September 1992 issueSojourn in the Wild: NRDC and the Bio Bio
"One cannot judge the value of an untamed river solely by cash and kilowatts. We must consider it in spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic currencies as well." —Robert Kennedy, Jr.
As people have learned to harness the tremendous power of rivers, hydroelectric dams have proliferated. Today there are very few major waterways that still flow unimpeded from their source to their culmination in the sea. Those untamed rivers that do remain are not only majestic, but also environmentally vital as aquatic and terrestrial habitat for countless threatened species. A year ago, NRDC's International Program began work to save one such wild river, Chile's Rio Bio Bio, which is slated for massive hydroelectric development.
"Chilean environmentalists con- us for help in their fight to save the river," explains NRDC International Program Director Jacob Scherr, "and we decided to investigate." Senior Research Associate Glenn Prickett spent hundreds of hours studying the proposed project, traveling to Chile in January 1992. Scherr and Prickett worked in concert with the Grupo de Accion por el Bio-Bio (GABB), a coalition of Chilean environmental and human rights groups opposing the project. GABB had experienced great difficulty getting their message heard. To draw attention to the river's plight, NRDC decided to organize a rafting trip down the tumultuous Bio Bio.
"To the decision-makers, the remote upper Bio Bio is an abstraction," say Scherr. 'To be an effective advocate for it, there's no substitute for going there." This past summer, Senior NRDC Attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr. joined Earth River Expeditions on on a conservation awareness trip down the Great Whale River in Northern Quebec, also threatened by massive hydropower development. This past winter, an NRDC group again joined forces with Earth River, who again donated their time, expertise and equipment, on an expedition down the Bio Bio. In addition to NRDC experts, the trip contingent included Chileans representing a range of political and cultural dispositions, from environmentalists to leading businessmen. A total of 49 people joined in the privately financed convoy, the largest rafting expedition ever to brave the Bio.
The Bio Bio rises out of the Andes, near the Argentine border, and makes its way clear across the country to the city of Concepcion, on the Pacific coast. Its length, volume, and the enormous size of its watershed, make the Bio Bio Chile's most important river. In its upper reaches, the river surges through spectacular canyons, gorges, and steep, forested valleys-complex ecosystems that support a multitude of threatened plant and animal species. Further to the west, the river flows through rich agricultural lowlands, finally culminating in the estuaries of Concepcion and the Gulf of Arauco where its nutrients feed the nation's richest fishery.
Like many of the remote, undeveloped places left on Earth, the valleys of the upper Bio Bio are indigenous lands. The region has long been inhabited by Pehuenche Indians. Approximately 9000 Pehuenche still live on their ancestral lands, descendants of the skilled mounted warriors who managed to arrest the Spanish Conquest at the banks of the Bio Bio. The Pehuenche continue to live sustainably by traditional methods of farming, to speak a unique language, and to observe their own religion, closely bound to the environment.
The Bio Bio occupies a central place in Chile's geography and its history. It has also come to figure prominently in the economic plans of this rapidly-growing nation. To power its economic growth, Chile has increasingly sought to develop plentiful, domestic sources of energy. In the 1950s, the government began exploring the possibility of hydropower development on the upper Bio Bio. Technical and economic feasibility studies were carried out in the 60s and 70s by ENDESA, a state-owned utility privatized during the regime of General Pinochet.
By the late 1970s, ENDESA had laid out plans to build six large dams, which would generate some 2700 megawatts of electricity, a 128% increase in the nation's generating capacity. The company has now completed construction of preliminary works for the first dam, Pangue. It was not until late in 1990, however, that a study of the project's environmental impacts was commissioned. And despite extensive study of the area over the course of two decades, ENDESA did not acknowledge the existence of the Pehuenche communities until 1986 and then did not notify Pehuenche leaders of its plans until 1990.
If carried out, these plans will have a profound and devastating impact on both the Bio Bio's complex ecology and its unique human communities. The project's dams and reservoirs would convert the entire extent of the wild, upper river into a series of artificial lakes, inundating temperate forests rich in rare and endangered species. Roads built into the area will bring a wave of logging as well as tourists, drawn by the lakes. These in turn will threaten the surrounding watershed with deforestation, erosion, and pollution. Concerns about impacts on downstream irrigators and on the rich estuarine fisheries near Concepcion, as well as about the long term safety of large dams in this seismically and volcanically volatile region have not been publicly addressed.
