Dubbed by some “Chile’s Winter,” fierce demonstrations in recent months have transformed one of Latin America’s most stable countries into an epicenter of protest. Marches involving tens of thousands over education cutbacks and a Patagonia dam project have become regular events since May, shaking this country’s long-held image abroad as an island of good governance.
The first protests were against plans to build a series of five large-scale hydroelectric dams in the country’s Patagonia region. When a Patagonia environmental commission voted nearly unanimously on May 9 to approve a scheme to dam two of the country’s most treasured rivers, Chileans reacted with a fervor against their government on a scale not seen here since a 1988 plebiscite to unseat former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The HidroAysén project—co-owned by the Spanish electric utility Endesa and Chile’s privately held Colbún energy company—would not just heavily damage wild rivers. It would clear a path two football fields wide and 1,300 miles long to install an electric line containing towers as tall as twenty-five-story buildings. Aptly dubbed by one writer a Great Wall of Deforestation, the world’s longest transmission line would clearcut its path through six national parks, eleven national reserves, twenty-six sites deemed priorities for conservation, sixteen wetlands and thirty-two private protection areas.
On the day the project was approved, several thousand people were organized to protest in more than a dozen cities and towns, primarily through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Four days after the government approved the dams, more than 30,000 people marched through the center of the capital, Santiago, to La Moneda, the presidential palace. The organizers, accustomed to having at most a few thousand at past environmental protests, were astounded. One week later some 60,000 marched in the capital demanding Patagonia Without Dams.
HidroAysén and some of its supporters place much of the blame for the protests on foreign backers. But while it is true that some funding has come from foreign environmentalists and foundations, this is overwhelmingly a Chilean grassroots phenomenon. In fact, most of the Chilean groups organizing against the dams are vastly underfunded. The government’s ham-handed actions have been more effective in mobilizing Chileans than have foreign money, social media or beauty shots of Patagonia’s rivers.
In a pattern often repeated in countries like Brazil (which is pushing the massive Belo Monte dam project in the Amazon, which if completed would be the world’s third-largest), Chilean officials disrespected public opinion and Chile’s environmental institutions to ram through approval of the $10 billion investment. More than 11,000 observations, mostly negative, were filed by citizens in a public consultation period, and a third of the thirty-two government agencies that reviewed the dams found serious problems and recommended rejection of an environmental permit. Regional employees from Chile’s forest service openly complained to press and politicians that their superiors in Santiago changed their negative evaluations of the dams to help grease approval. Said center-right Chilean Senator Antonio Horvath: “The environmental institutions of this country have been violated. Unfortunately, the central government…made clear they wanted regional authorities to vote in favor, and that’s what has happened.”