A Healthy Life: Weighing Hydroelectricity’s Costs as the Climate Changes Around Us

Economic growth and most of the creature comforts enjoyed in developed and, increasingly, developing countries depend on the instant availability of power. Our lives would quickly become unrecognizable if the power stopped coming.

Carlota McAllister


At the heart of the problem of climate change is the question of how our planet’s future will be fueled and at what cost. Economic growth, as well as most of the creature comforts enjoyed in developed and, increasingly, in developing countries, depend on the instant availability of power, even as 1.4 billion people around the world still await connection to the grid. Various fuels have been tapped to supply our need for energy, but most of them come down to carbon, to the now all-too-obvious detriment of the only environment we know of for life. Given this state of affairs, hydroelectricity seems to hold considerable promise. Dams can generate large quantities of energy on demand without also generating significant carbon emissions or, for that matter, raising the specter of a meltdown, like equally low-carbon nuclear power. If power must come from somewhere—and our lives would quickly become unrecognizable if it stopped coming—rivers might be the best source. But does forging a sustainable future for our planet demand nothing more of us than a scrupulous weighing of the harm of carbon emissions against the benefits we get from electricity?

Photo by Jorge Uzon

“Here, what there is most is water,” René Muñoz told me when I visited him at his family ranch in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia. The sound of rushing water penetrates every corner of his land, a thousand hectare triangle jutting into the confluence of Chile’s mightiest river, the Baker, and one of its many tributaries, the Ventisquero. This abundance of what in Spanish is often called the “vital liquid” is a great boon. The Ventisquero, which is fed by glaciers in the mountains that loom all around the property, provides Muñoz’s family with a virtually limitless supply of delicious, naturally pure drinking water. The cattle and sheep on which they depend for sustenance as well as for a small cash income, have never gone thirsty, either. But a landscape this watery in a place this remote poses challenges as well. To get from his farm to his house in Cochrane, the 3,000-person town that is the only concentrated settlement in southern Aysén and the site of his children’s school, René must first cross the Baker in a rowboat, towing his horses behind him, and then walk them along a narrow and vertiginously high path carved into the cliffs above a stretch of ferocious rapids. Only then can he ride for three hours to where he keeps his pickup at a neighbor’s farm for driving the two hours to Cochrane. Before the 1990s, when the first road was built from Cochrane to René’s rural sector of Los Ñadis, his family’s journey to town took a week, and on one such trip, his mother died of peritonitis. The Baker can also prove deadly in its own right: Periodically—and with ever greater frequency as the world warms up—one of the glacial lakes that feeds the river overflows, emptying 2 million liters of water downstream in a matter of hours and producing potentially devastating floods.

After generations of living from and contending with the Baker’s waters, René and his fellow Cochraninos face competing demands on their powers. In 2006, a private consortium of Chilean and Spanish capital called HidroAysén floated a proposal to build five hydroelectric megadams on the Baker and the still more southern Pascua River. If implemented, the dams will generate 2.75 gigawatts of electricity for transportation more than 2,000 kilometers north to Chile’s central electric grid, the Sistema Interconectado Central (SIC).  The current supply of energy to the SIC and the Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande (SING), which powers the economically critical mining industries of the north, is precarious and dirty, because it depends on dams built on central-southern rivers that climate change is drying up and plants that burn imported fossil-fuels. These vagaries are passed on to consumers in the form of high prices for electricity. Meanwhile, the government estimates that the demand for energy from the SIC and the SING, which account for 99% of Chile’s electrical consumption, will grow by an annual average of 6% to 7% over the next decade, and argues that Chile’s entry into the status of a developed nation depends on meeting this demand quickly and cheaply. HidroAysén’s slogan, “Clean, Renewable, Chilean,” touts the project as made to this measure of what Chile needs.

Compared with the prospect of energy that is not only green but sovereign, how much should the lifeways and environments of out-of-the-way places like Aysén count? René’s land lies just downstream from the site of the proposed Baker II dam, above the rapids where René passes with his horses on his way to town, and HidroAysén will wreak havoc on the painstakingly elaborated systems by which his family gets by in that place. Intimately acquainted with the Baker’s strength—“No one can hold back the Baker!” is a common saying in Cochrane—his family is unnerved at the prospect of living in the shadow of a concrete wall that defies it. They are also dismayed at the likelihood that their property will lose much of its value once the wall is built. The paths they have taken for generations will disappear: The land of the neighbors where René exchanges his horses for his pickup, and where he can count on his horses being fed in his absence, will be flooded, as will all the other households of Los Ñadis, leaving him stranded on the other side of a giant, still lake from town and its services.

