A Current of Hope Runs Through Patagonia

Berklee Lowrey-Evans

Although things have quieted down in Chile since the HidroAysén dams’ EIA was approved last May, the five large dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Patagonia are far from a done deal.

Sustained protests against HidroAysén around the country in the middle of last year inspired the well-publicized student protests that have been ongoing since then. These two movements together have created the biggest social unrest in Chile since the fall of the dictatorship of General Pinochet in 1990, and mark the beginning to the first widespread environmental movement in the country.

Shortly after the EIA approval, the Consejo de Defensa de la Patagonia (CDP, or Patagonia Defense Council) went to court.  The case has moved up to the Supreme Court, where arguments were heard on December 23; a ruling is likely to be handed down in by April.

In early December, HidroAysén publicly released a portion of the proposed route for the transmission line. They spent the next two weeks meeting with residents in Cochrane and Chaitén to discuss the expected impacts, and likely to also discuss plans to buy property or compensate landowners. The transmission line is now planned to run underwater for 160km of the 1,912 km length of the line, from the mouth of the Río Yelcho near Chaitén north to Puerto Montt. The line would no longer cut through Parque Pumalín (a nature sanctuary) which has been a contentious issue for many years.

A few months ago, HidroAysén again delayed submitting the EIA for the transmission line; they now expect to submit it in June.  While they claim the approval process will take two years, it is likely to take significantly longer since it would affect thousands of people and run through about half the country. The EIA for the dams took over three years to gain approval.

President Piñera’s approval rating has continued to drop – and is now lower than any other president in Chile since democracy was restored in 1990. On January 12, Piñera outlined a new energy plan that isn’t likely to improve his standing: the planh decreased the nation’s targets for energy efficiency, and stated strong support for hydroelectricity, especially in the Aysén region of Patagonia.

For the time being, things are quiet in Chile, as most people take vacation in February. The middle of this year should provide another round of excitement, with the upcoming Supreme Court ruling and the submission of the EIA for the transmission line. Chileans may take to the streets again, with their creative protests, banging on pots and pans, holding up candles for moments of silence, and flooding the streets of the capital and cities throughout the country to show their support for a Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams).

Follow the campaign, read Berklee’s blog: http://tinyurl.com/7aspuh7