by Jim Little
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.