A dam shame?

Fitting in with the locals

Update: I wrote an article in Science about the Dams for Patagonia

(Click for my interview for Science podcast).

Aysén: “The Jews are going to come here and invade Patagonia. They are surrounded by unfriendly Arabs, so they’re going to come here en masse and build a new Jerusalem in Patagonia, and everyone is helping them: the Americans, the British, everyone. You see those groups of young Israelis that come over here ‘to trek’ after military service? They are spies for the government, scoping out the new land.”

Patagonia’s vast wilderness of snow and ice, fjords and valleys, mountains and ravines, desert, forest and cascading waterfalls make for a difficult terrain to travel through. So most people don’t. The inhabitants of the sparsely populated Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia are isolated because of their tough climate and the sheer distance between villages. Isolation breeds a certain insular way of thinking, a paranoia peculiar to those that have the least to be paranoid about. A few miles east, in Argentinian Patagonia, the town of Bariloche, which is particularly popular among young Israelis, boasts bookshops stocking literature testifying to Hitler and his family being alive and well, and living in the Patagonian wilds.

Looking down on Coyhaique

The Kafkaesque antics of the state only add to the confusion. Peter Hartmann, a Santiago-born architect, describes being sent to Aysén on his first job out of graduate school to help design new government housing for people moving from some strange artificial village of Tortel back to the established port town of Yungay. There was no water availability or electricity possibilities for people in the new Tortel, he was told.

A contemporary newspaper article

Peter duly travelled to Yungay, only to discover an uninhabited dirt track. A few miles down the road, however, he found the established coastal village of Tortel, which had existed for a few generations. The entire project, Peter learned, was some kind of elaborate hoax by the Pinochet government, which was building the first highway through Patagonia to defend strategic spots against the Argentine enemy and didn’t want the small detour to Tortel. So it invented a new town of Yungay (referred to in documents as ‘Longitudinal Southern Highway Terminal’), which was being sold to the people as an old existing town, and was intending to forcibly populate Yungay with the people of Tortel. Bizarre.

Nearly 30 years later, the idea of a major town of Yungay is being revived, but this time by a transnational company that’s intending to build a major hydrodam in the locale and imagines a large population of dam employees living there.

Waterfall in Aysen

It’s just one of at least 7 hydrodams that are planned for the untamed rivers of Patagonia, under controversial plans that would see a 2300-kilometre-long transmission line of cables transporting the electricity from these waters to Santiago and the mining interests beyond.

It’s the dam proposals that bring me to Coyhaique, capital of the Aysén region. It’s a small, rural city and yet, among its 45,000 residents, it boasts a surprising number of interesting, creative-minded people: young hitchhikers from Santiago who fell in love with the region’s extraordinary beauty and stayed, Europeans, Australians, North Americans seeking one of the planet’s last liveable wildernesses, and ‘alternative living’ enthusiasts.

A horse on Peter´s grass roof (Photo: P. Hartmann)

We reach Peter’s house along a dirt track that worsens as it rises up the mountains above the town until we are thrown crazily from side to side as the truck negotiates increasingly deep ruts. It’s a beautifully crafted wooden home with a grass roof and windows that glow in the sun, revealing the compact Coyhaique below and an incredible rock colossus above.

Nick chops wood for the fire

Over a shared maté, Peter describes his many objections to the dam project, from his concerns about ecosystem destruction to the visual disturbance of having 70-metre-high pylons running through the unspoiled mountains and valleys he cherishes so much. “You are used to seeing electricity pylons and cables everywhere where you live. You don’t realise how ugly they are and how they ruin a landscape. But here, we don’t have big artificial structures interrupting the landscape. It’s one of the last places on Earth like that and I want to keep it that way,” he says.

Longer grass without the horse

Peter, who is head of the regional CODEFF (Friends of the Earth) branch is leading the offensive against the dams. It spares him little time for anything else, he explains, apologising for not yet repairing the road to his house. A charming, generous and endlessly fascinating host, Peter busies himself with preparing our lunch, all the while entertaining us with hilarious yet true anecdotes like a conjuring trick from his vast reservoir of experiences. His interests are wide-ranging, from en-liberal economic analysis to Amerindian culture, and conversations with him are wonderfully eclectic.

Peter drinks mate

Lunch is a vegetable stew (Peter is surely the Chile’s only vegetarian) made with very tasty lilac coloured potatoes, known locally as ‘meca de gato’ or ‘cat-shit’ potatoes for their undeniably similar shape. They are one of the many indigenous varieties of potato – a vegetable that originally grew only in Chiloé and a part of Peru.

