The Chilean HidroAysen Hydroelectric Project

The Chilean HidroAysen Hydroelectric Project

The HidroAysén Hydroelectric Project, though a seemingly profitable venture, has been subject to a large number of public protests. This OpinionFront article intends to shed light on what this project is, and why has it been caught amidst protests.
OpinionFront Staff
Quick Fact
In the United States, the HidroAysén project was largely brought to public attention by the 2010 documentary film 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless, directed by Chris Malloy. Though the film is not explicitly about the hydroelectric project, it briefly portrays the protest and demonstrations held by local Chileans in its opposition.

HidroAysén is a $3.2 billion hydroelectric power megaproject, the purpose of which is to construct five huge hydroelectric power plants in the Aysén Region of Chilean Patagonia. The five dams would be constructed on two rivers, viz. the Baker River and the Pascua River, and it is estimated that the electricity produced through this project would lead to the generation of a high-voltage direct current between Aysén and Santiago, Chile's capital. Despite the fact that the project seemed to be very promising in the beginning, it has now been caught amidst several public protests, owing to various ecological as well as political reasons.

The Project
▶ In May 2011, the Chilean government approved the HidroAysén project. The project is owned by a corporation that was formed by a joint venture between Endesa, (a subsidiary of Italian conglomerate ENEL) with 51% stakes and Colbún S. A. (a Chilean utility firm) with 49% stakes.

▶ It was agreed that five hydroelectric power plants would be erected in the Chilean Patagonia―two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River.

▶ It was estimated that the 2,750 MW of electricity that the project would generate, would be able to fulfill at least 21% of the demand of the Central Interconnected System (SIC).

** The SIC is the name of the main power grid of Chile. It supplies as much as 68.5% of the total power that is consumed all across Chile, and serves as 93% of Chile's total population.

▶ The project is mainly supported by the Chilean business community, alongside certain politicians (including the conservative president Sebastián Piñera and the socialist president Ricardo Lagos). Moreover, about 26% of the Chilean population supports the project and feels that it is a necessity.

▶ A lot of people and environmental groups have also come up to voice their opposition for the project. However, according to a survey, despite so much public opposition, the project will still reach its completion.

The HidroAysén Effect: Arguments of the Protesters
▶ Chilean citizens and environmental groups, such as Greenpeace have argued that the hydroelectric power plants would have a permanent detrimental impact on the environment of the region.

▶ Damming the rivers would disrupt local ecosystems by flooding about 14,000 acres of nature preserves.

▶ Added to this, several indigenous communities would also be adversely affected. Their ability to sustain themselves, through fishing and other activities for which they depend on the rivers, could be harmed by the presence of dams and associated structures.

▶ Moreover, more than 1,800 miles of electric wiring would be used to connect the dams with the Chilean power infrastructure. This would attract over 5,000 workers from Chile and other countries. This would, in turn, lead to large-scale industrialization of the Aysén Region, thus, making it lose its original, natural glory.

▶ According to a study, the project will have an adverse effect on 6 national parks, 26 conservation priority sites, 11 national reserves, 32 privately owned protected conservation areas, and 16 wetland areas, thus, immensely impacting the ecological balance of the region.

Protests and Demonstrations
▶ Across the country, the HidroAysén project sparked protests and demonstrations. Some protesters also rode on horseback from local areas to demonstrate at the government buildings.

▶ A number of slogans were adopted by the protesters, in order to register their opposition to the dams, including Patagonia sin represas, which is Spanish for Patagonia without dams, and ¡Paren el circo, No a hidroaysén!, which means Stop the circus, No to HidroAysén.

▶ Protesters and environmental groups also took legal action against HidroAysén, claiming that the corporations did not have the rights to use water from the Baker and Pascua rivers.

▶ The case was lost, and the opponents went on to appeal in the Chilean supreme court. But, the supreme court claimed that water rights cases must be decided at the discretion of lower courts, so ultimately the legal action went nowhere.

▶ Despite the failure of the lawsuit, in 2012, the HidroAysén project was put on hold by the corporation due to widespread public disapproval.

▶ Public opinion polls indicated that, in 2011, 74% of Chileans did not support the project. The majority of the Chilean population is pessimistic about halting the project though.

The Energy Duopoly
▶ The HidroAysén dam project is an example of what happens when corporate and governmental interests clash with public opinion.

▶ Although proponents can argue that the dams would benefit Chileans by lowering energy costs and creating jobs, these short-sighted benefits seem to ignore the much more dramatic problems that the project would cause.

▶ Its environmental impact and that on the local communities has already been mentioned, but the problems don’t end there. If the HidroAysén project were to be completed, only two companies would own 80% of the Chilean energy market, thus, leading to a duopoly.

At the time this article was written, it remained to be seen whether the protesters and environmental groups would prevail over the Chilean government and corporations or not. Nevertheless, whatever the outcome of this story will be, it will definitely be a valuable lesson to learn with regard to the control and preservation of resources, and also in relation to the power structures of contemporary societies.