Chile: Yet Another Dam Planned For Biobío River

Though smaller than Endesa’s Ralco (Chile’s largest at 690 MW) and Pangue (457 MW) complexes, the Angostura Project is still quite substantial. The 360 MW of power Colbún hopes to squeeze out of the upper Biobío – which already provides approximately 9 percent of Chile’s total electricity – would be enough energy to light nearly 2 million homes. With the country’s appetite for electricity growing at an average 6 percent annually, the US$500 million dam project, argue its backers, represents a vital contribution to Chile’s continued economic development.

Colbún hopes to begin construction of the dam and accompanying reservoir – slated for the juncture of the Biobío and Huequecura Rivers – as early as next year. In fact, the company has already submitted a requisite Environmental Impact Study (EIS) outlining its plan to flood some 640 hectares and create a huge reservoir that would stretch 16 kilometers along the Biobío and 5 kilometers along the Huequecura. Chile’s National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) is expected to decide on the matter in the coming months. Colbún would like to have the power station up and running by 2012.

In the meantime, residents in the nearby towns of Santa Bárbara and Quilaco are scrambling to block the project, which unlike the high-profile Ralco venture, has received very little media attention. Their biggest concern is over the approximately 45 families likely to be displaced by the project. A number of those families are Pehuenche-Mapuche, a local indigenous group. To make matters worse, six of the families were already relocated to make room for the Pangue dam, completed in 1996.

"We lived in houses belonging to the landowner. But Endesa came and kicked us out. They told us the owner of the ranch had sold everything," said Juanita Mendez Curriao, an indigenous woman who was displaced by the Pangue project. "They came one day when the owner wasn’t there. They kicked us out of the house and left us out in the cold. For the first couple of nights we had to sleep under the trees. Later they provided a space where we could set up a little farm and build a little house."

Mendez and her family now live in a place called Los Notros, on the south shore of the Biobío. Colbún is hoping the area will soon be underwater.

"A lot of people couldn’t believe it, that they’d move us again. Because they already moved us here," said Mendez. "But since we’re not the owners, what can we do if the owners are saying they will negotiate, that they’ve already talked it over? All we can do is hope they give us something. That’s the only thing we can think about. If they’d give us a house and a little bit of land, instead of nothing, we’d be happy."

Hollow Promises

Critics of the project say the planned displacements are all the more galling considering that five years ago, Chile’s government promised before the Organization of American States (OAS) not to allow any more such projects in the area. A 2004 report filed by the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reads: "The Chilean government expresses its willingness to preserve indigenous lands in the upper Biobío…In particular, to avoid and/or condition future installation of mega-projects on indigenous lands in the upper Biobío."

Chilean authorities made the promise as part of a "friendly agreement" signed in October 2003 with a small group of Pehuenche woman who, after years of resisting Endesa’s Ralco project, finally agreed to sell their properties. The sale put an end to a high-profile, decade-long struggle that also resulted in the imprisonment of several Mapuche leaders. The Ralco power station, Chile’s largest, was officially inaugurated one year later. In total, some 100 families were moved to make way for the US$580 million hydroelectric facility, which ended up flooding some 3,500 hectares along a 40 mile stretch of the Biobío.

"The case of Ralco clearly illustrates the social tensions that arise between a ‘modernizing’ development model and the social, environmental and cultural costs levied on a people who bear the brunt of this economic transformation," U.N. Special Rappateur Rodolfo Stavenhagen wrote in a 2003 report.

"Perhaps the most emblematic example of these processes is the construction of the Ralco hydroelectric power station in the upper Biobío, which resulted in the displacement of dozens of Pehuenche families from their traditional lands," he added.

History Repeats Itself

Five years later, history very much appears to be repeating itself. Like the behemoth Ralco complex before it, Colbún’s Angostura project promises not only to relocate residents and flood their farmland, but to cover up their collective past along with them.

According to archeologist Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University, the Biobío – Chile’s second largest river – boasts a wealth of historical treasures. Long a gathering point for various pre-Columbian indigenous groups, the Biobío and surrounding area also feature several kuels, artificial Mapuche-built mounds used in some cases for burial purposes. They were also used in what Mapuches call nguillatun fields, explained Dillehay.

"A nguillatun is one of the Mapuche’s major agricultural/fertility ceremonies attended by multiple communities," said Dillehay, who is best known for his role in excavating Region X’s Monte Verde site. Monte Verde is thought to be the oldest known human settlement in the Americas.

"Kuel comes from the Mapuche word winkel," the U.S. archeologist added. "Winkel gets converted over to kuel. Winkel means cerro, a natural hill. But the natural hill could be a sacred hill. Sometimes, in the upper Biobío, I’ve seen natural hills that are sacred places. Sometimes the bigger ones are old volcano heads that are eroded. So some of the Mapuche might call it winkel and some might call it kuel. Some may be artificial and some may be natural, but they both could be sacred."

One of those kuels is located very close to the juncture of the Biobío and Huequecura Rivers: the site of the proposed Angostura reservoir. While the project would not flood the mound itself, it would cover up part of the immediate surrounding area. As the area has never been properly studied, it’s impossible to know exactly what historical artifacts might be lost. What is certain, however, is that once the river basin is flooded, no such thorough archeological study will be possible.

"Anytime you put in a reservoir there are sites that are both historic and prehistoric that are going to be covered up and they’re going to be damaged," said Dillehay. "(The Biobío) was the northern boundary for a while between the Spanish and the Mapuche. So it’s very important and much deserving of more systematic and intensive archeological and anthropological research, especially since in the upper part of it you’ve still got a lot of indigenous populations living there."

Running Out Of Time

Leading local opposition to the project is a pair of organizations called Aguas Libres de Quilaco (Free Waters of Quilaco) and Movimiento Ciudadano Huequecura Libre (Citizen Movement for a Free Huequecura). Together they have collected some 4,000 signatures from area residents opposing Angostura. So far the movement against the project has been pacific.

Unlike the campaign against the Ralco dam, which involved road blocks and sit-ins and was met in some cases with heavy police repression, activists this time around are seeking change through purely institutional channels. But after two decades of fighting against large-scale hydroelectric projects, the people of the Biobío are tired, admits Freddy Pérez, head of Quilaco’s Aguas Libres organization.

"We’re asking the government to keep its promise to manage the country’s river basins in a sustainable way, to keep its promise to respect Mapuche-Pehuenche cultural heritage, and to keeps is promise not to allow any more dams on Mapuche-Pehuenche terriroty along the Biobío. That’s what they promised before the OAS," he said.

Angostura opponents have just a few more weeks to share their objections with CONAMA, which is expected to make a final decision by the middle of next year.

Colbún is Chile’s number two electricity producer after Endesa, a Spanish and Italian-owned transnational company. Colbún, part of the powerful Grupo Matte, currently has an installed generating capacity of some 2,500 MW and controls roughly 28 percent of the market in the country’s central grid. Endesa has an installed capacity of nearly 4,800 MW. Chile’s overall capacity is approximately 13,000 MW.

In 2006 the two utilities partnered to form HidroAysén. The joint company is currently at the center of a huge national debate over its plans to build five large-scale hydroelectric power plants in Patagonia’s Aysén Region. Together the dams, which are slated for Region XI’s Baker and Pascua Rivers, would boast a generating capacity of some 2,750 MW.

Contact Benjamin Witte at