Cat-shit potatoes

When this strange starchy foodstuff was first introduced to Europeans, it was met with a less than enthusiastic reception. To counter this, the French king orchestrated a highly successful marketing campaign, by ordering covered baskets of potatoes to be carried through the French towns under armed escort, securely guarded at all times, piquing the peasants’ curiosity at what this valuable vegetable might be. By the time the presumably rotten potatoes reached Paris, their popularity was guaranteed, and a nation’s taste for pommes frites assured for centuries to come.

Peter´s lovely bathroom

Lunch finished, I relax with a herbal ‘boldo’ tea, made from the leaves of a tree that grows near Concepcion. I like it very much, I tell Peter. “Yes, it’s good for the digestion, but you shouldn’t drink too much because it leads to blindness.”

Dried mussels are popular here

Nick drinks a D’Olbek beer from Coyhaique, a brewery that was started by the British to service the Falkland soldiers during the war, then sold to a Belgian company that keep its earlier history secret so as not to upset their Argentinian market.

I want to visit some of the areas that might be affected by the proposed dams or transmission lines, so we head off in Peter’s ageing Chevy which keeps up a deafening and constant high-pitched beep. Peter can’t hear the noise because he’s partially deaf, a disability that means that whenever I speak to him, he turns to look at me to decipher what I am saying, while swerving dangerously across the road. Nick bans me from talking to Peter while he’s driving, but I keep forgetting, so it’s by sheer luck we survive the trip. We pass incredible vistas of high mountains and gushing streams. Deciduous trees in every shade of yellow and red cover the higher slopes, while native evergreens occupy the lower slopes. We hunt out rock paintings made by the few indigenous nomads that assed through this region and search in vain for the huemal, an endangered native deer that is the Chilean national symbol.

"English cake" rock formation, Aysen

We stop by the straw-bale eco house of Fransisco Vio, a teacher of tourist guides, whose house is powered entirely by solar panels with propane back-up for the winter months when he gets just 4 hours of sun because of the shadow of a large mountain. Inside, his home is cosy and imaginatively decorated, well insulated against the cold in a region where most people live in corrugated or timber shacks with barely a barrier against the freezing conditions. Wood for burning is so cheap here – a truckload (month’s worth) is just $80, and although this represents a third of the minimum-wage salary, it’s still cheaper than the initial outlay for insulation. And connecting to the grid is also very cheap, Francisco says, meaning that people have little incentive to produce their own electricity or be more efficient with their usage. Electricity here, comes from 3 wind turbines – the country’s first – and a mixture of micro hydro and small-scale diesel back-up provides the rest of Aysén’s electricity.

Powering Coyhaique locally

Large areas of valley and slopes bear the scars of the first Europeans to inhabit these lands. Arriving less than a century ago, fleeing conflict in Argentina or seeking grazing lands from elsewhere in Chile, these cattle herders caused unimaginable destruction in their quest for arable lands beneath the jungles of Aysén. Lacking the resources or the will to clear the forests by axe, they simply set fire to it. Four million hectares – half of the Patagonian forests – were destroyed in the 1940s and 50s in the world’s biggest fires, which raged uncontrollably, fuelled by the dry timbers and the tinder-like flowers of the native bamboo plants here. The devastation is still evident: graveyards of uncleared, un-decomposed trees lie where they fell. The thin soils, no longer secured with tree roots, and made weaker with the hooves of non-native sheep and cattle, simply poured off the mountains, silting up the rivers, reducing the limited arable land further. The once mighty port of Aysén, now silted to less than a metre deep in places, was no longer usable and a new port had to be built at Chacabuco.

People in Coyhaique whisper confessions: “I personally burned several acres.” But where cattle don’t graze, the forests have recovered. “We must learn from these mistakes we made in the past,” says Peter. “And not add to our destruction with mega dam projects.”

Alpaca are from the camel family - their feet are far less destructive to Patagonia´s soils than sheep

Francisco is one of those campaigning against the dam project. He first came here in 1986 as a hitchhiker from Santiago, fell in love with it and resolved to return and live here with his family. “What does development really mean? Does it have to be a lifestyle where you consume more, create more trash, destroy the natural areas that give you a sense of well-being and make living worthwhile? We don’t need so much more electricity to develop as a nation. There is another way,” he pleads.

Stealing power by hooking onto wires in Puerto Montt - it could be anywhere in the developing world

This is not an opinion shared by the young employees I meet at HidroAysen, the company behind the main dam proposals. Veronika, an earnest and sweet-natured locally-born woman is adamant that the dams will elevate the miserable residents of Aysén from their ditches of poverty by providing much-needed employment and helping to develop the region. I press her a little on this vague ‘development’ term, and she describes how she is one of the fortunate few who escaped from the isolated villages for a year or so’s education in Puerto Montt. “I’ve seen other places, but most people here have no choices. There are not many restaurants or shopping malls or good education opportunities,” she says. “It is very difficult to even get to the next village: you need a good car, which is expensive, and the roads can be very bad and impassable in winter.”

