Rubber Stamping the Future of Chile’s Rivers

Alejandro Koehler showed up at the Regiona; Environmental Commission (COREMA) office in Valdivia last October convinced he had the legal arguments in hand to block a large-scale dam project planned for the nearby San Pedro River. He was wrong.

Soon after presenting his case before the regional environmental authority, the then mayor of Panguipulli found himself – along with 20 other critics of the project – being dragged out of the government office by riot gear-clad Carabineros. By the time Koehler was released from police custody eights hours later, the deal was done. COREMA, by a vote of 16-1, had given Chilean energy company Colbún a green light to build Region XIV’s first large-scale hydroelectric dam.

"They violated all of our rights. They injured us. They hit us. It was totally arbitrary," said Koehler. "I was a political prisoner in 1973. I spent many years in exile in Germany. And so it just seemed surrealistic being arrested under a democratic government for which we’d fought so hard to restore."

Shouting into the Wind

Koehler is one of thousands of people throughout the country who have raised their voices in recent years against plans by energy companies, oftentimes foreign-owned, to tap the electricity potential of Chile’s various rivers. The projects are environmentally destructive, economically short-sighted and, given Chile’s potential for non-conventional renewable energies, ultimately unnecessary, argue a growing number of local residents, indigenous and environmental groups, and politicians.

But as Koehler discovered first hand, those arguments tend to fall on deaf ears, ignored by environmental authorities and the mainstream media alike. Chile’s National Environmental Commission  ( CONAMA) and regional COREMAs have instead taken a rubber stamp approach, approving all but two of the 32 hydroelectric projects they processed between 1997 – when Chile’s environmental evaluation system (SEIA) first went into place – and 2007, according to Chilean researcher Manuel Jose Prieto, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

Opponents of such projects are hoping the high-profile HidroAysén venture will be an exception. Formed in 2006, HidroAysén is a joint entity created by Italian-owned Endesa, the nation’s top electricity provider, and Colbún. Together the companies plan to build five massive dams along Chilean Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua Rivers.

Like Colbún’s San Pedro project, HidroAysén’s multi-billion dollar plan was quick to attract local resistance. Unlike in other cases, however, local opposition soon mushroomed into a national and later international campaign that has placed unprecedented pressure on the companies involved and, at least for the time being, helped stall the project.

"There’s been a change on the level of the general public," said Santiago-based ecologist Juan Pablo Orrego, a leading member of the ongoing Patagonia sin Represas (Patagonia without Dams) campaign. "There’s a lot more consciousness these days than there was when we questioned first the Pangue and later Ralco projects on the Biobío."

"With these campaigns we’ve shed light on the real costs of these huge hydroelectric power plants," he added. "Before they were always seen as sources of clean, renewable and cheap energy. The three clichés. We’ve shown that’s not true."

Dams, Dams and More Dams

But while the Patagonia sin Represas movement has certainly been successful in drawing a line in the sand over Aysén’s Baker and Pascua Rivers, it has had only limited impact in extending that debate beyond the confines of the HidroAysén project itself. With national attention focused specifically on Patagonia, energy companies have quietly been pushing through a long list of other hydroelectric projects throughout the rest of the country.

Colbún’s US$200 million San Pedro power plant is a case in point. The project, approved without hardly a mention in the national media, calls for a 56-meter-tall dam and accompanying reservoir that will extend more than 12-kilometers and flood nearly 300 hectares.

Colbún, the country’s third leading electricity provider, insists energy-strapped Chile desperately needs the 144 megawatts (MW) the dam will provide. The company also insists the project is environmentally sound and will bring much needed jobs to Region XIV, which is located some 900 kilometers south of Santiago, Chile’s political and economic center.

Alejandro Koehler and his allies in the fight against Colbún insist otherwise. Like other large-scale dam projects, they say the San Pedro facility will have a major environmental impact by flooding native forestland and altering the natural flow of the river.

Colbún’s own Environmental Impact Study (EIS) points out that unlike other Chilean rivers, which can be dominated by introduced salmonids (trout and salmon), the San Pedro boasts a high percentage of native species: 96 percent. One of those is the tollo valdiviano (Diplomystes camposensis), an extremely rare species of catfish that was not discovered until 1987 and is thought to exist nowhere else on the planet. According to the scientist who discovered the species, University of Kansas professor Gloria Arratía, the dam project could contribute to the animal’s eventual extinction.

Critics also describe the project as economically short-sighted. Certainly it will generate jobs during the estimated three years it will take Colbún to complete the power plant. But once in operation the facility will provide only a handful of permanent positions. Its negative impact on the area’s already-established reputation as an attractive tourist destination, in contrast, could very well be lasting, they warn.

"Once the project is finished, the state, the mayor and the citizens themselves are going to have to ask themselves, ‘OK, what do we do now?’" said Koehler. "By that time the rivers will already be tapped. We’ll have dams and thousands of miles of power lines that will blight the landscape. Things just won’t be the same."

The San Pedro project isn’t, after all, the only major hydroelectric facility in the works for Chile’s Región de los Rios, or Rivers Region, as Region XIV is also known. A Norwegian utility called SN Power has plans to build four hydroelectric power stations there that would together generate some 700 MW, five times the capacity of the San Pedro Facility.

SN Power, in partnership with Chilean businessman Gustavo Pavez (20 percent), submitted the plans for the largest of the facilities, the US$1 billion Maqueo Project, in March. Via a series of underground tunnels, the 400 MW-project looks to channel water from eight different rivers through a turbine station near Lake Maihue. An alternative to traditional large-dam and reservoir facilities, the "low impact" design – as the company describes it – has nevertheless drawn criticism from locals, particularly from indigenous Mapuche groups.

