Divisive Dams Approved in Patagonia, Chile

Monday, May 9, 2011


Critics call on Piñera to respect the will of the people and cancel HidroAysén

Coyhaique, Chile - A five-dam hydroelectric scheme that locals fear will destroy the character of one of Chile's most important wild regions was approved today by the Aysén Environmental Review Commission with a vote of 11 in favor and one opposed. Critics say the HidroAysén approval process has been marred by a flawed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and serious conflicts of interest on the part of Commission members.

The project has been the target of a local and international campaign that for 5 years has been fighting to keep Patagonia's rivers free of dams. A recent poll found that over 61% of Chileans are against the project.

Patricio Rodrigo, Executive Secretary of the Counsel in Defense of Patagonia, says that Chileans will not give up. "We are outraged that the regional environmental review commission has approved this destructive and illegal project against the will of the majority of Chileans. We are calling on President Piñera to overturn this decision and protect Patagonia."

On Friday, conflict of interest charges were filed against members of the Environmental Review Commission, including regional Governor Pilar Cuevas and other representatives. Late this morning, the charges against the representatives were accepted, but an injunction on today's vote was not granted. Several commission members had already recused themselves from the vote due to conflicts of interest, including the regional housing representative, regional environmental representative, regional energy minister, and the mining representative.

Country-wide protests this afternoon and on April 26 confirm that the campaign for a Patagonia Sin Represas is gaining momentum, despite a multimillion dollar scare tactic campaign by HidroAysén this year.

Whether or not President Piñera overturns the HidroAysén dams approval, the fight to stop this project is far from over. The next phase is the Environmental Impact Assessment for the $3.8 billion, 2,300-km-long transmission lines needed to export the electricity from Patagonia to Santiago. The EIA process for the lines will likely prove to be even more difficult, as they would affect thousands of Chileans and require the world's longest clearcut through virgin rainforest, protected areas, national parks, and a geologically risky region strewn with active volcanoes and afflicted by earthquakes.

"The HidroAysén dams are a risky investment for Chile and would threaten a region of global significance," said Berklee Lowrey-Evans, Latin America Program Associate at International Rivers. "Numerous studies have shown that Chile can sustainably and safely meet its energy needs through increased investments in non-conventional renewable energy and energy efficiency, with less environmental, social and economic costs than HidroAysén."

The HidroAysén project would include five dams - three on the Pascua River and two on the Baker River - that would flood at least 5,600 hectares of globally rare forest ecosystems, river valleys and farmlands in the Aysén region of southern Chile, including a portion of the Laguna San Rafael National Park. With the dams' price tag rising - they are now expected to cost approximately US$3.2 billion - the total cost including transmission lines is estimated to be $7 billion. The project is being developed by Enel of Italy and Colbún of Chile. Financing is expected to come mainly from private investment banks in Chile, the US and Europe.

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