Dam-building will mean more people coming to these places and so the roads and surrounding infrastructure will be improved, shops and restaurants and other services will be stepped up to serve them, she reasons.

Her colleague, Rodrigo, from Santiago, is in favour of the dams because he sees them as the only viable energy option for Chile, a country with no oil or gas resources, which depends heavily on its neighbour Argentina for gas. The two nations have always had an uneasy relationship – Chile is far richer than Argentina, I am reminded often, but in 150 years of football, it has beaten its poorer neighbour only once, and that was when it had an Argentinean player on team. Last year, reliance on Argentina for energy led to disaster when a domestic crisis there led to a fuel shortage and the country cutting its neighbour off. “We can’t rely on another country to provide our energy,” Rodrigo says.

Everyone I speak to in this sharply divided region has a strongly held opinion on the dams and transmission line. Nationally, the ‘against’ camp is leading, more than 53%, according to surveys. But it’s a close thing.

From the air

It’s a very special place, this Patagonia of open skies and untouched mountains, glaciers, rivers and valleys, and we’ve made friends with its unusual people, particularly in Peter. We travel sadly to Chacabuco for our ship north back to Puerto Montt. Chacabuco reveals evidence of a more recent eco disaster: salmon farming. These non-native fish, introduced from Norway, have now become the main industry here, employing more than 80% of the population in mostly low-paying jobs that make a few multinational company owners rich. The area’s poverty is writ clear, from the graffiti to the poorly constructed housing, the drug and alcohol problems and the general ill health. It’s not the only sickness here. A couple of years ago, the industry was badly hit by a salmon immunity virus (ISA) which led to a massive shutdown while fish were destroyed in their millions, contaminated nets and equipment cleaned and thousands of jobs put on hold.

Salmon farm in Aysen Fjord

The virus only affects salmon here, but the non-native predators are themselves a menace to local fish. Every time they escape, because a sea lion damages their nets or bow-waves from a large boat spills them into the bay, the salmon eat all they can in these waters. And pollution from the farms is causing other problems to this delicate ecosystem.

Riding up to Puerto Montt, we are the only gringos aboard this time, but the ferry is pretty empty and so we are again upgraded to a private cabin. We love Navimag! Our boat has a prang in the side, from an iceberg encounter two days ago in fog near the San Raphael glacier, José Vego, our chief officer, explains. The glaciers become fewer as we ascend this skinny country. They are retreating fast anyhow, according to locals I chat to from Aysén. They talk of disappeared glaciers and new lakes, of ice treks that are no longer possible and terrifying GLOFs.

El Capitane

José speaks excellent English – the result of marrying his English teacher – and he tells me the exciting tale of how their vessel rescued survivors of the Chaitén eruption 2 years ago (8 May 2008). He was en route through the Patagonian channels on the ferry we took last week from Puerto Natales, when the eruption occurred “like an atomic cloud above mountains”. He and the captain (the same guy at the helm of our ship today) decided to cut across the channel to the small pier of Chaitén to see if they could help.

Too big to reach the pier, they radioed for a smaller Navimag tug nearby to assist with ferrying people from the pier to the larger boat. José shows me a video of the smaller boat lowering its cargo ramp onto the lowered cargo ramp of the larger ship in the middle of the channel, the first time it’s been attempted, José thinks. Passengers carrying children and bags rush onboard for the eight hour journey to the safety of Puerto Montt. They picked up 800 passengers on an already full boat meant for 350, José says. Navimag and the rest of the merchant navy voluntarily carried out 90% of Chaitén’s rescues, but only the navy was credited, José says. The captain hasn’t received so much as a thankyou card.

Nick in a cafe in Puerto Montt

We journey back through the fjords looking for whales and sipping maté. When the first European doctors arrived in the region they wondered why the gauchos never suffered from scurvy despite an exclusively meat diet. The answer turned out to be their daily dose of maté, which has a high vitamin content. Nick and I ward off scurvy too, during our 20-hour boat trip.

Cafe lights

In the distance, the fountains of breathing blue whales keep us hooked to the window, sorry to be leaving Patagonia. But the next stage of our South American journey beckons; tonight we head north to Concepción.

Getting off the ferry is quite complicated: first the tightly packed trucks have to move from the lower level, then we get to ride the industrial truck lift down.
Arriving at Puerto Montt
A mural shows what Puerto Montt looked like thousands of years ago

The plastic hold-alls ubiquitous throughout the developing world
… and after development