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NEWS: Protests against Patagonia dams rock Chile

Sara Larrain and Maude Barlow

Sara Larrain and Maude Barlow

Inter Press Service reports, “Tens of thousands of Chileans have joined in protests against (the construction of five hydroelectric dams in Patagonia) that will affect six national parks, 11 national reserves, 26 priority conservation sites, 16 wetlands and 32 private protected areas in Patagonia and seven other regions… On Friday May 20…protests (took place) in a number of cities, including the capital, Santiago, where as many as 80,000 people took to the streets…and faced a harsh crackdown by the Carabineros militarised police, who fired on them with tear gas and water cannons. …Some 50,000 people demonstrated on Saturday (May 21) in the port city of Valparaíso, 120 km north of the capital, and tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in 26 other cities.”

The San Francisco Chronicle adds, “(On May 21), Chilean president Sebastian Pinera delivered the annual state-of-the-union address to Congress in Valparaiso…as thousands of people protested against a Patagonian hydroelectric project approved earlier this month, some throwing rocks and clashing with police, television images showed. …Police arrested 70 protesters in the port city, where there was an estimated $30 million in damage to public infrastructure, supermarkets and pharmacies, Santiago-based newspaper La Tercera reported.”

BBC reports, “During his state of the nation address, Pinera was repeatedly interrupted by opponents of the project. A group of opposition politicians unfurled a banner reading ‘No to HidroAysen, Patagonia without dams’ inside the Congress building in Valparaiso.”

And the Associated Press notes, “Most demonstrators were peaceful, but bands of hooded protesters attacked police and smashed shop windows and damaged other property along a 10-block stretch of Santiago’s main avenue. The protesters started at the Plaza Italia and walked peacefully to the front of La Moneda presidential palace, carrying flags and banners denouncing the hydroelectric project… At that point, hundreds of masked people began throwing rocks at police, who responded with water cannons and tear gas. The masked bands tore off metal bars and scaffolding timbers to use against police, trashed stores, wrecked signs and set fire to rubbish piles. Thousands of other demonstrators sat down on the street and raised their hands in a sign that they were unarmed and not involved in the violence.”

The protests this weekend build on earlier protests that have taken place in Chile. On May 10, Bloomberg reported, “Chile (has) approved a hydroelectric project that would flood Patagonian valleys, sparking protests and more than a hundred arrests around the country. Police fired water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators outside the building in the city of Coyhaique, where 11 of the 12 members of an environment commission voted in favor of the HidroAysen project that Santiago-based Empresa Nacional de Electricidad SA and Colbun SA want to build.”

The IPS article continues, “The HidroAysén hydroelectric project…is causing ‘a credibility crisis for institutionality and Piñera,’ environmentalist Sara Larraín told Tierramérica… Larraín, who was arrested and suffered police brutality during the protests, declares that the battle ‘is just beginning’.”

In an IPS interview, Larrain says, “This project is based on the monopoly on water rights held by Endesa Italy and Colbún (a former state-owned company that was privatised in 1997 and acquired in 2005 by the Chilean Matte Group). On the basis of the rights they obtained under the Water Code established by the military regime (1973-1990) they are flooding two rivers in Patagonia: the Pascua and Baker Rivers. In the meantime, since both companies already control a majority share of the central electrical power grid system, through HidroAysén they will come to control between 70 and 90 percent of electricity generation. This constitutes a private duopoly that cuts off access to the market for other actors who want to participate with other sources of energy. Added to this, there are a series of campaign promises made by Piñera, such as raising the share of renewable energies to 20 percent by 2020, which are not being kept. The government is not funding a single project aimed at this goal. The result of all this is quite simply a credibility crisis for institutionality and Piñera.”

While the project is opposed by the majority of Chileans, it could spell profits for some Canadian pension plans. Most of the work on the feasibility study for the 2,200 kilometre transmission corridor through wildlife reserves and national parks was contracted out to Transelec Chile SA. Transelec is an electricity transmission company controlled by Canada’s Brookfield Asset Management, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and the British Columbia Investment Management Corp.

To read the full interview with Larrain, please go to http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=55748.