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

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

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.

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