By Susana Segovia
The area that will be flooded to build the HidroAysén project’s five dams represents barely 0.05 percent of the Chilean region of Aysén. But it is made up precisely of the valleys where the majority of the population lives, according to local residents.
In the heart of the southern Patagonia region, in the valleys of the Ñadis River, 45 kilometers south of the town of Cochrane, live 14 families who will have to be relocated because the construction of the Baker 2 hydroelectric dam, one of the five planned by the HidroAysén consortium, will leave the entire area underwater.
Local residents Elisabeth Schindele and Rosendo Sánchez and their two children live on 492 hectares of land, where they raise animals, grow vegetable crops in their family garden, and organize horseback rides to El Saltón on the Baker River. Their closest neighbors are four kilometers away.
According to a survey conducted by the international polling firm Ipsos in late April, 61.5 percent of respondents throughout Chile said they were opposed to the hydroelectric dams. Nevertheless, on May 9, the project was given the green light by the regional authorities – appointed by the Office of the President – after three years of application procedures, without taking into account the 11,000 citizen inputs made during the public consultation process mandated by law.
“We made observations as part of the citizen participation process and have yet to receive any kind of response. We wanted to know what would happen to our community council, our headquarters, our cultural, family and economic ties,” Schindele told Tierramérica.
“If they relocate us separately, this community will be lost, and they’ve made no effort to understand that,” she added.
All 14 families will be forced to move out of the area before the reservoir is flooded, but only those with property titles will be relocated, stressed Schindele. There are workers who have settled here who do not own property but are still part of the way of life on the Baker River, she said.
The five hydroelectric dams will be constructed on the Baker River – which has the highest flow of all of the rivers in Chile – and the Pascua River. Together they will generate 2,700 megawatts of electricity which will be transported along 2,000 kilometers of power lines to the capital, Santiago, and the mining operations in the northern Atacama region.
HidroAysén is a joint venture between Endesa, the Spanish power company acquired by Enel of Italy, and Colbún, owned by the Matte Group of Chile, which together control 70 percent of the Chilean electricity market.
Cochrane is reached by driving north on the highway. A statue of a huemul or South Andean deer in the town square and a wooden condor standing guard on a corner welcome visitors to this town of 3,000 residents, where Teresa Catalán runs a family-owned restaurant.
The daughter of pioneers in the region, Catalán decided to move back to Patagonia with her husband after living for 20 years in the neighboring region of Los Lagos.
“I’ve lived in places where there’s been lots of money and then they become ghost towns, where the stigma of being a bad community is what’s left behind after all that wealth is gone,” she told Tierramérica.
It is estimated that around 5,000 construction workers will descend on the area, along with a similar number attracted by the opportunity to provide services over a period of 10 to 12 years. Local residents fear that this sudden population boom will lead to a sharp rise in crime, prostitution and early pregnancy.
“I’m concerned about the possible rise in teenage pregnancy that could result from the large male population that will be brought here by the project,” Cochrane town council member Tatiana Aguilera told Tierramérica.
Between 1985 and 1987 Endesa constructed a run-of-the-river micro hydro plant to supply electricity to the area’s communities. Although the project involved a much smaller number of workers, it left behind a generation of fatherless children, commented Aguilera. Cochrane has a public hospital built in 1970 that serves the communities of Villa O’Higgins, Caleta de Tortel, Puerto Bertrand and Puerto Guadal.
But the closest maternity ward is at the hospital in Coyhaique, which is 345 kilometers east of here and takes six or seven hours to reach.
The company is offering to establish a private health care center for its workers, but the public health care system will be responsible for those who come to the area to work in services and other related activities, noted Aguilera.
Other, less tangible impacts are already being felt.
“They have interfered with our culture, and this is reflected in many things that used to be cooperative, volunteer efforts,” said Aguilera.
An example is the community rodeo that used to be organized by local volunteers. Now that HidroAysén is financing the event, all sense of community cooperation has been lost, and participants are paid for taking part.
Caleta de Tortel, the southernmost community in Aysén, is a little fishing village at the mouth of the Baker River, between the North and South Patagonian Icefields and the Pacific Ocean. Instead of streets, the town has wooden walkways that cross canals and estuaries connecting small islands and rugged fjords.
Irma Gruelet is a small business owner who runs a kiosk selling coffee and pastries at the entrance to Caleta de Tortel. Her house is near the school, and while she talks, the voices of children spilling out of class can be heard in the background.
“Not everyone here is unhappy with the project. On the contrary, sometimes people need help, and HidroAysén has given it to them,” she said.
This is the case of Nancy Domínguez. She received financing from the company for a kiosk where she sells candy and crafts to tourists who visit the estuary of the Baker River, which is at risk of periodic flooding as a result of the dams.
“Of course (the dams) cause environmental damages, but for us, older adults with low incomes, this will improve our lives,” said Domínguez.
Radio Santa María, a Catholic radio station in the regional capital, Coyhaique, has been critical of the project. Even before HidroAysén was granted approval to move ahead with the dams, it had already provoked social impacts, journalist Claudia Torres told Tierramérica in one of the station’s broadcasting booths.
The community has been divided between those who have received company money and those who have not, between the “sell-outs” and those who cannot be bought at any price, she commented. “They have not considered the extent of the damage they have caused.”
Michel Mouré, manager of operations at HidroAysén, called suggestions that the people of Aysén are being bought off by the company “an insult.”
The contributions made by the company, from scholarships to support for microenterprises, are part of HidroAysén’s “corporate social responsibility” policy, which represents an opportunity to overcome unemployment and poverty in one of the country’s most neglected areas, he argued.
On May 20, regional council member René Hermosilla Soubelet of the ruling right-wing National Renovation (RN) party declared on Torres’ radio show that “there are people in the RN who are involved with HidroAysén, who receive money from them… I believe those people should immediately disqualify themselves from this process.”
That same day, a fire broke in a house whose owner, a supporter of the dams, blamed “criminals who are taking advantage of the opportunity to divide the region.”
West of Coyhaique, in Puerto Aysén, local residents walk slowly and easily spot people who are not from the area. A record store offers for sale the first CD by a local artist who sings to Patagonia, and a youth group is organizing a horseback ride to raise environmental awareness.
For Hugo Díaz, a leader of Wall-Mapu, an activist group opposed to the dams, these are signs of hope. “Every day, more young people are joining this struggle, and these young people can help influence the way their parents think,” he said.