Can Obama’s Diplomacy Help Protect Rivers in Chile’s Patagonia?

Michelle Bachelet will complete her presidential term in March 2010
Michelle Bachelet will complete her presidential term in March 2010
For those who follow hydroelectric development issues in the Américas, it is newsworthy that Chilean President Michelle Bachelet made a trip to North America this week.

On Tuesday, June 23, President Bachelet was in Washington DC, where she met briefly with United States President Barack Obama, before attending the signing of a well received memorandum of cooperation on renewable energies between the US Dept of Energy and Chile’s Ministry of Energy.

While Ms. Bachelet raved about the 19 billion dollars worth of annual trade now occurring between the US and Chile, the public was given assurances that Chile is on it’s way to being a regional leader in renewable energy technologies, and that the US Dept of Energy, under Secretary Chu, will help spearhead the new US role in Latin America in confronting the climate and energy crises. No mention at all was made of mega-hydroelectric project development, either as a renewable or as an immediate threat to the free-flowing rivers in the south of Chile or elsewhere in the region.

Gaining less attention, but also of diplomatic importance and relevance for energy development issues, was the stop in Ciudad de México that President Bachelet then made on Wednesday and Thursday. Amongst Ms. Bachelet’s activities in México was a breakfast celebration of the 10 years since México and Chile completed their Free Trade Agreement (FTA). In the 10 years of the Mexico–Chile FTA, trade has tripled between the countries, growing to just more than US$4 billion in 2008—trade that is led significantly by Chilean copper and wood products being imported into México.

Chile, having not been allowed to join the North American Free Trade Agreement outright, was forced to develop bilateral FTA’s with first Canada, then with México, and then finally with the US. It is actually under the Canada-Chile Commission for Environmental Cooperation, formed as a part of the Canada-Chile FTA, that a legal challenge to the Patagonia dams is currently being presented, accusing the Chilean government of not applying all applicable environmental laws in the consideration of the HidroAysén Dam project in Patagonia.

The Chile-USA FTA has no body for such legal recourse, though the Chile-USA FTA does include an appendix on the environment.  By the time the Chile–USA FTA was being approved during the first term of George W. Bush, the possibilities of ensuring that legal recourse for the non-application of environmental law would be written into the FTA were completely non-existent.

Neither was such a legal recourse body written into the Mexico-Chile FTA.  As a matter of fact, the México-Chile FTA makes no sustentative mention of environmental protections – at all. Yet the México–Chile FTA, and the booming trade in wood products that it facilitates, is an important part of the trade dynamic that could result in the destruction of the wild rivers of Patagonia.

In the International Rivers Patagonia Campaign we have demonstrated how the Chilean wood products trade, exemplified by the sale of CMPC wood products by US retailer The Home Depot, is directly connected to the proposal to dam rivers in Patagonia. The connections are almost identical for México. After the US, México is Chile’s most important wood market. In the last 10 years, the Matte Group has expanded its wood, pulp, and paper product empire into México, especially with the 2006 acquisition of the company Absorbmex. Not to be forgotten is that The Home Depot, with more than 50 outlets throughout México, certainly has its hands in the widespread distribution and sales (i.e. trafficking) of CMPC wood products in México.

Global trade is one of the motors that most drives resource extraction and energy development. The characteristics of a region’s international trade paradigm are directly related to what types of economic and development decisions a society will make. The profits that economic interests like the Matte Group can make from deregulated wood products trade with México and the US are directly tied to the capital that is invested in major hydroelectric development projects like HidroAysén.

Yet, these are not the issues that are discussed during visits such as the one that Ms. Bachelet just made to North America. We, the attentive civil society public, are instead fed with platitudes about the successes of “free” trade, and left contemplating the real or imagined significance of bilateral agreements to cooperate and share technologies that could very well represent the sustainable future.

Dictator Pinochet with current presidential candidate Eduardo Frei and current Minister of the Interior Perez Yoma
Dictator Pinochet with current presidential candidate Eduardo Frei and current Minister of the Interior Perez Yoma
Wouldn’t such an agreement be a terribly bitter fruit if, whilst Obama claims to be contributing to a green future in the Américas, and while Ms. Bachelet tries to secure her legacy as the executive who brought Chile to the doorstep of a sustainable energy matrix, Chile’s Patagonia is subject to massive hydroelectric development? Would not the irony be immense if the greedy desire to profit from water rights – given away in the last days of a US-supported dictatorship – trumped contemporary green energy diplomacy designed to make all of us feel like the US has left it’s dirty history in Latin America behind?

At the heart of it, these questions are what provide us in the global community with the prerogative of working to protect Patagonia’s rivers. The issue of building dams in Patagonia is ultimately something for Chile’s citizens to decide, but the Obama Administration and the US is now connected to the Patagonia dams issue and upcoming decisions about Chile’s energy development in a direct way. Hopefully it is in a positive and sustainable way. If Obama is my President, and he is making deals with Chile, than I have a right to comment on his activities and international agreements – and to ensure that he follows through.

In terms of advocating for the protection of Patagonia’s rivers, and even if is under the guise of further cooperation in an effort to recognize the importance of “free trade” between the two countries, the US and Chilean governments have indeed just signed an agreement to cooperate on clean and renewable energies. This fact should certainly be more irrefutable evidence that building dams in Patagonia is not necessary. When combined with the news that wind energy generation is growing exponentially in Chile, that geothermal energy is a tremendous untapped energy source, and that actual energy demand is down, the agreement for the US to cooperate with Chile in developing clean energy technologies should just be icing on the HidroAysén no es necessario cake.

Still, if the Obama Administration’s gesture provides “clean, green, and modern democracy” cover to Chile, while the countries wickedly skewed environmental review process gets pressured into giving a green light for multinational corporate interests to develop a series of risky and destructive dams and transmission lines in Patagonia, then we will know that free trade clean energy diplomacy is not quite all it is cracked up to be, and that these sorts of agreements and speeches about democratic institutions and a clean energy future will continue to just be empty rhetoric.

Regardless, as global citizens, we at the International Rivers Patagonia Campaign will have a say in how this plays out! Yes, President Obama, your clean energy diplomacy will help save Patagonia’s rivers – whether you intended it to or not.