Hydro Project Approved in Chile's Puyehue National Park

(Photo: Galen Brown, The Santiago Times)

The recent approval of a hydroelectric project in southern Chile has environmentalists, indigenous leaders, and some politicians up in arms. The problem, they say, is not the facility itself, which is by all accounts environmentally friendly—at least as far as energy projects are concerned. Critics point instead to its location, asking why on earth government authorities would allow dams to be built in the heart of Chile's most visited national park.

Region X's 1,000-square kilometer (620-square mile) Puyehue National Park is home to some of the country's most stunning landscapes. Its thick forests and steep mountains shelter numerous species of wild animals, including the puma, grey fox, güiña, and vizcacha. Snowmelt from nearby mountains flows into Puyehue's various rivers and lakes, which together with its volcano vistas, natural hot springs, and ski resort attract some 400,000 visitors per year.

But those same water resources have also attracted the attention of at least one foreign energy company: Italy's Idroenergía. Last August, through a subsidiary called Hidroaustral, the company handed Region X's Environmental Commission (COREMA) an Environmental Impact Study for a pair of run-of-the-river hydroelectric dams it plans to build along the park's Pulelfu and Correntoso Rivers. Less than a year later, on June 30, the COREMA office voted to approve the 13-megawatt, $20 million "Palmar-Correntoso" project by a margin of eight to seven.

That COREMA would give the green light to a small run-of-the-river electricity project is not, in itself, surprising, especially given the government's recent approval of a renewable energy law. The legislation, passed in March, stipulates that by 2010 electricity producers operating here must generate at least 5 percent of their output using non-conventional, alternative generation technologies. Small-scale hydroelectric projects fall into this category.

What is difficult to understand, however, is how regional environmental authorities could have approved such a venture smack dab in the middle of Puyehue National Park, which is supposedly protected from such intervention under both national and international law.

In 1967 Chile ratified the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere. Originally drafted in 1940 in Washington, D.C., the convention prohibits all types of commercial exploitation of resources located within protected areas.

The national park is also part of a recently created "Biosphere Reserve" that straddles the Chile-Argentina border. Formed late last year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the massive "Southern Andes Temperate Rainforest Biosphere Reserve"—though largely symbolic—was meant to give the region an added layer of protection.

"On top of that there are Articles 11 and 15 of the Native Forest Law stipulating that water resources within national parks should be for the exclusive use of the parks themselves, for vegetation, in order to maintain the ecological balance, for the fauna, etc.," Congressman Patricio Vallespín told The Patagonia Times.

The project, in other words, is illegal, insists Vallespín, a former regional governor who is calling for an annulment of the COREMA ruling. The Christian Democratic deputy is not alone objecting to the decision. Socialist Party deputy Fidel Espinoza has also come out against the project, as have the Santiago-based environmental policy group Fundación Terram and local indigenous organizations. Government bodies such as the National Forestry Corporation and the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) raised objections as well.

"Local indigenous communities are opposed to the construction. The companies come along and say they are operating on behalf of the government, but that's a lie. They're just private projects being carried out by private companies," said CONADI official Ricardo Melillaca Ancapan. "We [(CONADI] opposed the project because of our considerable respect for the opinions of our native ancestral brothers who are living there."

Gaston Delgado, a municipal councilman in the town of Puyehue, is equally skeptical and—via a radio show he conducts every Friday—has been organizing against the project. According to Delgado, Chile has had plenty of experience with foreign investors who make promises, particularly to indigenous communities, only to eventually "leave them cast off along the road."

"But even more than the issue of how the company has promised to help local communities develop, I simply don't accept (the project) because it'll damage our national heritage," the councilman said. "I'm willing to accept investment, but not at the expense of our natural resources.… We're talking about a national park that's protected by the law."

And yet COREMA, albeit narrowly, did approve the project. The real question, then, is why, in the face of clear objections (some by government institutions themselves). would the regional environmental body support such an endeavor.

Fundación Terram head Flavia Liberona thinks the answer has everything to do with Chile's so-called "energy crisis," a subject that receives constant attention from mainstream Chilean media and politicians alike.

"What's happening is that this country is thirsty for energy. Thus, the energy minister (Marcelo Tokman) uses the regional governors to pressure the COREMAS into supporting these projects. This isn't the only project that's been approved, but it's the most serious, because it's in a national park," said Liberona.

Deputy Vallespín agreed, placing much of the blame on Region X Gov. Sergio Galilea, whom he thinks played a key role in influencing the COREMA vote. But the outspoken congressman also thinks the problem stems from ignorance on the part of the local public officials responsible for COREMA's evaluation process.

"The energy minister may be pressuring for these projects to be approved as a way to resolve the energy issue – with little regard for the national parks, but above all I think there's a real lack of understanding among regional authorities who have no appreciation for the role the national parks play in terms of global ecology," said Vallespín.

The deputy's biggest concern is that the COREMA decision, if allowed to stand, will set a potentially disastrous precedent, opening the floodgates for development in all of Chile's national parks and other protected areas.

"This project is illegal, worrisome, and sets a terrible example. I'm doing everything I can to make sure either the Comptroller's Office or CONAMA [National Environmental Commission] nullify the ruling," said Vallespín. "If not, and especially given Chile's energy crisis, companies will begin presenting plans in many national parks and that's just not right."

Flavia Liberona says that process, sadly, is already underway. Three days after the controversial decision, Region X's COREMA approved yet another hydroelectric project, this time in the Rio de los Cipreses National Reserve. And last year authorities approved mining exploration in far northern Chile's Las Vicuñas National Reserve.

"So this isn't just one case. It's an issue that has various parts. We're saying that this is absolutely illegal, because this type of development isn't supposed to take place in natural areas protected by the state," the Fundación Terram executive director said. "But [the companies] will continue because they're desperate to get at, to penetrate state-protected wilderness areas. Especially when it comes to energy projects, since there's real pressure being exerted on public institutions by the central government itself."

From The Santiago Times.