The Current

A Battle Won Against Megadams in Chile—But the War?

Activists have brought down five proposed dam projects on two Patagonian rivers. What does this mean for one of the world's wildest and most iconic regions?

Rio Baker in Patagonia, one of the rivers on which the now-defunct HidroAysen project had plans to build megadams.     Photo: International Rivers/Flickr

On Tuesday, environmentalists and adventurers threw up a collective cheer when a Chilean committee rejected a plan to dam two wild Patagonian rivers. The HidroAysen project, proposed by the Spanish company Endesa and the Chilean company Colbun, would have erected five megadams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, along with a 1,000-plus mile transmission line carrying power to the central part of the country. It would have been the largest energy project in Chile’s history.

It also sparked one big international environmental fight, with the NRDC, International Rivers and Patagonia throwing their weight behind Chilean groups like Patagonia Without Dams. Press piled onto the story, including Outside, which covered the issue briefly in 2008 and at greater length in 2010.

This week's decision came as a welcome surprise in the U.S., where anti-hydro sentiment is gaining steam thanks in part to the film DamNation. But it was less of a shocker in Chile. HidroAysen was met with great and occasionally violent local protests, and Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, spoke out against the dams during her campaign. But Endesa and Colbun are heavy hitters, and the energy-intensive copper mining interests that wanted the juice from the Baker and Pascua have enormous political influence.

The fact also remains that Chile is energy poor, relying on domestic hydropower for nearly 40 percent of its energy and imported fossil fuels for most of the rest. So when the country’s ministers of agriculture, energy, mining, economy and health voted unanimously to reject HydroAisen based on problems with the project’s environmental impact assessment, people celebrated in the streets in Santiago. A Twitter hashtag, #chaohidroaysen, took off. Stateside, Patagonia rejoiced. Ditto International Rivers.

“We’re usually pretty reluctant to declare victory as emphatically as we have in this case,” Jason Rainey, executive director of International Rivers, told me.

But how could he not? A country with a long history of building dams rejected five huge ones due to problems an environmental impact assessment commissioned by the very companies behind the project. Goliath was on the mat.

But not for too long. Yesterday I spoke with Juan Pablo Orrego, international coordinator of the Patagonia Defense Council, who has led the fight against the dams for the past six years. “We had this victory yesterday,” he said, “but you have to wonder if it’s a mega chess game between the companies and the government.”

Orrego had just received word that Colbun, which is owned by a hugely influential Chilean family, the Mattes, would appeal the decision, possibly amending their proposal and scrapping plans for an inefficient and destructive dam on the Baker River. He was also concerned that Colbun and Endesa would parry by ditching the hugely controversial transmission line in favor of an underwater transmission line offshore.

“The Achilles tendon of the project is the transmission line that would have crossed 51 percent of the Chilean mainland,” he said. “If they do it underwater, the impacts are way less.” Out of sight, out of mind.

Chile is one of a few countries that has entirely privatized water rights. Private companies, many of them foreign, have owned the country’s water since 1981, when General Augusto Pinochet signed into effect a controversial piece of legislation known simply as the Water Code. Recently, a few senators proposed nationalizing the water rights. I asked Orrego about this. Might this initiative, combined with President Bachelet’s opposition to HidroAysen, signal a new era of river conservation?

“We have a very difficult legal problem,” he said. “We are one of few countries in world where generation, transmission, and distribution of energy is 100 percent private, and water is also totally in hands of companies.”

Undoing that, he said, would require expropriating water rights—which sounds a lot like socialism.

“The situation is complex,” he continued. “The thing is, it’s amazing how awareness about these issues has come up. Even high school kids are now going to tell you that in Chile there is a structural problem—the constitution, water code, the mining code. Now these issues under eyes of everybody. Before, these were submerged issues.”

This is wonky stuff, to be sure, but it’s crucial to understanding the future of Patagonia, the crown jewel of the adventure world. Copper mining is Chile’s dominant industry. It requires huge amounts of energy, and much of it takes place in the Atacama desert. The government hopes to develop solar there, but in the meantime, many have warned of an impending energy crisis. Which means that the pressure to increase power output remains. For his part, Orrego sounded prepared to continue fighting.

“Yesterday was a beautiful day because at least for a moment we stopped five dams,” he said. “But have to see what will happen. And Patagonia Without Dams is alive and very alert.”

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