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Chile dam plan: Death of a culture?

6 November, 2002

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 growth.

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 the process.

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 will lose.

``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 department.

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 Ralco approved.

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 company.

''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 enormous.''

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 said.

R A F A E L R A I L A F Z.
Cellular: 06-15470172

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