Patagonian Hydroelectric Project Approval Spurs Violent Protests in Chile

Chile approved a hydroelectric project that would flood Patagonian valleys and become the country’s biggest power generator, sparking violent protests and more than a hundred arrests.

Police fired water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators outside the building in the city of Coyhaique where 11 of the 12 members of an environment commission voted in favor of the HidroAysen project that Santiago-based Empresa Nacional de Electricidad SA and Colbun SA (COLBUN) want to build.

HidroAysen’s five dams would flood nearly 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of land and require a 1,900 kilometer (1,180 mile) transmission line to feed the central grid that supplies Santiago and surrounding cities as well as copper mines owned by Codelco and Anglo American Plc. The government of President Sebastian Pinera says Chile needs more hydroelectric and coal- fired plants to meet demand that will double in the next decade and reduce power costs that are the highest in the region.

“We have to get that energy somewhere, independent of what the project is, because energy today is twice as expensive as in other Latin American countries,” Ena Von Baer, the government’s spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday in Santiago. “We want to be a developed country and to do that we need energy, especially cheap energy for the poor.”

Street March

Hundreds of protesters blocked the entrance to the room where the government’s regional representative Pilar Cuevas and other officials sat after yesterday’s meeting in Coyhaique. A police officer and at least one other person were injured by stones thrown by demonstrators, while more than 20 people were arrested during clashes with police involving tear gas and water cannons, regional governor Nestor Mera told reporters yesterday.

More than 120 were arrested last night in protests around the country, newspaper La Tercera reported. About 1,500 people gathered in a plaza in central Santiago before marching to the presidential palace, the newspaper reported. Police dispersed protesters who tried to block traffic in the downtown area.

With capacity to produce 2,750 megawatts, about 35 percent of the country’s current power consumption, the project would dwarf Ralco, Chile’s biggest hydro-generator at about 760 megawatts, on the Bio Bio River. HidroAysen would require a total investment of about $7 billion.

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