In Chile, glaciers and dams become political footballs


Glaciers, an unlikely political player in Latin America, had a major part to play in one of the most striking victories for the environmental movement in South America.

Last month, a committee of ministers in Chile voted to cancel the permit of the massive HidroAysen project located in southern Chile that had sought to construct five large hydropower dams on the Rio Baker and the Rio Pascua. These pristine rivers flow from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean in Patagonia, an area of high mountains, glaciers, ancient forests and fjords. Endesa Chile, the country’s largest private electric utility and Colbun, a power transmission firm, both sponsored the HidroAysen project.

The $10 billion development would have provided 2750 megawatts, about a quarter of Chile’s electricity, by 2020. It also would have required construction of a major transmission line through indigenous lands and agricultural zones, flooded wild rivers whose rapids and waterfalls draw tourists and adventurers, and drowned forests, which are the habitat of an endangered species, the huemul or southern Andean deer.


Chile’s rapid economic growth has placed pressure on its energy resources, particularly since it lacks fossil fuel resources of its own. Copper exports are a major source of revenue, but the refining requires a great deal of electricity, at the same time that urban demand is growing. Hydropower has seemed like an option, since the southern part of the country has abundant water resources that derive from snowmelt and glaciers, unlike the desert north and the semi-arid central region, where the capital city Santiago and the bulk of the population are concentrated.

Public opinion polls showed that the majority of Chile’s population opposed the dam. Above all, they valued the unique quality of this remote wilderness region. The endangered huemul was also a potent symbol, since it is featured, along with the condor, on Chile’s national coast of arms. Plans were also in the works to set up a new Patagonia National Park, over 1,000 square miles in area, with support from the former CEO of the clothing company Patagonia Inc.
Protesters march against the HidroAysen dam project in Santiago, Chile in 2011. ((ivar Silva/Flickr)

In the end, it was not the huemul or the whitewater rapids that the ministerial committee mentioned as reasons to pull the permits on the dams. Their report cited several gaps in the plans that HidroAysen had presented. The proposal did not address the risk that the upstream glaciers might create outburst floods, when vast quantities of meltwater could course down the narrow canyons, damaging or destroying destroy the proposed infrastructure. Glaciers have played an important role in Chile once or twice before. The ministers, as well, commented that the plans did not make provisions for 39 families that would have to be relocated, or address endangered carnivore or amphibian species.

The dams were caught in the political tensions of Chile, a country that is still working out the conflicts that led to the coup of 1973, in which the armed forces deposed the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende. HidroAysen had been approved in 2011 under the government of Sebastián Piñera, a center-right figure from the National Renewal Party. Michelle Bachelet, a member of the Socialist Party, was elected president in 2013 and drew support from environmentalists who opposed the dams.


Bachelet’s term of office ends in 2018, and a more conservative government might yet support another project for dams in Patagonia. But for the meantime, a coalition of environmentalists and left-wing politicians have blocked them, speaking in the name of the endangered species, of displaced local families—and of the power of glaciers to send floods that rush down through canyons.




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