Ride for the Rivers

by Jim Little
Holiday 2008

Horseback riders filled the leafy Plaza de Armas in Coyhaique, southern Chile, their flags of patriotism and signs of protest flapping in the Patagonia wind. Thousands of supporters cheered and honked their horns as 125 cabalgata riders filed past – gauchos and farmers in traditional woolen ponchos riding alongside environmentalists in polyester fleece. About 30 of them had traveled the 200 miles from Cochrane, some 100 miles of it on horseback, over nine days through the region’s small towns and sparsely inhabited countryside to show the media, their elected officials and certain transnational companies that they were united against the damming of their wild rivers.

Environmental activists in southern Chile helped to organize the ride. They called it Cabalgata Patagonia Sin Represas (Horseback Ride for a Patagonia without Dams). Their aim was to protest HidroAysén – a $3 to $4 billion hydroelectric scheme that, if fully realized, would build five massive dams by 2020 in the Aysén region. Two would go on the Baker River, three more on the Pascua – along with 1,500 miles of transmission lines, the longest in the world.

The dams would capture the furious turquoise flow emanating from the two largest ice caps outside Greenland and Antarctica to spin turbines for electricity. The transmission lines would run north, held by towers more than 200 feet high. Following a winding corridor almost 400 feet wide, a thousand miles of forest would be clear-cut and the rest of the corridor’s path similarly cleared. The corridor would intersect 64 communities and 14 protected areas. It would divide endangered forests and some of Chile’s most spectacular national parks.

With all dams functioning, the lines would deliver 2,750 megawatts of electricity to Chile’s central grid – approximately 20 percent of the nation’s current total. The country’s urban and industrial areas around Santiago would consume some of it. But the energy is most needed to supplement the growing demands of the lucrative mining operations that lie farther north.

The mining industry, mostly foreign owned, consumes an estimated 37 percent of Chile’s energy, more than any other user. As one observer wrote, Chile does not have an energy problem, it has a mining problem.

The protesters were for the most part country people who make their meager livings from the land, and environmentalists, both local and foreign, who simply love the region’s spectacular landscapes and see significant economic potential in its growing eco-tourism industry. These are two groups that have not always seen eye to eye. But the imminent flooding of the region’s farms and pastures, displacement of its families, ruin of its wild rivers and pristine wilderness and industrialization of its pastoral economy had brought them together.

Matters were urgent at the start of the ride and are gettingmore so by the day. Crews hired by the dam-builder Endesa, a Spanish/Italian-owned company, are preparing to begin building the first dam on the Baker in early 2009. Chile’s government backs their project.

Endesa was formerly a state-owned enterprise that was given free and exclusive water rights to almost all of Patagonia’s rivers by the government. Later sold to foreign investors, the company still continues to control much of Chile’s water. Transelec, a Canadian company, would build the transmission lines. Colbún, owned by Chilean billionaire Eliodoro Matte, is Endesa’s Chilean partner. Though the five dams would be an unmitigated disaster for the Aysén, the transmission lines are seen by many as perhaps the most troubling aspect of the project. Once they are in place, no river from Aysén to Santiago would be safe from dams.

There are alternatives that would meet Chile’s energy needs: ample wind and solar, dynamic geothermal, as well as powerful tides. Small, high-altitude hydro facilities could also do much to help meet demand without devastating the region.

The cabalgata reached Coyhaique on November 29, 2007. Along the way, the riders and their supporters collected 5,000 signatures against the dams. A few months later, a referendum in the village of Tortel, which is near the first dam proposed for the Baker, asked voters whether or not they agreed with the project: 78 percent said no.

Not everyone in this economically depressed region is opposed. Some believe that construction will provide them with better jobs, greater income and a brighter future. On the national level, however, an April 2008 poll showed 53 percent of Chileans were against the dams.

Leaders of the cabalgata delivered the group’s concerns and demands to the office of the regional governor, who largely ignored them. There was music, dancing and speech making. The demonstration got some press, mostly local, some national, but not nearly what had been hoped for.

An April 1, 2008, The New York Times editorial titled “Patagonia Without Dams” got a lot more attention. While acknowledging Chile’s need for new energy sources, its editors stated in part: “Building large-scale hydroelectric dams is an old-world way of obtaining energy. It is too late in the environmental life of this planet to accept such ecologically destructive energy solutions or the model of unfettered growth they are meant to fuel.”

The people of Aysén, whose old-world existence may one day soon be destroyed by those old-world energy solutions, would concur.

“This may be my last fight,” 88-year-old gaucho Cecilio Olivares is quoted as saying before riding the final leg of the 200-mile cabalgata into Coyahique. “But I’m doing it to defend the land where I was born. ... My parents are buried on the shore of the Baker and my bones should also be laid to rest there.”

About the Author

Jim Little is a writer and editor at Patagonia, whose keen appreciation for the natural world and long-time interest in Latin America have taken him there on several occasions. In 2007, he became better acquainted with Chile’s resource challenges and opportunities while volunteering on a forest project in Region IX through Patagonia’s environmental internship program.