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Patagonia Sin Represas

November 27, 2009
A beautiful river, hopefully forever.

A beautiful river - hopefully it will stay that way.

The first thing I saw a month agoupon entering the small terminal at Balmaceda airport was  a poster of a beautiful Patagonian landscape upon which was superimposed a string of power lines. Above, the poster said ‘Patagonia Sin Represas.’ Stores in Coyhaique and Cochrane display similar posters as do billboards between the two towns.

At issue is a proposal by energy company HydroAysen (a joint  subsidiary of the larger companies Endesa and Colbun) to build two dams on pristine rivers in Patagonia at the cost of $3.2 billion. The companies argue that the dams are necessary to supply the country (mainly Santiago) with electricity and that the region will also benefit through reduced energy prices.

Unsuprisingly, the energy companies are presenting Chileans with a false choice between affordable energy and the environment but locals that I spoke are against the dams for a different reason: the inevitable change in lifestyle that would accompany them. If the dams were built, Cochrane would become a company town and likely grow by tens of thousands of new residents (from its current population of 3,000) and current residents believe that they would bring with them the drugs and crime of big cities with them, disrupting the tranquil gaucho pace of the town.

Aside from those concerns, however, the dams are simply unnecessary – an equal amount of energy could be “gained” through energy efficiency initiatives – and would greatly harm tourism in the area, the second largest sector of its economy. The power lines necessary to transport the electricity to Santiago would have a large negative impact on many of Patagonia’s most cherished and pristine wildernesses.

The entities with the ability to stop the dams are the various government agencies whose approval is necessary for the project to move forward. Fortunately, they are currently standing their ground against the well-connected energy companies, having responded critically to the most recent Environmental Impact Statement submitted by HydroAysen. The project’s future is therefore far from certain.

The picture above shows the confluence of the Rios Baker and Chacabuco, on the edge of the future Patagonia National Park. One of the proposed dams would be placed a kilometer up river and, while it wouldn’t have any direct negative effect on the park, it would destroy what is as anyone can see a tremendously beautiful and unique place. Hopefully, that won’t happen.

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