Huge ice plains, crystal clear mountain lakes, stunning fjords; Patagonia in southern Chile is one of the world’s richest untouched ecosystems. But not for long.
The reason: Italian-Spanish energy firm Endesa and Chilean company Colbun are moving ahead with HidroAysen, a massive $10bn project to build five dams along the Baker and Pascua rivers in the heart of Patagonia.
Under the plans, water diverted from the rivers will flood thousands of hectares of forest, and 1,900km of transmission lines will disfigure the pristine region, carrying electricity to the energy-hungry capital of Santiago in the north. But local people are fighting back.
To the barricades!
The project has sparked both fury and division among communities in the region. In January, President Sebastián Piñera promised that hydroelectric initiatives would not “exploit the riches of Patagonia”; but given his strong links with big business, few expect him to keep that promise.
Tired of having their demands ignored, people from the once sleepy town of Puerto Aysen decided to take matters into their own hands. Since mid-February, hundreds of protesters have fought almost daily battles with riot police, building barricades and hurling rocks at outnumbered officers, who have responded with teargas and water cannon.
One protester has lost an eye and several people have been seriously injured. Amnesty International has urged an investigation into claims of “excessive use of [police] force, unwarranted use of teargas, use of metal pellets and possible arbitrary arrests”. The police have now agreed to this.
Even tourists who flock to this remote region every summer have been affected: earlier this month, a British cruise ship cancelled its stop at the scenic port of Puerto Chacabuco over fears for the safety of its passengers.
Locals feel let down by the central government, and their leaders insist they will not back down until they are given a say on any major hydroelectric projects in the area. Their hope is that President Piñera, already facing mounting protests from students and indigenous Mapuche communities over other issues, might just be backed into a corner over this.
Sceptics call their goal – to force him to call a halt to HidroAysen and invest in alternative energy sources instead – unrealistic. But they are certain that it's worth fighting for.
Further reading:Patagonia – caught between visions of the future.