Chileans protest government approval of five Patagonia dams

Dam projects are drawing increased criticism in South America, which boasts three of the world's four biggest hydroelectric dam complexes. Chile is pushing forward with a $7 billion dam project.

By , Correspondent

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    Environment supporters attend a rally after Chile's regional environmental commission approved a hydropower dam project, in Valparaiso city, about 75 miles northwest of Santiago, on Monday, May 9.
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Chileans in at least nine cities protested Monday after authorities voted to approve the first environmental impact study for a $7 billion hydroelectric project in Patagonia that could flood 14,600 acres of land.

Thousands of people took the streets in Santiago, blocking traffic in several parts of the city until police used teargas and water cannons to drive them away. In Coyhaique, where 11 of 12 members of an environment commission voted in favor of the project, demonstrators threw coins and rocks at riot police who eventually cleared a path for the officials to leave, local press reported.

"There are marches throughout the country calling for sustainability," Kemel Sade said outside the presidential palace in Santiago, where he was carrying a banner. "It's the first time this has happened in Chile. We're a mining country, but that doesn't mean we have to depend on energy from this mechanism. There are other options." Mr. Sade has the same name as his father, who was one of the government regulators who voted in favor of the dams.

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Dam projects are stirring increasing controversy in South America, which boasts three of the world's four biggest hydroelectric dam complexes. Seven of the continent's 13 countries have plans for more than 1,000 megawatts of new hydropower, according to the World Energy Council. While in the last dam-building boom, in the 1970s, the region's dictators could ram through such controversial projects, the protests in Chile show greater citizen involvement in politics as democracy has taken hold.

Environmentalists in Chile have spent years promoting alternatives to large hydro and coal, calling for increased energy efficiency and broader deployment of renewable energy sources, especially wind along the country's 4,000-mile coastline and solar in the Atacama, the world's driest desert.

However, President Sebastian Piñera says that the country needs a base of reliable large power plants such as coal, hydro, or nuclear, and that renewables can't affordably meet the country's needs in the near term.

Years of delays, still more hurdles

New generation is needed to lower the country's electricity rates, which are twice those of neighboring countries, Mr. Piñera said in November in a speech in which he endorsed large hydro and coal plants. Government ministers are expected to take the next step in approving the project.

The environmental study approved Monday was for a project known as HidroAysen, a joint venture of power generators. Spanish company Endesa and Chilean company Colbun plan to build five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers to produce 2,750 megawatts of power, or about half the peak demand of Santiago.

The companies still have many hurdles to clear, including securing water rights, gaining approval for a thousand-mile transmission line that may bisect conservation areas, and finally financing and building the project. Monday's environmental impact study was for the five physical dams. A separate environmental study for the transmission line is yet to be approved. Total costs are expected to come to $7 billion.

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HidroAysen, which has worked for six years to win environmental approval, was pleased with today's vote, Executive Vice President Daniel Fernandez said on CNN-Chile. The company won't break ground on the dams until it has approval for the transmission line, he said. Construction was slated to start in 2008, according to a timeline that remains on the project website.

The project has been repeatedly delayed as activists from around the world demanded protection for the rivers. The Baker River has the biggest flow of any in Chile. The umbrella group Patagonia Without Dams organizes supporters from the US, Spain, Colombia, and Italy, in addition to various regions of Chile.

"We've delayed it for years," says Peter Hartmann, coordinator of Aysen Reserva de Vida, a regional environmental group, in a phone interview. "We've improved the project a little but we still don't want it."

The making of a national energy policy

A number of international groups and figures – including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – have come to the support of environmental activists protesting against dam projects in Chile and the region. Brazil last week broke off relations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after the body opposed construction of the $17 billion Belo Monte dam in the Amazon.

Chile expects electricity demand to double by 2025 on growing residential demand and increased production of copper. The government is analyzing dozens of proposals for hydro, coal, and renewable-energy projects. Earlier this year, it approved South America's biggest coal-fired power plant, a $5 billion project to be built on the coast north of Santiago.

However, the demonstrations yesterday showed that the public has a limited appetite for large energy projects. Environmental groups, politicians, and editorial writers have all called recently for a debate over national energy policy.

"The state has taken a passive role" in defining the country's mix of energy sources, Samuel Leiva, campaign coordinator at Greenpeace Chile, says in an interview. "As long as there is no energy policy, we'll keep having the same fight."

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