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ARGENTINA / CHILE
Dams spark resistance on both sides of the border
Hernán Scandizzo
11/8/2007
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Hydroelectric plants would damage natural water flows in pristine south.

Llanada Grande is located in a bucolic spot deep in the Chilean south, near Cochamó, 200 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, and 1,200 kilometers south of Santiago.

This small village, like others in the foothills of the Andes, has a historical relationship with Argentina across the border for family and economic relations.

Now, communities on both sides of the border are standing up to the El Portón hydroelectric plant planned on the Puelo River.

These lands at the 42nd parallel have a microclimate that allows crops to grow — conditions that are not found wholly adverse in other parts of the southern Region X — such as fine fruit, as well as and beekeeping.

The pristine rivers, lakes and forests here have also turned the area into a major tourist destination.

As of now, the residents of the Puelo River basin have received no information from the company heading the project, Endesa Chile — an affiliate of the Spanish company of the same name — and only have figures from a study conducted by the nongovernmental organization Geoaustral of Puerto Montt.

According to the report, the dam’s construction would flood 5,000 hectares and displace at least 80 families.

Organized resistance
In February, the residents here began to meet and in September formed the Citizens’ Committee of the Puelo Basin.

They say that the dam would change the climate and contaminate the waters with the putrefaction of the eventually submerged forest and the new river flow, which will be regulated by the company’s energy needs.

This will affect the entire water system of the area, which begins in the El Bolsón village and Los Alerces National Park, in Argentina, up to Chile’s Reloncaví estuary.

“The lake that is going to form with the dam is going to affect the entire Puelo River and can also affect the Puelo Lake,” which is located in Argentina, said Kent Schoenawer, a tour operator from Argentina.

“When there are very big surges, which occur every 4 to 5 years, the lake will rise up to 7 meters, it will merge with the Puelo Lake and the Inferior Lake [in Chile] and the Puelo River.

We’re talking about a lot of water. If there is a dyke, I don’t know if it could let the water through fast enough and even if it does, there could also be problems on the other side of the dyke.”

“When they have to open the doors there are big floods. Last year in the town of Hualqui [in the VIII Region] there was a flood that covered more than 2,000 houses, something that has never happened before.

In the summer, the Bio Bio River [where the Endesa-constructed Pangue and Ralco hydroelectric plants are located] there’s almost no water, they’re pure beaches, the river’s entire life was lost and that’s what’s going to happen with the Puelo,” warned Pedro Soto Oyarzo, president of the Neighborhood Organization of the Puelo River, a neighboring village of Llanada Grande.

“The Puelo feeds the Reloncaví estuary, it brings oxygen to the sea water and takes out a little of its salinity. That’s how the companies that are there with their salmon and mussel crops can survive.

Once this oxygen is stopped, the estuary’s life ends. So, it’s a rather serious problem. It will cause unemployment in addition,” said Marcial Aguirre, a resident in nearby Puerto Varas.

But some farmers impoverished because of low production believe that this project will change their fate, not because it will directly improve the economy, but because it will allow them to look for work in other sectors.

“If they build the dam and they pay me well, I have no problem in selling. I was born here and I was brought up working brutally.

This winter, 32 sheep died on me and there is no money coming in. What you plant here, that’s what you live on.

There’s some seasonal work, but it’s not enough to live on more or less,” said Toribio Ortega, whose property is near the proposed dam site.

Energy crisis
“We have an urgent need as a country, which is to ensure an electricity supply, and in this sense, what we’re doing is advancing the proceedings, not only environmental ones but also in other areas,” said Minister of Energy and Mines Karen Poniachik, to the Santiago Diario Financiero in September 2006. She added that the government would not lower environmental requirements, however.

The sector most endangered by the crisis is mining, according to the National Statistics Institute, which says that it consumes 40 percent of the country’s electricity.

The state-run National Copper Corporation, CODELCO — a pillar of public financing — uses approximately 15 percent of the country’s electricity and predicts it will double that in 9 years. Hydroelectric plants generate about 70 percent of the national energy supply.

El Portón, which would generate 320 megawatts, is only one of seven plants that Endesa Chile would build in the southern part of the country, four of them in partnership with the local company Matte.

According to the Jóvenes Tehuelches group of the Chilean town of Aysén, a total of 22 dams are currently being proposed in the southern region by different companies.

Mapuche and campesino communities, as well as protected natural areas, will be affected by flooding or electricity grids. These natural areas cross over into Argentine territory, and comprise the greatest cold-weather biodiversity in the world.

The Mapuche say that the dams do not only end with the newen, or force in Mapuche, of the rivers and lakes, but also of plants and animals as the equilibrium between different elements of nature, among them man, or che, will be broken.

According to the country’s Water Code, which was written in 1981 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90), the state could cede “rights to water usage” to private companies, which that way acquire wide powers to exploit the economic potential of Chile’s rivers and lakes.

Endesa Chile has rights to approximately 80 percent of the country’s waters and controls 13 hydroelectric plants.

Soggy paper
In August 1991 Argentina and Chile signed a protocol on shared water resources that regulates the use of common basins and promotes environmental protection.

But Argentines living in the Puelo basin do not believe that the agreement is enough to stop the dam’s construction because authorities in their own country are proposing six hydroelectric plants along another shared river: the Carrenleufu-Corcovado, 280 kilometers south of El Bolson.

It is here that the La Elena power project will alleviate the energy needs of the Aluminum producer Aluar SA, located in the Argentine city of Puerto Madryn, in the Atlantic coast, and future mining projects in the southern Chubut province.


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