Chile dam plan: Death of a culture?
BIO BIO RIVER: If an energy company is allowed
to dam the Chilean waterway, much of an indigenous group's ancestral lands
will be flooded.
RALCO-LEPOY, Chile -- To the indigenous Pehuenches,
the Bio Bio River is sacred. If the river is not respected, then Mother
Earth (nuke mapu, in their native language) will become angry, nearby volcanoes
will erupt and the land will tremble with earthquakes.
But to the Chilean government and Endesa, the energy
company owned by the Spanish-controlled Enersis Group, the river is a profitable
means toward meeting Chile's energy needs and aiding regional economic
And now, despite the opposition of many Pehuenches,
Endesa wants to dam the waterway to build a giant hydroelectric generating
facility -- flooding much of the indigenous group's ancestral lands in
It is a conflict that has been roiling for more
than six years. The company has persuaded 84 Pehuenche families to accept
land elsewhere in exchange for their property, but seven other families
refuse to leave.
In May, the Chilean Supreme Court refused to hear
a case concerning government plans to expropriate those families' lands.
This month, a so-called Hombres Buenos commission appointed by the Economy
Ministry is to visit those properties to determine how much Endesa must
pay the families to move.
Before the end of the year, the families will likely
be forced off their ancestral land by police.
'When they come, I will say, `Why are you here?'
'' said Nicolasa Quintreman, 63, dressed in traditional Pehuenche clothing.
``I am filled with anger when I think what our children and grandchildren
``If we don't have this land, we are nothing.''
Within a year, Endesa plans to finish construction
of the 570-megawatt Ralco dam. The second of six dams originally planned
for the river, the Ralco, Endesa says, could supply up to 18 percent of
the energy for central Chile, including the capital, Santiago.
But the $600 million project will also flood about
9,000 acres of temperate rain forest along 42 miles of the river valley,
once one of the world's best white-water rafting spots and home to numerous
rare plant and animal species.
Moreover, some warn, the dam will cause the disintegration
of the unique Pehuenche culture because of the Pehuenches' deep economic
and historical ties to the river.
''This is a form of genocide,'' said Roberto Celedon,
a lawyer for Quintreman and other Pehuenche families who, last month, filed
an emergency complaint with the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights.
''The courts and government have decided not to
respect indigenous rights,'' Celedon said. ``The only way to justice is
at the international level.''
According to Chile's 1993 Indigenous Law, indigenous
lands may not be sold, only traded for land of equal value and only with
the consent of all owners. But the government and Endesa (whose executives
refused to be interviewed by The Herald) insist that the nation's 1982
Electricity Law allows the expropriation of private property -- even indigenous
land -- to provide energy for the public good.
''The indigenous question is for the courts to
resolve,'' said Enrique Sepulveda, director of the Economy Ministry's legal
Celedon filed a lawsuit on behalf of indigenous
families. In it, he argues that expropriation contradicts a 1997 ruling
by Conama, Chile's environment agency, which gave the project an environmental
permit on condition that the indigenous families be relocated under the
terms of the indigenous law. The high court sidestepped the issue on administrative
grounds, stating that the suit should have been filed immediately after
Endesa was awarded the electricity concession in March 2000.
Diverse critics say that environmental, indigenous,
water-rights and other laws have been repeatedly violated because of drug
trafficking, a common form of corruption in Chile, and that an independent,
high-level, international or national investigation is needed.
''There are signs of corruption everywhere. Even
the World Bank pulled out financing because of environmental and indigenous
problems,'' said Hernan Echaurren, a Santiago businessman whose family
once owned much of the land surrounding the river.
Echaurren and others point to the probable influence
of Endesa's campaign contributions to numerous Chilean politicians. Eduardo
Frei, the Chilean president from 1994 to 2000, has been accused of a conflict
of interest since he was previously a partner with Sigdo Koppers, a consulting
firm that helped build the first Endesa dam on the river.
Fact is, President Frei often intervened to get
Twice, for instance, Frei fired the heads of Conadi,
Chile's indigenous-development agency, after they had determined Ralco
to be a threat to the sustainability of Pehuenche culture and had refused
to sanction the relocation of Pehuenche families.
Jorge Rosenblut, a former senior official in the
Frei government, is also accused of favoritism toward the project. In 1996,
he ordered Conama to pave the way for Ralco even after the 20 governmental
agencies on the environment agency's technical committee had roundly recommended
rejection of the project. Four years later, Rosenblut was named president
of Chilectra, power distributor and subsidiary of Enersis, Endesa's parent
''The influence of this company in the politics
of Spain is well known,'' said Jose Aylwin, son of former Chilean President
Patricio Aylwin and an expert on indigenous law at Chile's Frontera University.
``The pressure that they have placed, through the
use of political, economic and media influence, both on the President Frei
and President Lagos administrations for the completion of Ralco, has been
Maria Isabel Gonzalez, director of the government's
energy commission under Frei, said Ralco was originally intended for the
commission's 2005 work plan, as it had been determined that natural-gas
pipelines from Argentina would be more cost effective.
''Chile doesn't need Ralco till 2020 with all the
other energy sources available,'' she said, but Endesa sped up plans for
Ralco so it could control the nation's energy market.
''After Ralco was approved, 16 investors disappeared,''
Gonzalez said. Today, because construction is two years late, consumers
are actually paying 8 percent more on their bills and thus giving Endesa
an extra $100 million a year to subsidize Ralco.''
Rosario Huenteau, 59, a Pehuenche woman who lives
with her young son alongside the Bio Bio, recalled being hopeful, after
Chilean President Ricardo Lagos visited them in August 2000, that Chile
was ``going to respect the indigenous law.''
Now, her faith is shattered.
''We don't know who to turn to for help,'' she
R A F A E L R A I L A F Z.
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