Date: Fri, 12 Jun 98 15:51:04 CDT
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Indians & Enviros Vow Rough Water For Chile Dam
/** headlines: 16.0 **/
** Topic: Indians & Enviros Vow Rough Water For Chile Dam **
** Written 8:34 PM May 25, 1998 by econet in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 12:57 PM May 22, 1998 by firstname.lastname@example.org in saiic.indio */
/* ---------- "Indians, Environmentalists Vow Roug" ---------- */
Indians, Environmentalists Vow Rough Water for Chile Dam
By Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor staff writer
Thursday 21 May 1998
RALCO, CHILE --
The Bío-Bío River in central Chile runs through a
breathtaking valley of jagged canyons, dense forests,
fertile meadows, and snow-capped volcanoes.
It also runs through the ancestral lands of Nicolasa
Quintremán, a Pehuenche Indian. And therein lies the
final rub for engineers who for decades have felt their
hearts quicken at the thrilling thought of damming up
Next year, the Chilean energy company, Endesa,
plans to begin construction of a huge, 570-megawatt
hydroelectric dam just a few miles downstream from
the land the diminutive but sharp-tongued Ms.
Quintreman says her family has owned for 500 years.
The dam's reservoir is to flood the lands of 100
Pehuenche families, so Endesa is seeking to buy them
But as she boils pine nuts and readies bread dough in
her traditional smoke-filled cooking hut, Quintreman
says, "This is my land. They can offer me all the
cows and other goodies they want for it. The only
way I'll leave here is dead."
The standoff between Endesa and a handful of
Pehuenche Indians like Quintreman is feeding a
boiling controversy pitting Indian rights activists,
environmentalists, alternative-energy advocates, and
ecotourism promoters against the giant Endesa. On
Endesa's side are government officials - including
Chilean President Eduardo Frei, himself a hydraulic
engineer - and businessmen who see projects like the
Bío-Bío dam as indispensable elements in Chile's
impressive economic growth.
The Bío-Bío brouhaha has also spilled over Chilean
borders, as international environmentalists and
whitewater rafters have joined the battle. Even
hydraulic engineers from the United States have
chimed in with "learn-from-our-mistakes" tales about
the drawbacks of big dams.
Plans to harness the Bío-Bío with as many as six
dams have been on energy maps since Chile's
1973-90 dictatorship. One dam was completed in
1996 and is operating downstream from where the
much larger Ralco dam is set to be running by 2002.
Upon completion, Ralco will supply almost one-fifth
of the energy needs for central Chile, including
Santiago, where energy demand is doubling every
"The energy-generating power of water is the
cheapest way for Chile to go," says Adolfo Ochoa,
assistant manager of construction for Endesa in
Pangue. In response to critics who say the dam is
unnecessary since Chile began importing natural gas
from Argentina, Mr. Ochoa says, "gas is an important
part of [Chile's] energy mix, but that doesn't change
the need for Ralco. This dam figures in all the energy
supply calculations for the next 10 years."
The political waters that Endesa is navigating are
much more troubled than when it built the first dam.
Since then, Chile has approved stricter environmental
laws and new Indian-rights legislation.
Environmentalists say the Ralco dam would not only
silence a river but also a number of plant and animal
species, including six species of fish unique to the
Bío-Bío. And they insist that electricity from the
Ralco dam, located about four hours by car from the
Bío-Bío's mouth in Concepcíon, could be replaced by
other, less-damaging sources of energy.
Alternative energy forms
"I am interested in the environmental impact of this
project, but it is also a fact that Ralco is anti-economic
for Chile," says Juan Pablo Orrego, head of the
Bío-Bío Action Group in Santiago. "Natural gas is
just coming on, and thermal and solar power
generation have hardly been touched."
A former rock musician, Mr.
Orrego has been battling the
damming of the Bío-Bío since
1991, when he accompanied an
ESPN TV rafting crew down the
river. "We were just maneuvering
through the area where the Pangue
reservoir now sits when someone
from ESPN in the raft said, 'And to
think all this will soon be lost.' I
didn't even know," he says - but he
went back to Santiago and formed
the action group. Last year, his
efforts won him the prestigious
Goldman Prize for international
To those who say he would stop Chile's recent
economic and social progress, Orrego says his battle
is about giving Chile a more sustainable economic
plan than the current model, based on exploiting
natural resources. "Instead of using up our trees and
fish and rivers, we need to think about growing
through education, information, and services like
ecotourism," he says.
The Bío-Bío is considered one of a half-dozen great
rivers in the world for rafting and kayaking, says
Yerko Ivelic, who runs Cascada Expeditions, a
rafting and ecotourism business in Santiago. By
damming the Bío-Bío, he says, Chile risks losing not
only the millions of dollars in tourism that the river
already attracts, but also an opportunity for a "green"
image in which the high-growth ecotourism sector
"Already, the Bío-Bío is becoming known not as a
river where you can do great rafting, but as a river
where you could do great rafting," he says.
Last March, a technical review board of Chile's
National Environmental Commission recommended
against the Ralco project. But then the commission's
director was fired, and in June, the board's negative
decision was reversed.
Energy needs vs. Indian rights
Now the only thing standing in the way of the dam is
Chile's Indigenous Law - and the dozen Pehuenche
families that remain opposed to the project. The law
prohibits the selling of Indian lands, but does allow
them to be traded for other land, with the owner's
Endesa has been working for two years on the
relocation, spending more than $20 million along the
way. "We knew this would be a long process," says
Endesa's Ochoa. "These Indians have lived with
hundreds of years of deception and we have to pay
the consequences of that history."
So far, about 80 families have accepted the offer - and
many have also accepted company jobs building
access roads for the new Indian communities. "We're
going to be much better off here. We're going to have
better houses and we'll be closer to town and
secondary schools for the kids," says José Mario
Reyes Chihue, standing in the new farming
community he'll move to downriver from Ralco.
Some of the holdouts act as if they are better
Pehuenches, he says, but he believes there is nothing
dignified about the poverty most Pehuenches live in.
"They [the holdouts] are mistaken," he says. "They
don't understand progress and they never will."
But along the Bío-Bío, some families who have
accepted Endesa's offers are now rethinking.
Promised tools and farm animals aren't showing up,
they say, while others worry that lands they accepted
higher up the river are snowed under much of the
Ochoa says Endesa has plenty of time - until Ralco's
reservoir starts filling in 2001 - to persuade families
of the company's good intentions. In the meantime,
Ralco's holdouts are likely to force a Supreme Court
showdown pitting Chile's Indigenous Law against the
country's general electric service legislation, which
permits expropriation in the interest of providing
electricity for the general good.
Noting the importance of ancestral lands in Pehuenche
culture, Orrego says the case "will be the final test. If
the [electricity] law prevails, the Indian law is dead."
In any case, Endesa seems unlikely to persuade the
Quintremans that flooding their lands is in their
interest. Standing on a bluff above the foaming
Bío-Bío, Quintreman's brother, Juan Henrique, says
he remembers when only Pehuenches roamed the
lands along the Bío-Bío, and his parents warned him
that some day strangers would try to take their land.
"They told me then not to give in," he says, "and I
plan to follow their advice."
Taken from the Christian Science Monitor Webpage. The URL is:
South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC)
P.O. Box 28703
Oakland CA, 94604
Office: 1714 Franklin Street, 3rd Floor, Oakland
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