As the rivers of Patagonia prepare for the open season onslaught of mega-hydroelectric development, and as Chile motors towards presidential elections, getting up to date news from the long thin country becomes a priority.

Ben Witte is a Santiago based writer who has covered some of the most important political and environmental issues in Chile from the English language news website Santiago Times, and the sister publication Patagonia Times.  Ben has also published with independent news pages such as Upside Down World, and recently published his Chile’s Endangered Rivers article in the latest issue of the International Rivers World River Review.

Recently, I had a chance to ask Ben a few questions about his work.  Read on and get to know your correspondent from Patagonia, and then consider learning more about how to receive the daily editions of Santiago Times.

How long have you been living in Chile and when did you start covering environmental issues?

I first moved to Chile in 2000, basically on whim. Earlier that year I spent three months studying Spanish in Guatemala and wanted to go from there to some place where I'd have a chance to settle in, immerse myself in the language, hopefully work, somewhere safe... So on a recommendation from a few random people I met in Central America, I bought a plane ticket and flew to Santiago. I stayed for about 14 months and then headed to Costa Rica, where I started working for the first time as a journalist - first with a monthly publication called Mesoamerica and later as a reporter with the Tico Times. From there I headed back to Chile and began working with the Santiago Times.

I'd touched on environmental issues a bit here and there since first working in Costa Rica, but it wasn't until the end of 2006, when I came back to Chile following a year in journalism school, that I began focusing on the environment in earnest. Since then it has definitely been my "beat" - particularly environmental issues as they relate to Southern Chile.

What are some of the most important issues you have covered?

Most of my environmental reporting over the past few years has been focused on two issues: the controversial HidroAysén dam project and Chile's much-maligned farm salmon industry.

The HidroAysén issue is a fascinating one in that it has as much to do with the Patagonia wilderness, and the desire of many people to preserve and protect it from hydroelectric dam construction, as it does with Chile's overall energy situation. The country has never really mapped out a good energy plan, leaving things instead for the market to decide. Not surprisingly, the big energy companies operating here have opted for conventional, low-cost ventures that tend to be either hydroelectric dams or fossil-fuel burning generators. There are a lot more alternatives out there, but without any real pressure from the central government, energy companies don't have a lot of incentive to "think outside the box" so to speak. The project itself involves a plan by two energy companies, Endesa and Colbún, to build five massive dams along Chilean Patagonia's two most powerful rivers: the Baker and Pascua.

Chile's farmed salmon industry, which is second to only Norway in terms of production, is another interesting topic - from both an environmental and social standpoint. The industry is relatively new and, until about two years ago, grew at a staggering rate. With money pouring in and jobs being created, concerns by some environmental groups that the suddenly ubiquitous salmon farms were polluting bays and lakes mostly fell on deaf ears. Two years ago, however, a virus known as ISA began spreading throughout the salmon farming regions, triggering a huge industry downturn. Suddenly a consensus is emerging that one, this industry needs to be better regulated and that two, unsustainable operational practices really can affect an industry's bottom line.

What parallels between the problems in the salmon farming industry do you see in the push to dam rivers in Patagonia?

In both cases there's a lot of very short-sighted, profit-minded thinking at work. Also in both cases, the companies involved market their efforts as being in the interest of Chile, while in reality the bulk of the money being generated here ends up in the pockets of foreign companies. The HidroAysén venture is a partnership between Endesa, which is mostly Italian owned, and Colbún, a Chilean compnay. In the case of the salmon industry, the biggest players are Norwegian - Mainstream and Marine Harvest - which take advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental regulations here to do the same thing they do in their country of origin, but at far lower cost. Endesa does the same thing, building the types of large-scale dams in Chile that are no longer considered acceptable in Europe. A final parallel is that in both cases, the Chilean state offers what amounts to a huge subisidy by providing the necessary raw material - water- at virtually no cost. No wonder it's cheaper to build and operate a hydroelectric dam when the companies can enjoy access to the basic fuel, water, at no cost whatsoever.

What do you believe will be the fate of Patagonia?  Dams and salmon farms everywhere? Or an authentic practice of regionally sensitive sustainability?

It's hard to say. I don't want to be overly pessimistic, but as long as the so-called "neo-liberal" economic paradigm continues to dominate here, environmental concerns will remain very much secondary to the whims of private companies. Chile has been held up internationally as an economic "miracle." As long as people continue to believe that, there won't be too much incentive to really shift course, to stop giving private companies carte blanche to do whatever they want here. But then again, what's happening with the salmon industry is I think offering an important lesson for all industry, which is that by ignoring the environment completely, companies can end up really shooting themselves in the foot.

Gradually I think more and more industrial activity will make its way to the Patagonia. But it won't happen overnight, meaning local conservation and sustainability movements will have a real chance to become more and more effective and influential.

What do you think will happen in the Presidential election in Chile?

Hmmm. The million-dollar question. Sebastian Piñera has enjoyed a lead from the very beginning and I think there's a good chance he'll ride that momentum all the way to the end. I don't think the country's all that excited about his candidacy, but there appears to be even less enthusiasm for his main rival, former president Eduardo Frei. What's interesting is that President Bachelet, who hails from the same coalition as Frei, is really going out on top, with a sky-high approval rating. Conventional wisdom suggests that some of that support would transfer over to her heir-apparent, Frei in this case. But that just doesn't seem to be happening. For some people a much more exciting candidate is Marco Enriquez-Ominami, a 36-year-old deputy with progressive leanings and a show business flare. But he's so young and inexperienced that at least this time around, I don't think he'll gather enough support to actually win the presidency.

What can someone who does not live in Chile do to stay informed about these important issues?

Unfortunately there isn't a tremendous amount of coverage about Chile in major European or North American magazines or newspapers. The Santiago Times and Patagonia Times, in that regard, are unique in that they publish loads of daily information about the country in English.

Check out the Patagonia Times for up to date news from Patagonia! And don't forget to sign up for the Rivers of Patagonia email list for news and updates from the International Rivers Patagonia Campaign.