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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4

Chile: Protests denounce dam construction

The approval of a $3.2 billion dam complex by the Chilean government in May has mobilized thousands in protest, resulting in a national movement around the environmental and political implications of this project. On June 20, a Chilean court of appeals ordered the suspension of the project, and while this injunction comes as a temporary victory to Chile's mobilized citizens, the threat remains until the project is formally canceled. The following article was written by Sarah Brady, a student at Seattle University and an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

In one of the largest protest movements since the Pinochet era, Chileans of all ages have taken to the streets and plazas, denouncing the proposal by the Spanish-Chilean company HidroAysén to build five dams in the environmentally rich region of Southern Chile, flooding over 15,000 acres of Patagonia's pristine wilderness. The growth of this movement – with marchers touting posters that cry "Destruction is not the solution" -- has provided a moment for the country to embrace care of the earth in a surprisingly broad grassroots mobilization.

Support for the proposal comes from Chile's government, eager to use the energy supplied by HidroAysén dams to maintain the country's growing mining industry (currently the engine of the Chilean economy). President Sebastián Piñera has given urgency to the project, warning of a future plagued by persistent blackouts and high electricity prices, and the important role of hydropower in furthering the country's development. Critics of the dam view these concerns as alarmist and misrepresentative of Chile's real energy needs.

Flooding from the dams would forever change the landscape of one of the last virgin territories on the planet. The construction would also include more than 1,200 miles in power lines, which environmentalists fear will facilitate future exploitation of Patagonia's rivers with more dams. Protestors denounce the government's concession to the company that already controls 70 percent of the country's energy power, and point to the recent earthquake in Japan as evidence that it is unsafe to rely so heavily on one central source of energy.

In addition to the environmental issues, the HidroAysén dams carry a human cost. Though sparsely populated, it is precisely these valleys where the majority of the Aysén region's population lives. Everyone will be forced to move out but only those with property titles will be relocated; many families in the region have no such documentation.

The struggle against damming and mining is felt throughout Latin America, and sheds light on the costs of a desperate drive for more resources to which our lifestyles are especially complicit. From Colombia to Argentina, Peru to Brazil, dam complexes for hydroelectric power generation have brought great environmental, political and social ramifications for people with the least voice. The Belo Monte dam in Brazil provides a prime example of this, where a large dam complex is scheduled for construction that will flood 120,000 acres of rainforest, undermine the local fishing economy, release large amounts of toxins and displace 20,000 mostly indigenous people from their native lands. Indigenous communities in Peru are likewise under threat of displacement thanks to the Inambari hydroelectric complex, which recently was temporarily suspended. It is a story common throughout the region that the scramble for resources by global powers has pushed itself into the living spaces and sacred areas of local indigenous peoples, often the last preserved land available.

The June 20 decision by Chile's courts to pause the HidroAysén project has provided the moment for a popular discourse on alternative energy sources and the limits of energy consumption. In a national economy with few incentives for renewables, HidroAysén critics argue that further investment in the company closes the market for ventures in alternative renewable energy. Non-conventional power sources available to Chile include the improvement of solar energy from the Atacama Desert, geothermal energy and smaller hydroelectric plants, among other possibilities (as proposed by the National Resource Defense Council in May 2011). The raised voices of thousands of Chileans argue that it is the mentality surrounding the issue that must be challenged – it is not a "one-or-the-other" choice between development and the environment. For the moment, Chileans are not willing to allow the usurpation of their beautiful natural resources for the sake of an unsustainable development plan.

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