The isolated Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia currently sits at the front lines of a heated national discussion regarding Chile’s energy future. The massive HidroAysén dam proposal seeks to develop the region’s hydroelectric potential through the creation of five mega-dams across two rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. While the project would provide substantial energy to the mines and cities of the north, it would also irrevocably change the river ecology and alter the lifestyles of local populations. During J-term, I used Mellon Grant funding to travel to Chile and conduct field research on the social and environmental impacts of the proposed dam project. I visited several of the proposed dam sites in Aysén and conducted interviews in both Aysén and Santiago with local residents, HidroAysén employees, politicians, and anti-dam campaigners. My project examines how competing claims over land use and development are addressed in the Chilean post-transitional political system.

Katie Siegner (author) and Kemi Fuentes-George (advisor)




Today, the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia remains rooted to the land and its traditional ways of life. However, the HidroAysén dam proposal threatens the local ecology, landscapes, and lifestyles of this remote rural outpost, launching the region to the forefront of a heated debate over national development priorities. Formally announced in 2007, the transnationally owned project would consist of five large dams across two fast-flowing rivers in the northern Patagonia region, the Baker and the Pascua, and would be Chile’s leading domestic source of energy. Additionally, the proposal includes the construction of a 2,000-plus km transmission line in order to deliver the electricity generated by the hydroelectric power stations to the centers of consumption in the north-central regions. While a low-carbon solution to the country’s energy needs, the dams have engendered intense controversy regarding the environmental and social impacts of such a large-scale development project, illustrating the tension between competing visions of “sustainable” development.

Given Chile’s development trend, the highly concentrated urban centers in the Santiago area, and the extensive mining operations to the north, HidroAysén proponents claim that the project is essential to combat the country’s alleged energy crisis. At the same time, a strong and well-organized national resistance movement –– Patagonia Sin Represas –– has emerged, and has succeeded in reframing the debate around the dams in order to draw attention to the costs of the mega-project, as well as the more sustainable development alternatives that exist.

The HidroAysén controversy has broader implications than its immediate local and national contexts, as it highlights a central concern of the international environmental justice movement: often isolated or marginalized regions and communities are asked to pay the costs of development plans purported to benefit “the nation as a whole.” HidroAysén is most likely to benefit the powerful economic interests that control the energy and mining sectors, rather than the average Chilean citizen, an all-too-common trend in the history of neoliberalism and its relationship with resource-rich Latin American countries. Furthermore, the post-transitional Chilean political system lacks the institutional infrastructure to adequately address the concerns of the anti-dam campaign, as governmental decision-makers persistently undervalue citizen voice.

While the project remains stalled by political stalemate and the inexperienced court system attempts to deal with the competing claims of the two parties, HidroAysén has become an issue of international significance, as NGOs and environmental groups have rallied to protect the renowned Patagonian landscape and the bucolic lifestyle it supports. Global environmental movements are increasingly contesting the hegemony of the dominant, capitalist-driven development path and emphasizing the local impacts of its environmentally destructive practices: HidroAysén is a case in point. This paper seeks to analyze the dam proposal in all of its divisive dimensions, including the contrast between localized costs and purported national benefits, the power inequalities present between dam proponents and the opposition, and finally the choice between such mega-projects and development alternatives that are sustainable, low-impact, and socially just.




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