As dam critics have long argued, hydroelectricity’s green reputation obscures its potential to do grave social and environmental harm. Patagonia Without Dams, a coalition of Chilean and international opponents of HidroAysén, has pointed to the havoc dams wreak on riverine ecosystems, noting that there are only a few dozen rivers of the Baker’s size in the world that remain wild. Patagonia’s global image as a pristine wilderness, and the reality that Aysén’s inaccessibility has helped preserve it from the gross overexploitation of resources common elsewhere in Chile, have also allowed the campaign to argue that the project, and the infrastructural transformations and importation of personnel that building and operating it require, will destroy a natural patrimony far more valuable than a few gigawatts of power. The urgency of the need for these particular gigawatts is also in question. Given that mining rather than household consumption is the principal sector where Chilean energy consumption is expected to rise, asking mining companies to exploit the extraordinary potential for solar power of Chile’s Atacama desert, where most mining takes place, might be a sounder energy strategy than stringing wires along the whole length of this long country. These arguments have convinced a clear majority of Chileans, some 70% of whom consistently reject HidroAysén.

But the fate of René’s family and their neighbors has played little part in the public debate over HidroAysén. Compared to the number of Chileans HidroAysén claims to be serving, they are very few. Blocked off from the rest of Chile by ice fields to its north and south, Aysén was colonized only in the early 20th century, when the Chilean state began pushing its frontiers southward and enlisted homesteaders from farther north in the endeavor. Only a handful of families made it as far as the remote Baker, and people remain thin upon the ground there to this day. HidroAysén has managed to further reduce their collectivity by considering only the 38 families—René’s not among them—whose land will be altered by the dams as “affected” by the project, and thus as deserving compensation for their losses. The anti-dam campaign has also tended to neglect them: as the descendants of these cattle-raising and sheepherding pioneers René and his fellow Cochraninos by and large continue to work in animal husbandry, which demands path-making and forest clearing—activities that have profoundly transformed the Patagonian landscape over the last century in ways that contradict the pristine image of the region that undergirds the narrative of Patagonia Without Dams. HidroAysén has exploited this situation to position itself as the fulfillment of pioneer dreams of economic progress and connection to the outside world by lavishing corporate social responsibility initiatives and promises of work on Cochrane.

Conflating the desires of Cochraninos’ forebears for a better life with the imperative to grow Chile’s economy, however, gravely misrepresents Ayseninos’ relationship to the nation that claims them. The Chilean state’s late 19th century expansion southward began with the subjugation of the Mapuche kingdom that had long constituted its de facto southern border and enabled the concentration of southern lands in the hands of already wealthy Santiaguino latifundistas through both legal and extralegal means. Aysén’s homesteaders were refugees from this process of accumulation by dispossession: Peasants from the center-south and Mapuche lands, they left Chile to find work in Argentina, where they spent decades slowly moving down the continent, acquiring animals but little else on the way. The Chilean government invited these migrants home less out of concern for their well-being than as a means to establish a Chilean presence in land Argentina also claimed, and the invitation came with no offer of support from state services. The pioneers eked out a living not thanks to but in spite of national developmental projects.

This conflation also misconstrues HidroAysén’s claim to represent the nation’s interests. In much of the world, large-scale hydroelectric projects are undertaken by national governments, often with the help of entities like the World Bank. In Chile, however, a 1982 constitutional reform pushed through during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973–90) privatized the electrical system. HidroAysén is thus strictly a profit-making endeavor. In Chile, 49% of the consortium is formed by Colbún, a hydroelectric company belonging to the wealthy Matte family. In the 19th century, Eduardo Matte Pérez, then the minister of foreign affairs and colonization, described his family’s relationship to fellow citizens as follows: “The owners of Chile are us, the owners of its capital and lands; the rest are an easily influenced and purchased mass, with no weight for either opinion or honor.” The Mattes remain among the tiny group of Chile’s true owners, with significant investments in forestry and pulp mills, a major bank, and other industries. The other 51% of the consortium belongs to Endesa España, which was once the Chilean state electrical utility, but was privatized in 1987 and sold to a crony of Pinochet’s, who later sold it to Spanish investors. Thanks to another Pinochet-era reform, which pioneered the privatization of water as an economic good, Endesa gained the rights to 80% of Chile’s surface flows and up to 99% of Aysén’s, for free and in perpetuity, in the months leading up to Chile’s 1990 democratic transition. Between them, Colbún and Endesa already control some 80% of Chile’s installed electrical generation capacity, a monopoly that will be further entrenched by HidroAysén.

