Chile Indians Block Hydro-Electric Dam Project
Chile: July 28, 2003
RALCO - Four elderly Pehuenche Indian women
are blocking completion of a $570 million hydroelectric dam at Ralco
in southern Chile, saying it would flood sacred land and destroy
their way of life.
For six years the women have rejected offers
of money - up to $1.1 million - and land in exchange for their 103
acres on the banks of the Bio Bio River that Chile's Endesa power
company needs to finish its giant power station project."They're
not going to flood my land ... I'll only leave here when I'm dead,"
declared 78-year-old Berta Quintreman in front of her mud-hut home
in the densely forested Bio Bio Valley some 370 miles south of Santiago.
Graffiti on a decrepit bus shelter outside
her home reads, "Endesa, you won't remove us even for a sack
of gold." Eighty-nine of the 93 Pehuenche families affected
by Ralco have already accepted compensation and agreed to move to
new properties up to 37 miles away.
The Chilean government and Endesa, which
is controlled by Spain's Endesa, say the 540-megawatt dam, which
is almost 90 percent complete, is crucial to meet Chile's energy
needs and help economic growth.
However Indians and environmentalists have
fought the project in court, saying it would destroy unique forests
and endangered wildlife as well as ancient cemeteries, religious
ceremonial grounds and Pehuenche communities.
Endesa aims to have the dam up and running
by mid-2004 but the four women and their lawyers vow to fight to
the end. Nobody knows when - or how - the dispute will end.
"This is the worst thing that could
happen for the power generating system, this indecision over whether
or not they will be able to flood the area," said Maria Isabel
Gonzalez, former director of the government's energy commission
from 1994 to 2000.
PINE NUTS AND MONKEY PUZZLE TREES
The Pehuenche get their name from the pine
nuts which they gather from the "pehuen," or ancient monkey
puzzle trees native to the Andean highlands. They belong to Chile's
largest indigenous group, the Mapuche, which makes up 90 percent
of the 692,000 indigenous people in Chile.
Pehuenche are believed to have inhabited
the Bio Bio Valley, dotted with snow-capped volcanoes, since 1200.
The Mapuche have long clashed with forestry
companies over land claims but the Ralco dispute united Indians,
human rights groups and environmentalists alike.
Endesa insists the country's 1982 Electricity
Law allows expropriation of private property to provide energy for
the public good regardless of whether it is indigenous land.
However the 1993 Indigenous Law states land
owned by native peoples cannot be sold without the owners' consent.
"This land is sacred. It cannot be bought
with money," said Quintreman in her native tongue, wearing
a colored head scarf half-covering her wrinkled brown forehead.
Endesa offered $1.1 million plus land to
the four hold outs, who have unsuccessfully tried to negotiate much
Though the government has said the Ralco
project will go ahead and the Pehuenche removed from their homes
by force if necessary, the Indians believe they could be saved by
a pending court ruling on whether the 1997 environmental impact
study that paved the way for the dam was valid or not.
If the court were to rule the study invalid,
Endesa may have to tear apart everything it has built so far of
the dam. The company said last month that if this were to happen
it would sue the government for the $570 million it has invested.
THE END OF A WAY OF LIFE
The Pehuenche opposing Ralco say the alternative
plots offered by Endesa are either too isolated in winter or not
suitable for farming.
Endesa says the Pehuenche are better off
than before as the company has committed to 10 years of financial
support, including new houses, electrification, school buses, technical
farming assistance and promotion of the indigenous culture.
"We work with them every day maintaining
irrigation systems...advising them on what to plant," said
Claudio Sanhueza, director of Ralco's environmental project at Endesa.
But for Hilda Huenteao, whose mother Rosario
is one of the four women opposing the project, the Pehuenche community
has been irrevocably changed since Endesa arrived.
"Since Endesa came people have stopped
going to the religious ceremonies...Women have stopped making craftwork
because they have got jobs with Endesa," said Huenteao.
Huenteao says the Pehuenche believe that
if nature is not respected it will avenge itself and adds that some
Indians that exchanged their lands have since committed suicide.
"That is the punishment for not respecting
nature's power. Now they are going to have to live with death,"
Story by Patrick Nixon
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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