Quantcast
Popular
The Puelo River in Patagonia. Katalin Szarvas / xinature.com

Patagonia’s Puelo and Cuervo Rivers Win Crucial Protections in Supreme Court of Chile

By James Blair

Local residents and environmentalists in Chile are enjoying a prolonged New Year's celebration, thanks to two major legal decisions that will protect the country's free-flowing rivers. Chile's justice system put a final stop to two controversial large hydroelectric dam developments in Chilean Patagonia: 1) Mediterráneo S.A.'s run-of-the-river project proposed on tributaries of the Puelo River near the city of Cochamó; and 2) Energía Austral SpA's three-dam power plant proposed on the Cuervo River in the Aysén region.


This double victory came on the heels of several significant green accomplishments in 2017. This included the opening of South America's first geothermal plant, a gift of more than 400,000 hectares (ha) (roughly 1 million acres) of land in Patagonia for conservation, and the Environmental Court's final ruling to uphold the momentous 2014 decision against HidroAysén's proposal to build five mega-dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers. The latter event was the culmination of a decade-long struggle between grassroots activists and HidroAysén's two parent companies, Colbún and Endesa Chile, who just recently were forced to liquidate the hotly contested project.

The Chilean government's commitment to biodiversity conservation and renewable energy earned outgoing President Michelle Bachelet the title of UN Champion of the Earth. However, recently re-elected President Sebastián Piñera, a neoconservative billionaire, has followed a pattern of prioritizing free markets over free rivers. To safeguard Patagonia's rivers from harmful development in the long term, it will be critical for his government to go a step further and transfer water rights back to local communities, which would support conservation with Indigenous knowledge of the environment.

Here are more details about each of these two projects and why Chile's authorities put a stop to them.

"Puelo Without Towers": Upholding the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Puelo River in Chilean PatagoniaAmanda Maxwell

Originating in the Puelo Lake of the Argentine Andes, the Puelo River flows west toward the Pacific Ocean in confluence with the Manso and Torrentoso Rivers. It is also the lifeblood of the local economy in nearby Cochamó, which centers on ecotourism and fishing. As the below documentary film shows, Cochamó community members and their mayor were deeply divided over the project, which risked degrading the landscape in order to construct a 60 kilometer-long (37 miles) transmission line connecting Mediterráneo S.A.'s $400 million, 210 MW run-of-the-river plant to the main grid in Puerto Montt.

The campaign to protect the Puelo River from the hydroelectric energy complex had become a protracted legal battle. Under the banner "Puelo Sin Torres" (Puelo without Towers), local community members united with environmental lawyers, activists, members of Parliament and celebrities to block the project.

The Mediterráneo dam project's evaluation process and environmental impact assessment bedeviled the environmental alliance with a series of legal obstacles. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the Third Environmental Tribunal's resolution that Mediterráneo's contracted anthropological study of the socio-ecological impacts on Indigenous people was inadequate. The Tribunal accepted the claim of José Cayún Quiroz—an Indigenous environmentalist from the Mapuche community of Domingo Cayún Panicheo located in the Los Lagos region—who pointed out a series of messy errors in the study's methodology. Mediterráneo's consultants had carried out two studies, comprising 37 families. But out of that pool, eight families were excluded from the analysis, and 14 more families were not even registered.

The politics of responsible decision-making with respect to Indigenous claims to sovereignty and territory have become particularly contentious in the borderlands of Argentina and Chile. Land disputes have turned deadly, sparking mass protests and social unrest. While the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requires free, prior and informed consent for use of territory and natural resources, the Chilean government has labeled Mapuche people as "terrorists."

Rather than righting these historical wrongs, Mediterráneo and its Environmental Evaluation Service insisted that their research design necessitated uncomprehensive forms of qualitative data collection. They also acknowledged the presence of Indigenous communities, yet maintained—against an abundance of firsthand testimony—that they would not be affected by the development. Ultimately, the ethnographic evidence was insufficient to support Mediterráneo's claims.

Preserving Life in Aysén

Lake Yulton in Aysén, Chile

The Cuervo River hydroelectric power plant proposal would have been located in the remote Patagonian region of Aysén, which features stunning landscapes with exceptional biodiversity. The project's owner Energía Austral—a joint venture between Swiss mining company Glencore (66 percent) and the Australian firm Origin Energy (34 percent)—put it up for sale after it went through environmental permitting in 2013. The $733 million, 640 MW project would have included two dams, flooding 13,000 ha (32,000 acres), and joining the Yulton and Meullin lakes. However, the Environmental Tribunal annulled Cuervo's environmental assessment because the project's owner's mitigation measures for the loss of forest cover and wetlands were insufficient.

For local citizens of Aysén, the Cuervo project was the latest iteration in a series of proposals dating back to 1990 that Chile's environmental authorities have ultimately rejected. In resolute opposition to the dam, residents formed groups like the Coalición Ciudadana por Aisén Reserva de Vida (Citizens' Coalition for the Aysén Life Reserve), and together they pointed out why the project was so poorly planned. First, in addition to the obscene flooding of lakes and forests, the dam would have been built on the active Liquiñe-Ofqui fault line. The project would have put the nearest city of Puerto Aysén—located just 46 kilometers (28.6 miles) downstream—at serious risk. And second, similar to the above lack of consent in the Puelo River case, Energía Austral failed to meet the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention 169 standards on Indigenous consultation for the Cuervo project. This made the false equivalencies in the company's proposed compensation measures for ecosystem loss especially egregious.

