In the face of transnational economic pressures, the tide is changing in how the values of healthy river ecosystems are perceived and prioritized by human society. In the United States, a growing movement is afloat demanding the removal of dams on rivers across the country, following the dam-building spree of the last century. In the far reaches of South America, a powerful and authentic grassroots movement has recently achieved a historic advance in the protection of the world’s rivers.
A conflictive tension has existed for decades between extractive river resource development, such as large-scale hydroelectric projects and the related mega-dam and transmission line infrastructure, and the irreplaceable ecological and economic values of free flowing healthy river ecosystems. Globally, the dam-building industry continues to set its sights on the planet’s few remaining wild rivers, with some disastrous recent construction and looming threats on nearly every continent.
However, in early June 2014, the highest authority of the Chilean government (a committee of cabinet level ministers) revoked the environmental permits that had been granted in 2011 for the construction of five dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Chile’s Patagonia (the HidroAysén project). The decision to reject the permits for construction fulfilled a campaign promise by the government of Michelle Bachelet, who recently returned to the Chilean presidency after the four-year term of President Sebastian Piñera. A broad coalition of Chilean and international organizations under the banner of Patagonia Sin Represas coalesced opposition to mega-dam development on the wild rivers in the south of Chile to such a degree that the issue was key to winning the election.
Protecting rivers in Patagonia is an issue of national identity in Chile. In May of 2011, the Piñera government had approved the permits for the construction of the five dams, but the design and environmental review of the approximately 2,000 kilometers of transmission lines that would be necessary to carry the proposed 2,750 MW of energy to urban and mining centers in the north had still not been submitted.
The irregularities in the review process supervised by both the Piñera and the previous Bachelet administration were well known to the public, and the approval of permits for the HidroAysén project was seen as a perversion of the injustice left over from 17 years of military dictatorship under the Pinochet regime.
Upon approval of the HidroAysén project, the Chilean public poured into the street en masse to let the Piñera government know that the people did not agree. Unprecedented street marches focused on a nationally celebrated environmental issue put an exclamation mark on the multi-faceted vision for integrated ecosystem protection and economic development strategies that has underpinned Patagonia Sin Represas since its inception in 2007. A diversified and truly sustainable alternative energy future is fundamental to that vision.
The victory in Chile to protect rivers in Patagonia is certainly a historic watermark in the international river defender movement, and is a success story that will be studied carefully by environmental justice campaigns around the world.