"We’re talking about projects that cover almost the whole watershed. And I don’t think there’s been any real analysis to see how many hydroelectric plants the area can really handle," said Koehler. "Our government, the Chilean state, has responded to the energy shortage in this very over-simplified way, by saying ‘Well, we have this watershed, these rivers, so let’s build dams.’"

Major hydroelectric projects are in the pipeline further north as well. Colbún submitted an EIS last year for a US$500 million facility on Region VIII’s Biobío. Chile’s second largest river after the Baker, the Biobío already supports two of the country’s three biggest dams – Endesa’s Pangue (467 MW) and Ralco (690 MW) – which together supply approximately 9 percent of the country’s total electricity.

In 2004, the year Ralco was inaugurated, the Chilean government promised in a report to the Organization of American States that it would not allow any more such projects in the area. Both the Pangue and Ralco dams had proven to be highly controversial, not only because of their environmental impacts but because in both cases the projects forced the relocation of Pehuenche-Mapuche indigenous communities.

History now looks to repeat itself as Colbún’s 360-MW Angostura project, planned for the juncture of the Biobío and Huequecura Rivers, calls for a 640-hectare reservoir that would displace approximately 45 families. A number of those families are Pehuenche-Mapuche. To make matters worse, six of the families were already relocated to make room for the Pangue dam.

Like the San Pedro and Maqueo projects, the Angostura venture has received little media attention. The same has been true for U.S.-owned energy company AES Gener’s hotly-contested Alto Maipo project, which despite its proximity to Santiago – home to a third of Chile’s population – was approved last month with barely a mention in the capital’s major newspapers.

AES Gener, Chile’s number two electricity provider, plans to build two hydroelectric generators in the Cajon del Maipo area, a large canyon just south of Santiago that serves as a popular weekend getaway for city residents. The Maipo River, furthermore, is a key source of drinking water for Santiago’s estimated 6 million residents.

To feed the generators, which are expected to produce 256 MW and 275 MW respectively, the company plans to channel water from several of the Maipo’s tributaries into a 70-kilometer pipe system. Once pushed passed the turbines, that water would then be returned to the environment.

AES Gener describes the venture as a "run-of-river project" – as opposed to a large dam and reservoir complex – and says it is both environmentally friendly and compatible with the area’s agriculture and tourism needs. A large coalition of residents, environmentalists and even some Chilean celebrities sharply disagree.

"If I take water (out of the rivers) and pump it through a 70-kilometer long, five-meter wide duct, I’ll cause irreparable harm to the watershed. The company has neither considered nor recognized that," said Edison Acuña of the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of the Maipo Rivers.

"We think it’ll have a tremendous impact, that it will totally degrade the Maipo River valley, will affect greater Santiago’s supply of drinking water and will affect Santiago’s environmental quality as a whole."

A Rubber Stamp Approach

Observers say the problem is fundamentally institutional, that Chile’s SEIA is neither designed nor equipped to properly assess and thus filter out potentially destructive projects.

"The SEIA is a system made to neither reject projects nor evaluate alternatives," said Manuel Jose Prieto, author of a Universidad Católica study entitled "Modelo Chileno de Gestión Hidroeléctrico: Un Enfoque desde la Sustentabilidad Profunda" (The Chilean Model of Hydroelectric Management).

"The system is designed instead to facilitate projects. It orients companies so that they can follow the law and meet all the existing requirements," he added. "Since Chile doesn’t have a real energy policy, or a policy of land and water management, there’s no real legal framework for evaluating projects. It’s really easy, therefore, for companies to meet the requirements."

Nor do the various COREMAs have any real autonomy, say critics. The environmental commissions are headed by regional governors, who are presidential appointees. The approval process, in other words, is easily subject to the political and economic whims of the COREMA board members or their superiors in Santiago.

"The COREMAs don’t have any independence whatsoever. They do what La Moneda (Chile’s presidential palace) tells them to do. What’s more, La Moneda is co-opted by the large corporations." said Juan Pablo Orrego, who heads an environmental NGO called Ecosistemas. "Taking on that alliance between the government, the corporations and the multinationals is a huge challenge."

It is worth noting that the two projects COREMA did reject during the decade between 1997 and 2007 represented just 1.35 percent of the total hydroelectric investment proposed during the period, Prieto found.

The SEIA, furthermore, allows for only limited input from citizen observers. Alejandro Koehler found that out the hard way. On the evening of the Oct. 22 COREMA session in Valdivia the ex-mayor initially had trouble even making it into the building, which was surrounded by a heavy contingent of police. And once inside he wasn’t allowed to stay long. Not only did the head of the COREMA board, Regional Governor Iván Flores, ignore Koehler’s arguments, but he also ordered the session suspended. It was at that point, Koehler claimed, that orders were given to clear the meeting hall of certain "undesirables."

"Quite brutally they began to remove certain people from the room who hadn’t caused any problems," he said. "As a mayor, I complained to the police. I told them, ´What’s happening here is an injustice.’ The result was the en masse arrest of 21 citizens."

After the arrests Flores resumed the session and, along with 15 other COREMA members, voted in favor of the San Pedro project.

The SEIA process does include a "citizen participation" phase, during which observers have 60 days to present their arguments for or against a given project. But those two months are hardly sufficient to study and then formulate arguments against impact reports on which the large energy companies have spent unlimited time and in some cases millions of dollars preparing. The 10,500-page EIS HidroAysén submitted last August is a good example.

"There’s a major imbalance," said Koehler. "When it comes to know-how, to the process of presenting the environmental impact studies, the companies have all the power. On the other hand, regular citizens have just 60 days to familiarize themselves with the subject and then submit their opinions. If the state has difficulty understanding the scope and the negative impacts of a given project, imagine the difficulties we citizens face."

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