Water Heroes: Juan Pablo Orrego – Protecting Patagonia

Seeing as I’ve been writing and posting articles (on facebook) about dams quite a bit lately I figured I’ll talk about someone fighting against dams in this edition of Water Heroes, and that person is Juan Pablo Orrego.  Juan has been fighting for over 20 years to protect Chile’s magnificent Patagonia from the destruction of dam projects, and has had a very positive impact.   In 1997 he won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize and in 1998 he won the Right Livelihood Award in appreciation for all of his work.  In 1991 he helped establish the Grupo de Accion por el Biobio (GABB), which translates to Action Group for the Bibio, and is currently the president of a Santiago based NGO named Ecosistemas (Ecosystems).

Juan lived his early life as a composer and singer of popular urban folklore in Chile.  In 1986 he received his Masters in Environmental Studies and soon after started fighting to protect the Biobío River in Chile from six proposed dams.  The Biobío River is Chile’s second longest river at 236 miles, and is the widest river with an average width of a little over half a mile.  The Biobío is the third largest watershed in Chile which makes it of great ecological significance, and is home to the Pehuenche people who number around 10,000.  This river, and Patagonia as a whole, is a beautiful place which I hope to see one day, but it will never be the same if these dams are allowed to be built, and that’s why Juan is fighting.

Chile had since the 1960s planned a series of six hydro dams along the Biobío, all of which were planned without any environmental impact study.  Two of these dams have already been built even though the GABB tried very hard to stop the construction.  The first, Pangue, was completed in 1997, and the second, Ralco, was completed in 2004.  There are a lot of politics behind the construction of these dams that I don’t want to go too deeply into, but let me give you just a little information that will help show what Juan and GABB have been up against.

From 1973 to 1990 Chile was run by dictator Augusto Pinochet with an iron fist.  One of the last things he did before being ousted from office was to privatize 90% of Chile’s water.  ENDESA-Chile, a state owned energy company (which not surprisingly had some of Pinochet’s top officials as its controllers and beneficiaries), became very powerful from this privatization, and now had a monopoly over Chile’s energy sector.  ENDESA-Chile controlled the six dam plan initially, and then ENDESA-Chile was sold to ENDESA-Spain along with the water rights.

You would think that after being ruled by Pinochet for 17 years the government of Chile would take the opportunity to change things for the better as soon as he was gone, but that didn’t happen.  Juan says that even after Pinochet was gone the system put in place under Pinochet were “enthusiastically administered since then, without any changes, by the three successive ´democratic`, so-called socialist governments”.  This was a huge problem, and eventually was the reason that the two dams were allowed to be built.

Moving back to Juan’s work, his group GABB had two main focuses; one was to build up a coalition to campaign against the construction of these dams from a local level up to the international level, and the second was to work with the Pehuenche people to protect the rights to their land.  They were partially successful in both of these goals.  No one in Chile had ever really raised the issue of how these dams would impact the environment and the Pehuenche, and after a short time it was a hot topic of conversation throughout Chile.  There were massive demonstrations and GABB was able to have some influence on the media even though they are controlled by big business.  Now you might be saying to yourself that yeah, they got people talking but two dams were still built.  True, but some good was done (stop being such a pessimist).

First, only two out of six proposed dams were built which protected a lot of the environment from damage, and a lot of people from being displaced.  Second, the Pehuenche that did get displaced by these dams came out of it with a much better deal due to the campaign then they were initially offered.  Third, it has had a huge impact on the way that lenders (in this case the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank) handle projects like this and led to a major revision of their operational directives and procedures.  Because of Juan’s campaign and the investigations that resulted ENDESA decided to rely solely on private funding for the projects, turning away from a $150 million dollar loan from the IFC.  So in the end only 30% of the system that was going to be built was actually built, and the future of how dams were viewed in Chile was changed forever.

Since the successful campaign for the Biobío Juan and his colleagues have continued to fight against the construction of dams in Patagonia, most recently against the construction of five big hydro-power plants in the region of Aysen.  Whether they will be successful as they have been in the past is still yet to be seen, but if you follow the news about the construction you know that there have been a lot of protest against them.

As long as dams are being constructed there are going to be people like Juan that are fighting against them, and that’s a good thing.  Although dams provide much needed power in a lot of places their destruction outweighs their benefits, especially since there are so many other options for getting clean energy.  I believe that as a leader of a country like Chile you should be promoting a place like Patagonia for its beauty and unscathed environment instead of destroying it, but that mentality is still in the future.  Until the day that the world has leaders like that at least we have people like Juan Pablo Orrego to stand up and fight for the environment and the people impacted by these mega dams, and for that I say thank you!

Water Heroes: Juan Pablo Orrego – Protecting Patagonia
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