Overwhelming majority of Chileans reject hydroelectric project in Patagonia
Opposition to the HydroAysén dam and power line project grew throughout Chile this past week in the wake of massive demonstrations protesting the project’s approval on Monday May 9 in southern Chile.
Rejection of the project has shot up to 74%, reports national daily La Tercera. This compares to the 61% rejection that polls confirmed just prior to last Monday’s decision to approve the controversial 7.5 billion US dollars project, and only a 50% rejection rate two years ago, when critics and proponents for HidroAysén first launched costly PR campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion.
Spokesmen for the anti-HidroAsyén citizens group said they expect public rejection to grow even stronger once the location of the project’s 2,300 kilometre transmission line is made public in July.
Demonstrations against the project first erupted Monday, May 9, just after regional authorities approved it by an 11-1 vote. The regional authorities had all been appointed from Santiago and just hours before the vote Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter – effectively their boss - publicly endorsed the project.
Demonstrations continued every day thereafter and last Friday an estimated 30,000 – 50,000 demonstrators took over downtown Santiago in protest, resulting in violence, tear gas and more than 20 million USD in property damage, according to local media.
Thousands more gathered in Iquique, Talca, Valparaíso, and Concepción to voice their disapproval of HidroAysén.
HidroAysén is billed by its supporters - including President Sebastián Piñera - as a key element to safeguard Chile’s energy future by adding 2,750 MW of “clean” energy to the nation’s central electricity grid. Chile now produces approximately 14,000 MW of electricity from a system that has become increasingly reliant on highly contaminating coal and diesel fuels.
Opponents, however, condemn HidroAysén as a boondoggle promoted by the nation’s business elite that will concentrate 80% of the nation’s energy production in the hands of two companies – Italian owned Enel/Endesa and locally owned Colbún, part of the Matte group. This monopolistic situation will ultimately lead to higher energy bills, they say.
The protestors insist HidroAysén will wed the nation to dinosaur dam technology at a time when many nations – most especially Germany and Spain – are turning to non-traditional renewable energy sources like solar, wind and run-of-the-river hydroelectricity.
Protestors also point the conflicts of interest that led four of the regional authorities to recluse themselves from Monday’s vote, and insisted that President Piñera himself has conflicted interests.
They note that the president’s brother-in-law sits on the HidroAysén board of directors and that Enel/Endesa gave large sums of earthquake relief money to the government and also funded a special charity sponsored by Piñera’s wife.
The polling data reported Sunday in the national daily La Tercera found that opposition to the project is strong with people in all income and age groups. Fully 83% of those polled say HidroAysén will have a negative impact on the environment and 68% believe the negative environmental impact outweighs the projects benefits. The poll also found that 34% believe President Sebastián Piñera should intervene and reverse the decision, as he did last year when local environmental authorities approved the controversial Barrancones coal-burning energy project.
Caught off guard by the intensity of last week’s protests and the growing number of opponents, national leaders have tried to pacify growing unrest.
President Piñera insisted late last week that the nation’s environmental institutions had to be respected and that Chile either had to approve HidroAysén or face the prospects of energy blackouts.
Mining and Energy Minister Laurence Golborne also voiced his firm support for the project: “If the public were better informed, analysis and discussion would be more logical and justified, and not as visceral as seen currently in some forums. The issue is not destruction (of the environment) versus non destruction. These are options that the country has to develop. It is an important discussion, but is not life or death, as some would like everyone to believe.”
Opponents, however, remain unconvinced. The protestors are now planning a massive, nation-wide demonstration this Friday, on the eve of the president’s annual May 21 state of the nation address.
One of the nation’s most important, high-profile opponents to HidroAysén, Senate President Guido Girardi, has planned a special trip to Europe immediately after Piñera’s May 21 state of the union speech.
Girardi says he will personally appeal to the Italian corporate owners of HidroAysén, asking them to stop the project and replace with it with non-traditional renewable energy projects.
Enel/Endesa and Colbún are now waiting to receive the official RCA, Environmental Rating Resolution from the committee that approved the project last Monday.
By Amanda Reynoso-Palley – The Santiago Times