If Chile’s energy grid is collapsing, therefore, it is because of investment decisions these very corporations have made in the recent past. And if solar power and other renewable options are not considered for solving Chile’s energy needs, it likely has more to do with the power and influence these corporations wield and the hundreds of millions of dollars they expect to earn every year from the project than with the inherent virtues of hydroelectricity. As a Cochranina named Carmen noted acidly: “From the bottom of my Patagonian heart, I don’t like these dams. But what good does it do me to fuss about it? As a Patagonian I also know that these people have so much money they’ll do what they want anyway.”

Carmen may be right. On May 9, 2011, a regional commission of central government appointees approved HidroAysén’s environmental-impact assessment. Three previous versions of the study had been sent back to HidroAysén for correction and additional information: Among other critical omissions, the study failed to address the possible effect on the dams of the glacial lake outbursts that are now a regular occurrence, the potential effects on tiny, remote Cochrane of the establishment of a 5,000-person camp for the workers who will build the dams, 20 minutes up the road, and the destruction of René’s transportation routes and community. Approval was granted even though many of these omissions persisted in the final version of the study, amid credible charges of conflict of interest and procedural irregularities, including the falsification of technical reports that challenged the study’s claims. The commission’s only concession to HidroAysén’s critics was to attach 104 conditions to the approval, one of them naming René as wrongfully excluded from plans for resettlement and compensation.

But Carmen may be wrong. The news of HidroAysén’s greenlighting was met by massive popular protest in Aysén and elsewhere in Chile. Patagonia Without Dams has appealed the project’s approval in courts and through the mechanisms established by the environmental--impact-assessment process, which is slated to culminate in a final ruling by a committee of ministers that the government has repeatedly punted forward. The protracted conflict has imposed significant costs on the partners in the consortium, who have maintained a small army of personnel working in Aysén for over six years without yet pouring a single drop of concrete. They have not given up: Colbún recently threatened to pull out of the project if the Chilean government did not demonstrate that it could “guarantee” investments of this magnitude. In response, the government hastily presented legislative projects for loosening the already weak regulatory framework for environmental assessments and for building a public “electric highway” that would enjoy eminent domain to help bring Aysen’s energy to the SIC. HidroAysén has also appealed 18 of the conditions imposed on it to the ministerial committee, among them the one referring to René. The true owners of Chile, it seems, do not want to permit even the tiny concession of recognizing what he will be forced to sacrifice in the name of prosperity. Whether this will be their downfall has yet to be seen.

Long and multidimensional histories of injustice like the one Carmen invokes and the one René’s predicament embodies must also figure in our energy debates. One way to think about how they might do so is to delve into what it means to be Patagonian in Carmen’s sense. On the one hand, it means that one is so marginal to power and wealth that accomplishing even the simplest everyday tasks entails baroque exertions, René’s trip to town being only one example. On the other, it means that one inhabits a kind of agrarian space that is becoming ever more rare. The things besides pure water René told me his ranch had “most of” were meat and wood. Where else in rural Latin America can smallholders claim to have as much high-quality food, heat, and materials for shelter as they need?

After the recent installation of small solar panels in Cochrane’s rural sectors, farms like René’s also, ironically, enjoy an elegant sufficiency of truly low-impact electricity. Cochraninos place a high value on the pleasures this space offers, lamenting the urban demands and habits that schooling their children imposes, and frequently concluding their tales of the rigors of the more rural past with the exclamation “But it was a healthy life!” This is not to say that they are not avid users of stereo systems, cell phones, and the Internet when they are in town, nor that all their memories of this past are pleasant ones. Living at the ends of the earth takes a high toll on the body, the family—particularly its more vulnerable members—and sometimes the mind. Still, even René, who lost his mother at the age of eight, tends to speak of his childhood as a kind of paradise. Sleeping with his five siblings in an unheated shed by night, he spent his days “capering” (his word) around a bonfire, eating lamb, and riding horses.

This is a life that bucks the Chilean peasantry’s centuries of the dispossession and by that measure is indeed a healthy one. This vision of health also challenges the imperatives of consumption and growth that drive our demands for more energy. Even if we wished to, few of us have either the land or the bred-in-the-bone skills that would allow us to live like René. But perhaps this challenge is addressed to something more than our individual carbon footprint. What counts as renewable cannot be determined only mathematically: the calculus must consider whose resources—be they coal, oil, water, or lithium—power whose activities and ensure that each link in this chain is itself renewable, socially as well as environmentally. Making these links and their implications visible is the first step to ensuring the health of life itself.



Carlota McAllister is a sociocultural anthropologist who has been working on the HidroAysén conflict since 2006. She teaches at York University in Toronto and is the co-editor, with Diane Nelson, of War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala (Duke University Press, 2013).


Read the rest of NACLA's Spring 2013 issue: "The Climate Debt: Who Profits, Who Pays?"

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