|28 September 2004
Ralco Dam: The dark story behind Chile's
biggest source of light.
SANTIAGO, Sep 28 (IPS) - Environmental organisations in Chile praised
President Ricardo Lagos' decision not to take part in the inauguration
of the Ralco dam, the country's biggest hydropower plant, which began
operating Tuesday after an eight-year legal battle over indigenous land
rights and the environment.
"The president's presence would have legitimised the long list of
illegalities committed with respect to policies on indigenous rights and
the environment" during the construction of the dam, Sara Larraín,
director of the Sustainable Chile Programme, told IPS. The activist blamed
the irregularities on Lagos's predecessor, Eduardo Frei (1994-2000).
Frei, who like Lagos belonged to the centre-left Coalition for Democracy,
was one of the guests of honour among the 300 people who attended Monday's
ceremony to inaugurate the dam on the upper stretch of the Bío-Bio
River, 500 km south of Santiago. The hydropower plant will provide 10
percent of the electricity consumed in Chile.
Also absent were sisters Berta and Nicolasa Quintremán, symbols
of the protracted legal battle waged by 11 of the 92 Pehuenche indigenous
families who were relocated due to the flooding of their land. The 11
families fought the Spanish power company Endesa to defend their traditional
lands, where their ancestors lived and are buried, until they finally
reached an indemnification agreement last year with the Chilean state.
The socialist Lagos, who visited the dam on Sep. 10 and met with the Pehuenche
families, announced last Friday that he would not attend the ceremony
because he had other commitments. Economy Minister Jorge Rodríguez
was the highest-ranking government official present on Monday. The conflict
over Ralco actually dates back 15 years, to the 1989 announcement that
four dams would be built on the Bío-Bio River, one of Chile's largest
On Mar. 6, 1997, then-president Frei inaugurated Pangue, the first of
the four hydroelectric plants. The National Energy Commission decided
later to cancel the construction of the other two dams. Meanwhile, in
1999, Endesa acquired a controlling share in Enersis, the holding company
that owns the Pangue and Ralco plants."The inauguration of Ralco
puts an end to a sad, conflict-ridden chapter involving the country's
indigenous, environmental and energy policies," said Larraín,
a former presidential candidate.
The conflict affected "indigenous communities, grassroots movements,
many government officials, business sectors, and even the government at
the international level," she added.
Ever since the construction of Ralco was announced, activists have protested
that the project contravened the 1994 environment law as well as the legislation
on indigenous rights passed in the early 1990s, because the land in question
was the ancestral property of the Pehuenche Indians -- a subgroup of the
larger Mapuche indigenous community.
Indigenous people, mainly Mapuches, represent at least one million of
Chile's population of nearly 16 million. Environmentalists accused former
president Frei of favouring business interests and a 570-million-dollar
investment at the expense of the territorial and cultural rights of the
indigenous families, which are recognised by Chilean law, and the preservation
of endangered species and an ecosystem that was unique in the world. By
applying pressure, the Frei administration secured approval of the project
by the National Environment Commission in 1997 "on the basis of insufficient
environmental impact studies and technical irregularities," said
Environmentalists also accused Frei of "delegitimising" the
National Commission for Indigenous Development, which represents the country's
ethnic minorities, by forcing two of its chairs and two advisers to resign
in order to ensure that it would also approve the controversial hydropower
project. Because of the stubborn resistance put up by the elderly Quintremán
sisters and other Pehuenche families, the case made it all the way to
the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and a lawsuit was filed against
Endesa in Spain on charges of "ethnocide".
The support that the Chilean state gave Endesa, "ignoring its obligation
to enforce the law on indigenous rights and to guarantee the protection
of their lands, was the worst aspect of these 15 years of conflict,"
Isabel Lincolao, the head of the National Network for Ecological Action
(RENACE), said in an interview with IPS. "The Inter-American Court
ruled against Chile in 2003, but by then the dam was already 90 percent
finished," said the activist. "So the Lagos administration had
to redress what the Frei government had done, and compensate the Pehuenche
families for something that was already a fait accompli."
The compensation included relocation to 1,200 hectares of land elsewhere
and payments of 300,000 dollars to four families who finally agreed to
leave their land. The compensation was mainly paid by the state from public
funds. "Chilean taxpayers had to pay more than half of the reparations,
instead of Endesa," complained Larraín.
The controversy over Ralco calmed down somewhat when thermoelectric plants
fired by natural gas imported at low price from neighbouring Argentina
began to be built in Chile. However, supplies of that fuel have been rationed
since late 2003 due to an energy crisis in Argentina.
"Perhaps Chileans understand that because of Chile's energy crisis,
the completion of Ralco must be seen as a lesser evil," Manuel Baquedano,
president of the Institute of Political Ecology (IEP), remarked to IPS.
But the plant "is essentially the expression of unbalanced development,
that favours economic interests over the needs of the community,"
he argued. In Baquedano's view, a commitment is needed to ensure "that
there will never again be a 'Ralco'," and that the damages to the
ecosystem posed by large dams will be avoided by developing renewable,
sustainable energy sources, like solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy
and small hydropower dams.
Endesa has a different take on the situation. The company's executives
took advantage of the inauguration of the dam to urge the Chilean government
to send out "clear signals" that it will support the development
of new hydroelectric projects, especially in the extreme southern part
of the country, much of which is pristine wilderness.