|Tomas Munita for The New York Times|
Protesting last month in Santiago, Chile
By Alexei Barrionnuevo, The New York Times, June 16, 2011
SANTIAGO, Chile — A white gas mask hanging from her neck, Paula Bañados strode side by side with 30,000 other marchers through this capital one recent Friday, a determined look on her face.
“The government is saying we will be left without energy, but it’s a lie,” she said. “They are just trying to scare us. But we won’t be scared away, because we know we’re right.”
By the time Ms. Bañados reached Chile’s presidential palace, some demonstrators had begun hurling stones and pieces of wood at the armored police vehicles. As sirens blared, the police responded by firing water cannons on the crowd, driving protesters back.
Other protests took place in several more Chilean cities. In what has become a surprising national movement, organizers have mounted large protests for several weeks since a government environmental commission in May approved the $3.2 billion HidroAysén dam complex in a pristine region of Patagonia, known for breathtaking glaciers and lakes, that draws thousands of tourists a year.
The protest movement, which has resulted in 28 police officers’ being injured and more than $100,000 in damage to public property, has rattled the government of President Sebastián Piñera. His approval rating fell to 36 percent in May from 41 percent in April, in part because of the outcry over HidroAysén, according to Adimark, a Santiago-based research group.
While the government supports expanding hydroelectric power production, more than 60 percent of Chileans are against HidroAysén, polls show. After the commission’s decision, now the fight turns to the 1,912-kilometer (about 1,200-mile) transmission line yet to be approved. Many Chileans consider Patagonia a national treasure, and the battle to stop the project has inspired people to join the anti-dam cause to an extent that other environmental protest movements in South America have not.
HidroAysén is an especially tense subject in Chile because the country, more than its neighbors, is struggling to secure energy supplies to keep up with its economic growth. Chile will need to double its electricity capacity generation over the next 10 to 15 years, according to government officials and private energy analysts.
Chile has little oil or natural gas of its own. Importing gas became unreliable after Argentina began reneging on its commitments to ship gas to its neighbor starting in 2004. After the earthquake in Japan this year, Chile’s mining and energy minister, Laurence Golborne, said it would be “very difficult” now to build a nuclear plant, given fears that the quake raised about Chile’s own earthquake-prone geology.
Government officials say more energy is needed to raise the economic level of poorer Chileans, and to lower electricity prices, which in southern Chile average about twice those in Brazil.
More energy also will be needed to expand Chile’s mining sector — the engine of Chile’s economy, said James Brick, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy.
Brazil has embraced hydroelectric power, which produces about 80 percent of the country’s electricity. Chile produces about 40 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power. But HidroAysén, a planned complex of five dams on two rivers, would produce 18,430 gigawatts a year, which was about 35 percent of Chile’s total consumption in 2008. It would also flood a large part of a region dominated by national parks and reserves, say people opposed to the dams.
“This project is the tip of the spear to convert our Patagonia into a true service patio for energy generation,” said Luis Rendón, coordinator of Acción Ecológica, an environmental group.
Those opposing the dams say the government should focus on improving energy efficiency and boosting capacity for nonconventional renewable fuels like wind, solar and geothermal power.
“Compared to Brazil or Argentina, Chile is doing very little to incentivize renewables,” said Roberto Román, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Chile. “In 5 to 10 years, solar options will be cheaper than HidroAysén.”
Foreign nongovernmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and International Rivers have helped fund the protest movement. Douglas Tompkins, an American who has acquired more than one million acres of land in Chile, much of it in Patagonia, has helped develop the movement’s publicity campaign.
“Chile has no energy policy,” Mr. Tompkins said. “Retrofitting homes is where energy policy has to begin.”
Government officials say energy efficiency, and electricity generation from wind and energy, while important, will not be enough to stem a shortfall beyond 15 years. Without a nuclear-energy option, hydroelectric plants will be critical to slowing an expected increase in coal-fired production, said Mr. Golborne, the energy minister.
While “there is no energy supply problem facing our government,” Mr. Piñera said recently, “if we don’t make decisions today we are condemning our country to a blackout near the end of this decade.”
But those who oppose the dam say Mr. Piñera is showing signs of the kind of corporate-government economic concentration that has defined past Chilean governments. An Italian-Spanish-Chilean consortium owns HidroAysén, and the majority stakeholder, Endesa Chile, owns most of the water rights to both rivers the dam would affect.
Last year HidroAysén sponsored advertising that alarmed many Chileans, including one television commercial in which the lights go out while doctors are performing an operation. (In recent weeks the consortium has put out advertising seeking to better explain the project.)
Daniel Fernández, HidroAysén’s chief executive officer, criticized dam opponents’ “information distortion” tactics, including statements by the writer Luis Sepúlveda that the transmission line would carve a path of “23,000 soccer stadiums, one after the other” through Patagonia. Mr. Fernández said the line would carve a much narrower footprint.
Mr. Fernández said the project would flood about 14,600 acres, making it the “most efficient dam project in the world.” A dam project in Argentina, Condor Cliff, he noted, would flood more than seven times that — about 111,000 acres of Patagonian sheep-herding land — and has not caused a public outcry there.
The notion of any disfigurement of the Aysén area has nevertheless fueled the protests, which have become a forum for Chileans to express a general “uneasiness” with the government, said Alberto Mayol, a sociology professor at the University of Chile. On Thursday, there was another large march in Santiago, with crowd estimates of between 70,000 and 100,000, this one to protest the state of public education.
The battle against the dam will be a long road. HidroAysén does not expect to propose the transmission line until December, or to have final approval until about 2013. The first dam could be operating by 2019, the last by 2025, Mr. Fernández said.
About 4,000 people attended the most recent march to protest the dam last Friday. A mix of young and old waved Chilean and Socialist flags. Children riding their parents’ shoulders chanted, “Patagonia without dams.”
There was no violence or property damage, as there had been at earlier protests. “Welcome to a new Patagonia protest,” shouted organizers perched atop a flatbed truck, their message carried over several large speakers. The truck led the march with an organizer barking orders into a microphone for when to stop and start, and when to chant.
“For us Chileans, natural resources are the most precious thing we have,” said Víctor Cesped, a 21-year-old architecture student at the University of Chile who was taking part in his fourth protest. “The Patagonia is a source of pride, something very dear to our hearts.”