Protests in Chile against dam project

By Laura Brown - 13 May 2011 13:25:0 GMT
Protests in Chile against dam project

A controversial scheme to build dams across two of the largest rivers in Chile has been approved by the government, leading to widespread protests.

The £1.8bn HidroAysen project proposes to generate up to 2.75 gigawatts of power. It involves the construction of five hydroelectric power stations and the damming of two rivers, the River Pascua (Pasqua) and Rio Baker. The scheme, it is argued, is vital for the economic development of Chile and helping to lift the 2.5million poor out of poverty.

Yet critics have argued the construction will lead to the destruction of over 22 square miles of forest and farmland. Over 5000 hectares will be flooded in the south of the country including farmland, river valleys and the Laguna San Rafael National Park. The natural habitat of the Southern Humuel Deer will also be destroyed.

Led by the advocacy group 'Patagonia Without Dams' campaigners argue the damage to the countries natural ecosystems and environment far outweigh the economic benefit. Their opposition is backed by public mood. An Ipsos poll says more than 61% Chileans oppose the scheme.

Yet the Aysen Envrionmental Review Commission, appointed by the Chilean government to review the scheme, this week voted 11 to 1 to back the project. Having assessed it for three years, the commission believes the scheme is vital to support Chile's growing energy needs and reduce the import of natural gas from Argentina.

Protests erupted across Chile as news of the approval spread. Members of commission were kept inside as protestors threw rocks. They were held back by police suing tear gas and water cannons.

The interior minister, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, told reporters: ''The most important thing is that our country needs to grow, to progress, and for this we need energy.''