July 29, 2011Vol 2, Issue 10

Brazil, Chile Consider Controversial Hydrolectric Projects; Ecuador Renews Oil Exploration in Protected Area


This issue of NotiEn revisits the controversy regarding hydroelectric power in South America, primarily in Brazil and Chile. The two countries are hoping to move forward with plans to expand their hydroelectric infrastructure with big projects. They argue that expanding energy supplies is essential for economic growth, and hydroelectric energy is a clean and renewable alternative to other carbon-producing options.


But there is strong opposition in both Chile and Brazil from environmentalists and local communities, including indigenous groups, who argue that the projects will damage the local environment and result in major displacements.


In Chile, the conflict is centered on the planned HidroAysén venture, a multibillion-dollar dam scheme slated for the southern Patagonia region. The developers, Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean utility, have been pushing for the past five years to build a network of hydroelectric plants along the Río Baker and Río Pascua, a pair of powerful rivers that flow through the Aysén Region in far southern Chile. HidroAysén, as the joint venture is called, promises the five dams will have an installed generating capacity of 2,750 megawatts, equivalent to roughly 17% of the country's current grid capacity.


A coalition known as the Consejo de Defensa de la Patagonia (CDP) has launched an international campaign to stop the project. Critics argue that the project would cause irreparable harm to the Baker and Pascua river valleys and open up the largely undeveloped wilderness area to further industrial exploitation.  A recent poll indicated that a majority of the Chilean public opposes the project.


There are many conflicts surrounding hydroelectric projects in Brazil, but the main dispute centers on the Monte Belo dam on the Xingu in the Xingu river basin. This would be the third-largest such facility in the world, after the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipú dam, shared by Brazil and Paraguay. The administration of President Dilma Rousseff is proceeding with the project, which was first conceived 30 years ago, despite strong opposition from the environmental group Amazon Watch and Amnesty International (AI), which argue that constructing Belo Monte will drive more than 40,000 people from their homes, including the Juruna and Arara tribes whose way of life is based upon the Xingu River.


A land-use controversy has also surfaced in Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa's administration has reopened a call for tenders for the Armadillo oil field, in the Amazonian province of Orellana. The new call for tenders has produced a controversy not only among environmentalists, the indigenous movement, and the government but also within the government team, since local residents--the Tagaeri and Taromenane peoples-- are beneficiaries of protective measures called for by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).


Although the Campo Armadillo field will not significantly support the national economy, it does have a strategic value--its proximity to the Parque Nacional Yazuní, site of the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) bloc, the nation's largest oil reserve and the object of an international campaign to seek compensation for not exploiting the oil and conserving the high biodiversity in the area, also declared intangible.


The disputes in Brazil, Chile, and Ecuador reflect an ongoing tension between the push to promote development and the need to preserve traditional communities, habitat, and natural resources.


Carlos Navarro - Editor