Americas

Energy versus Environment in Chile

The Pehuenches' Last Stand


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Nicolasa Quintreman is among the Pehuenche women battling for their ancestral homeland. (Photo: Marco Casali)

When workers for the giant energy company Endesa began work on a 570-megawatt hydroelectric dam across the Bio Bio River in southern Chile, they built a wall to divert the river's course. Then the rains came. The river rose until it burst through the wall. When it crumbled, a handful of Pehuenche Indian women who have refused to move to make way for the dam at last saw proof that nature, if no one else, was on their side.

They had been warning that the spirits of the river, the sky, and the volcanoes in this rugged Andean valley would take their revenge since 1990, when the Chilean government gave energy giant Endesa the go-ahead to build the dam at Ralco, in the heart of what ecologists describe as the richest ecosystem in the land.

"You cannot upset the elements. We knew nature would punish them for this," said Rosaria, one of the seven Pehuenche women holding out against the project.

In early June, Endesa was forced to open the floodgates at the Pangue dam, further downstream, when the swollen river came thundering down into the Pangue Reservoir, threatening to burst the dam.

But despite this "divine" intervention, the Pehuenche "girls"—most of whom are over 70 years old—seem to be fighting a losing battle against what will be the biggest hydroelectric dam in Chile. Since construction began in 1998, the diggers have already cut huge swaths out of a nearby hillside and although the recent rains have interrupted work, Endesa says the dam is still on course to start running in July 2003.

Sisters Nicolasa and Berta Quintreman—both older than 70—are leading the resistance against the project. "What would I do with a dishwasher anyway? I wouldn't even know how to switch it on," Nicolasa says, sitting proud amid festoons of onion strings in her smoke-filled cooking hut. "I was born here and so were my parents and their parents. If they want me to leave this place, they'll have to carry me out dead."

The Pehuenches, who belong to Chile's largest indigenous group, the Mapuches, say their ancestors have lived in these Andean foothills for 500 years, surviving on pine nuts and worshiping the river. But in the last two years, 86 families have given up their land and their traditional mountain lifestyle to the dam builders, lured by Endesa's offers of new houses—complete with dishwashers and wood stoves—cash, and jobs for their sons.

Nicolasa and Berta have already faced a Chilean military court over the course of the fight for their land. In February 1998, they were accused of "physically abusing carabinero officers [national frontier guards]" while manning a roadblock to bar access to Endesa's construction vehicles. They are now in the throes of another tortuous legal case against former Chilean president Eduardo Frei and Endesa, whom they accuse of flouting a 1993 indigenous rights law that prohibits buying land from Indians without their consent.

The Ralco dam project was drawn up during Augusto Pinochet's 1973-90 military regime and approved by Frei's democratic government in 1990. Environmentalists argue the dam will destroy the Bio Bio valley's unique flora and fauna and ruin what was a prime site for ecotourism. Chile's National Environment Commission condemned the project in 1998, but its director was fired a few months later and the condemnation retracted. Human-rights group Equipo Nizkor has branded the development as "ethnocide" of the Pehuenche people and the International Federation of Human Rights has warned the project would cause irreversible damage to a community whose culture depends on their natural surroundings.

But Ralco is a key element in Chile's energy plans. Endesa claims the dam will meet 20 percent of the country's electricity needs. And Chile needs power: In Santiago alone, demand is doubling every decade. As far as Endesa is concerned, the dam's benefits to the country's economic development will far outweigh any temporary inconvenience to the Pehuenches. The company has set aside $16.7 million dollars for the 93 families whose homes they plan to flood.

But ecologists like Juan Pablo Orrego, who was a rock star before winning a Goldman Prize for his work as director of the Bio Bio Action Group, say the families were tricked into giving up their land by the lure of instant cash payments.

"We have managed to delay construction three times since it began," he said. "But time is running out now. While the current court case drags on, the dam is steadily taking shape. And once it's built they are going to have to drag Nicolasa out by the hair."

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