According to the Environmental Court of Valdivia, "The Owner has not been able to determine in a qualitative or quantitative manner that the forests or wetlands to be compensated are equivalent."

In addition to annulling the environmental permit, the sentence therefore orders the Committee of Ministers to reopen the procedure. If the company is unable to verify its proposed compensation of ecosystem loss, then the committee must process the previous appeals. For now, citizens and environmentalists are hailing the decision as another "tremendous success" in the popular Patagonian struggle against large hydro.

Restoring Justice Through Water Rights

These positive legal decisions give much cause for celebration, but they also mark a significant turning point in the global movement to protect Patagonia's rivers. While we should certainly relish the moment and express our contentment, it bears reminding that the fight is not over. Companies like Mediterráneo still hold considerable water concessions in Chile.

Chile's entrenched corporate elites have a clear interest in continuing their foul legacy of socio-ecological destruction. Nonetheless, the incoming government has an opportunity to provide a healthier future for Patagonia and the planet, by building on this new hopeful trend and transferring water rights back to Indigenous Peoples and civil society.

Local residents in Chilean Patagonia

Want to learn more about the ongoing threat of hydroelectric energy development on rivers and biodiverse populations in Chilean Patagonia? Check out our interactive map.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Politics
Children fishing in Tamil Nadu, the Indian region where protests took place partly over concerns of a copper smelter's impact on fish. Abhishek.cty / CC BY-SA 4.0

Police Open Fire on Pollution Protesters in India, Killing at Least 9

A protest of a controversial copper smelter in the Tamil Nadu state on the southeastern tip of India took a violent turn Tuesday when police opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least nine, Reuters reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Eagle Creek fire. Curtis Perry / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Teen Ordered to Pay $36.6 Million For Starting Oregon Wildfire

A teenager who admitted to starting the Eagle Creek Canyon wildfire in Oregon that singed approximately 48,000 acres of forest land in September was ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution.

Hood River County Circuit Judge John A. Olson admitted that the youngster will probably never be able to pay the total amount, but was obligated under state law to issue the full award to the victims of the massive blaze, including residents whose properties burned down and the state and federal departments that fought the fire, The Oregonian reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine / Flickr / CC0 1.0

Shell Shareholders Vote Down Climate Change Proposal But Signal They Still Want Action

A vast majority of Royal Dutch Shell shareholders voted down a proposal calling on the company to set specific targets for lowering its carbon dioxide emissions on Tuesday, putting their faith in the company's internal plans to fight climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
NPCA Online / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Atlantic Coast Pipeline to Sideline 100 Miles of Construction in Virginia and West Virginia

Builders of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline told federal authorities they will delay construction along 21 miles in West Virginia and 79 miles in Virginia until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issues a revised "incidental take statement," which limits the number of threatened or endangered species that might be accidentally killed or harmed during development activities.

Lead developer Dominion Energy filed documents Tuesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in response to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling last week. The court sided with environmental groups and their lawyers that the FWS' initial review was not clear enough in the case of the $6.5 billion pipeline and vacated one of its key permits.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Solar, coal and natural gas are prominent at the Big Bend Power Station and Manatee Viewing Center parking lot in Apollo Beach, FL. Walter / CC BY 2.0

Premature Births Linked to Living Near Power Plants

Closing coal- and oil-fired power plants may help decrease the incidence of premature births in surrounding areas, according to new research.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Lake Oahe, the source of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's drinking water. DVS / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Stopping a Dakota Access Pipeline Leak in Under 10 Minutes? A Fairy Tale, Say the Standing Rock Sioux

By Susan Cosier

Nine minutes. That's the longest it would take to detect a leak and shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) should the crude oil within begin escaping into the North Dakota prairie or the Missouri River. At least that's what Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the pipeline's owner, says. It's a claim that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe calls completely unrealistic given the company's "inadequate" emergency response plan.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Energy
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced construction of Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline replacement project in Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, Aug. 10, 2016. Marc Chalifoux / Epic Photography for the Government of Alberta, CC BY-ND 2.0

How Enbridge Helped Write Minnesota Pipeline Laws, Aiding Its Line 3 Battle Today

By Logan Carroll

The Minnesota section of Enbridge's Line 3 pipeline accounts for nearly 300 miles of the longest crude oil transport system in the world, and it is failing. The multi-billion-dollar transnational corporation has applied for a permit to replace it. Opposition from tribes in the region and environmental groups is slowing the project, but the process at times appears so tilted in Enbridge's favor that, watching the court battles and utility commission meetings, it almost feels like Enbridge wrote the rules.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Human activity, including domesticating livestock, has had a major impact on earth's biomass. Malcolm Morley~commonswiki

Humans and Big Ag Livestock Now Account for 96 Percent of Mammal Biomass

A first-of-its-kind study published Monday shows that, when it comes to impacting life on Earth, humans are punching well above our weight.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first ever comprehensive census of the distribution of the biomass, or weight of living creatures, across classification type and environment. It found that, while humans account for 0.01 percent of the planet's biomass, our activity has reduced the biomass of wild marine and terrestrial mammals by six times and the biomass of plant matter by half.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!