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Sierra Club joins campaign to protect Chile's Patagonia

Tuesday, May 1st 2007 - 21:00 UTC
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Energy expansion projects closely monitored by environmentalist Energy expansion projects closely monitored by environmentalist

Opponents of plans to construct several massive hydroelectric dams in Chile's northern Patagonia region are welcoming a new and very influential ally: the Sierra Club.

Founded in 1892 by famous preservationist John Muir, the 800,000-member Sierra Club is the oldest and possibly best known environmental group in the United States. "The basic focus of the international part of the Sierra Club these days is energy conservation, and particularly to prevent global warming. And we felt, as we've done in other countries too, that there's a much better way to go than large-scale dams, which we feel are destructive to the environment," Barry Wulff, the organization's international committee chair, told the Santiago Times. "The amount of destruction and the resources that go into the dam are so great relative to what could be done with wind power and solar power," he went on to explain. "There are a lot of species lost, habitat loss, (loss of) places that could be used for recreation, which would be a financial asset to the communities. There are disruptions to communities. All of those losses have to be considered." Plans are currently in place to build at least five massive hydroelectric dams in Chile's Region XI, an area of northern Patagonia that's also known as Aysén. A Swiss mining company called Xstrata is looking to dam the Cuervo River, while a company called HidroAysén â€" a joint entity created by Spanish electricity giant Endesa and a Chilean utility called Colbún â€" plans to build several dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers. Backers of the projects, which together would produce some 3,000 MW of electricity, insist their plans are both necessary and sound. To start with, the dams promise to free Chile from its vulnerability vis-à-vis ongoing shortages of Argentine natural gas. Patagonia's rivers, furthermore, represent a clean and renewable source of energy, they argue. The projects nevertheless, have generated local, national and more recently, international opposition. The dams would be environmentally devastating for the pristine region, say opponents. In addition to flooding large tracts of land, the projects call for building a 2,000-kilometer transmission line, the world's longest that would literally cut through acres upon acres of both protected and unprotected wilderness area. Also, large-scale hydroelectric projects are by no means the country's only option, they argue. "We're convinced that there are alternatives, starting with energy efficiency," said Juan Pablo Orrego of the Santiago-based environmental group Ecosistemas. "In Chile, so far absolutely nothing has been done in that respect. And Chile is a country that's particularly rich in terms of non-conventional, renewable energy sources". The Sierra Club agrees. In a recent letter to President Michelle Bachelet, Barry Wulff asked the Chilean government â€" which has yet to approve the massive dam projects â€" to consider energy alternatives, such as wind and solar-generated electricity. "Although we recognize that Chile and Chileans must ultimately decide for themselves what energy path to take, we urge you to choose sustainable energy development based on energy efficiencyâ€Ã‚¦ Chile can benefit by not repeating the mistakes made in the United States," the letter reads. "Chilean Patagonia is a land of extraordinary ecological value and pristine natural beauty that is unique on our shared planet," Wulff's letter goes on to say. "Future generations of Chileans, and citizens from around the world, will thank you when a sensible sustainable energy policy is established." The Sierra Club's support of the mounting anti-dam campaign is good news for groups like Ecosistemas and the Region XI-based Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve (CCARV), which welcome any opportunity to bring increased attention to the issue. "We hope the many other Chilean and foreign groups join this campaign and that they contribute to the work various organizations in the Aysén Region and in the rest of Chile are carrying out in order to protect not only Patagonia's biodiversity, but also the people who live there," said Peter Hartmann, a Coyhaique resident and leading member of the CCARV. By Benjamin Witte The Santiago Times

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