Santiago, Chile A $7 billion project to dam two of the world’s wildest rivers for electricity has won environmental approval Monday from a Chilean government commission despite a groundswell of opposition.
The commissioners — all political appointees in President Sebastian Pinera’s government — concluded a three-year environmental review by approving five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Aysen, a mostly roadless region of remote southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.
Monday’s vote — 11 in favor and one abstention — could prove to be pivotal for the future of Chile, which has a booming economy, vast mineral wealth and a determination to join the elite group of first-world nations.
With its energy-intensive mining industry clamoring for more power and living standards improving, some analysts say Chile must triple its capacity in just 15 years, despite having no domestic oil or natural gas. Chile imports 97 percent of its fossil fuels and depends largely on hydropower for electricity, creating a crisis when droughts drain reservoirs or faraway disputes affect energy imports.
Supporters say the economic benefits of the dam project justify carving roads through the heart of Chile’s remaining wilderness and running a thousand miles of transmission lines to power the capital, Santiago.
The dams together could generate 2.75 gigawatts, nearly a third of central Chile’s current capacity, within 12 years. The Aysen region will receive less expensive energy, jobs, scholarships and $350 million in infrastructure, including seaports and airports, said HidroAysen’s executive vice president, Daniel Fernandez.
But people in the sparsely populated area are divided. Only three dozen families would be relocated, but the dams would drown 14,000 acres, require carving clear-cuts through forests and eliminate whitewater rapids and waterfalls that attract ecotourism. They also would destroy habitat for the endangered Southern Huemul deer: Fewer than 1,000 of the diminutive animals, a national symbol, are believed to exist.
“They are all sell-outs,” rancher Elisabeth “Lilli” Schindele said of the commissioners.
She lives with her husband and two young children in the Nadis, a sector that would be inundated. Their neighbors have agreed to relocation, but she doesn’t want to leave the 1,235 acres where they raise cattle and sheep.
“There is no land like ours,” she told The Associated Press by phone.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the U.S.-based National Resources Defense Council, appealed to Pinera to call off the project.
“It’s the most beautiful place, I believe, on the planet,” said Kennedy, who kayaks there every year. “I don’t know any place like Patagonia.”
Investors have spent $220 million on the project so far, but opposition has grown to 61 percent of Chileans according to the latest Ipsos Public Affairs poll, and the government is concerned about a backlash.
More than 1,000 people gathered outside the hearing in the regional hub of Coyhaique, chanting and carrying signs. Some threw rocks at the cars of commissioners, and clashed afterward with hundreds of police, who responded with a water cannon and tear gas. Several protesters were bloodied in the melee, and the commissioners were kept inside for their safety.
In downtown Santiago, several thousand people blocking a main avenue in protest also encountered tear gas and police water cannons.
Mining and Energy Minister Laurence Golborne had urged opponents to turn to the courts, and they did vow to appeal.
“We’re going to keep fighting until this project is unviable,” said Patricio Rodrigo, a spokesman for the Patagonia Without Dams coalition. “This project robs us of our sovereignty.”
But Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who sent police to contain the protests, said that “the most important thing is that our country needs to grow, to progress, and for this we need energy.”