The damming of the Bio Bio will have an equally profound impact on the lives of the Pehuenche. Flooding, road-building, and excavation will force many of the Pehuenche to relocate. Indirect impacts are likely to include disease and crime brought by an influx of workers from the outside world, the loss of the Indians' traditional livelihood, farming, and the collapse of their communal social structure with privatization of their land. As one Pehuenche cacique, or chief, said "It will not bring any benefit to our community, only damage."
"The Indians of the region are very poor," NRDC attorney Kennedy elaborates. "With the loss of their long term agricultural base, they will face greatly increased pressure to migrate to urban slums, where they will integrate into Chilean society at its lowest rung and be trampled." He believes that the Pehuenche culture, religion, and language will not survive the construction of the dams. "We have our own way of talking to God," a Pehuenche man told him, "These are the things we have inherited from our parents and grandparents If we moved somewhere else, our children would lose the tradition.''
In the larger context of Chile, however, there is tremendous pressure to build the dams, as well as reluctance to challenge the government on the Indians' behalf. After a generation spent under Pinochet, Chilean democracy is still reemerging. Government and economic leaders, eager to demonstrate stability and continuity to potential outside investors, believe it is vital to move ahead with the dams. Chile's indigenous peoples are a small and marginalized group, and their interests have largely been swept aside by the desire for growth And because Chilean law does not recognize communal ownership, the Pehuenche do not hold title to the land they have inhabited for a millennium. Furthermore, Chilean law includes few environmental regulations or requirements.
NRDC's International Program is working with Chilean environmentalists to help balance this complex equation of economic development, indigenous rights, energy, and environment. The rafting expedition was extraordinarily successful. It garnered extensive media coverage and sparked the very first national debate on the project, which had been considered an accomplished fact. At a packed press conference in Santiago and in numerous interviews during the following week, NRDC urged Chileans to reconsider the dams and explore energy efficiency and other alternative means of meeting energy demand. While in Chile, Kennedy, Scherr, and Prickett also met with government officials and utility executives. "By the end of the week," says Scherr, "it seemed like everyone in Chile, including President Aylwin, was aware of our presence—and our message." Back in the United States. NRDC is working to address the very real pressures for building the dams. As in much of its work, the International Program has focused on the financing of the project as a means of checking unsustainable development. To carry out construction of Pangue, ENDESA has applied to borrow $50 million from the International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank that handles loans to private entities. NRDC and CABB so far have succeeded in delaying the loan application until ENDESA completes studies of the environmental impacts and reviews of all energy alternatives. NRDC is pushing the IFC to permit full public review and participation in what is a precedent-setting case.
Through GABB, NRDC is working to equip the indigenous people to confront ENDESA, the nation's most profitable company. NRDC is also working with GABB on the development of economic alternatives for the Pehuenche, some of whom now see employment by ENDESA as their only option. Finally, NRDC is undertaking research on energy conservation This fall, NRDC will sponsor an exchange between U.S. and Chilean utility executives to discuss this approach, which has successfully averted the need for hydroelectric development in America's Pacific Northwest. Kennedy believes that the comparison to America's own great rivers is both apt and cautionary. He likens the damming of the Bio Bio to the U.S. government's decision to dam Yosemite's wild Hetch Hetchy valley in 1913, a project carried out in the face of ardent protests by John Muir and other conservationists. "Seventy five years later, even the most growth-oriented Americans concede the great mistake we made in destroying that special wilderness," he says thoughtfully. "Hetch Hetchy was our nation's patrimony, a symbol and defining element of the American character that we have lost forever."
Thirty years ago, Wallace Stegner wrote "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed. We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed." Kennedy says T h e Bio Bio occupies precisely this central place in Chile's history and identity. Its loss will diminish the Chileans, just as damming Hetch Hetchy diminished us.'' It will not only be a loss for Chileans, but for all people. Kennedy says, "One cannot judge the value of an untamed river solely by cash and kilo- watts. We must consider it in spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic currencies as well." Wild places and wild rivers have a value far beyond their use for exploitation, a value for all people. With the unstinting support of members, NRDC will continue to fight for the preservation of the magnificent Bio Bio.
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