Guardian (UK): Patagonia in Peril

Chris Moss, UK Guardian
Friday, March 14, 2008

Patagonia is the southernmost triangle of South America, straddling Argentina and Chile, one of the last wildernesses to be conquered by modern man. Westerners have long regarded the region an empty place, a land of myths, a refuge from the world. Back in the 1970s, Bruce Chatwin wrote that it was one of the few places that would be safe in the event of a third world war. But French cultural commentator Juan Baudrillard has pointed out that the "end of the world" fantasy that sells Patagonia to explorers and tourists has also been used to justify wiping out local populations and modifying the environment in the name of progress.

The faraway, barely populated region has long been prey to speculators. Now two of Chile's most spectacular rivers - the Baker and Pascua - are threatened by plans to build five large dams that will flood rare temperate rainforest, a habitat for several endangered species.

The 2,355 megawatt, US$4 billion scheme known as the HidroAysén Project - the Baker and Pascua are in the remote province of Aysén - is being proposed by Spanish energy giant Endesa, Italian utility Enel and Chilean firm Colbun. The power lines needed to transport the electricity to the capital Santiago de Chile would require one of the world's longest clearcuts - much of it through untouched forests rich in species found nowhere else on the planet. Unsurprisingly, Chile's two biggest wood product and pulp companies, the Matte Group and the Angelini Group, are in support of the HidroAysén Project.

Though Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has made much of her green credentials since winning elections in January 2006, her energy minister Marcelo Tokman recently expressed support for the dam project.

According to environmentalists, the proposed dams would flood rare temperate rainforests and some of Patagonia's best ranching lands. Many of the areas that would be affected are also important to the survival of the critically endangered huemul deer, of which only around 3,000 survive today.

It's not the first time that the Patagonian environment has been threatened. Sheep farming continues the desertification of the already arid, fragile interior. Salmon farming in the Reloncavi sound, just south of Chile's lake region, has polluted both seawater and freshwater sources. In 2004/2005, waste from the Celco-Arauco pulp mill in Valdivia killed thousands of black-neck swans feeding in the wetlands of the nearby Carlos Anwandter Nature Sanctuary.

But the current river controversy has its own lineage. In the early 1990s, environmentalists and tour operators in northern Patagonia condemned the Chilean government's decision to dam the Rio Biobío, popular as a whitewater rafting river. In 1996, the dam was completed and the Pangue Hydroelectric Plant, owned by Endesa, was opened.

The Rio Baker is one of the wonders of Patagonia. More than 1,100 cubic meters or pristine, icy water come teeming through a narrow cleft in the Andes mountains. Half of this comes from South America's second largest and deepest lake - the vast, turquoise-coloured Lago General Carrera, which Chile shares with Argentina (where it is called Lago Buenos Aires). The rest of the water is icemelt from glaciers that peel away from the northern Patagonian Ice Field.

Fernando Broussalis, of Patagonia AdventureTrip, an Argentinian firm that operates tours to the Rio Baker region, puts the problem down to geopolitics: "Patagonia is one of the last wild places of the planet, full of beautiful landscapes, flora and fauna, both in Argentina and Chile. What we are seeing is a mad rush to develop due to a lack of energy resources.

"We hear about climate disasters every day and everyone seems to be thinking that the end is near. Yet when we can do something, everyone says 'Ah, what the hell, who cares about the future?' A change in culture may be the solution, if it is not too late."

Only a very small number of European tourists visit Aysén, as travel in the region usually involves long ferry crossings or an epic drive down Chile's remote Carretera Austral. Edward Miles, of Aylesbury-based Latin America specialist operator Last Frontiers, says, "We would be devastated if the dams went ahead in such a stunning and pristine part of the country, one of Chile's last remaining wildernesses.

"The Baker and Pascua Rivers are truly magnificent and destroying the unique eco-systems and creating artificial lakes over traditional agricultural lands would be another Chilean tragedy in line with the damming of the Biobío."

Eco-minded campaign groups around the world, including Greenpeace, International Rivers and CODEFF (Chile's Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna, an affiliate of Friends of the Earth) are joining forces today to mark the day of International Day of Action for Rivers.

"Damming pristine rivers and clearcutting forests for generation and transmission of electricity is environmentally irresponsible," said Aaron Sanger, Patagonia campaign coordinator at International Rivers. "Companies involved in the proposed dams and transmission lines have put their products and image at risk in the international marketplace."

In the US, the most recent campaign was kicked off on March 13 in Berkeley, California, when country singer Dana Lyons set off on a US tour designed to educate and inform Americans about the dams planned for Patagonia and how people can get involved.

· Chris Moss is the author of Patagonia which will be published by Signal in April £12