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.
DE ÚLTIMO MINUTO!!!! La Corte Suprema pone la lápida definitiva al proyecto de Haggeman y Cox !!! SE TERMINÓ MEDITE… https://t.co/Be6DAPGjYU— Puelo sin Torres (@Puelo sin Torres)1514598681.0
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.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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