Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chilean Democracy, Anno 2008

On Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 in Valdivia, capital of the Rivers Region in Southern Chile, 21 citizens, including the mayor of the municipality of Panguipulli, Alejandro Kohler, and environmental lawyer Vladimir Riesco, were arrested by the military police. This took place during a “citizens participation” consultation for the approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report presented by Chilean energy company Colbún (of the financial conglomerate, Matte), as its plans to build a dam in the San Pedro River are very controversial and criticized by those arrested. The arrestees were not guilty of anything more than voicing opinions in opposition to the proposed projects. The arrests were ordered by the provincial governor, Ivan Flores. The consultations took place behind locked doors at the offices of COREMA (the regional environmental commission) on avenue Yungay in the Seminario building, heavily guarded by the military police performing security checks, registering and accompanying everyone who entered the building, videotaping everything, and only allowing a select few individuals into the overcrowded boardroom. A representative of the Parlamento de Koz Koz (a Mapuche organization in Panguipulli) was physically pushed out of the room, as it was too full, while at the same time, a representative of Colbún, was allowed to enter, as were the press, the mayor and the environmental lawyer. She finally did manage to enter, and read aloud a letter written by the organization, stating their opposition to the project, which caused a discussion between Riesco and a COREMA lawyer, which others joined, after which they were removed by the military police. Others, such as the evaluating environmental technicians from the municipality of Panguipulli, environmentalists and Mapuche representatives, remained locked out outside, and when a few tried to get in, they were immediately detained by police forces and carried off to the police station. There were three busloads of police forces securing the building, far outnumbering the citizens. The intention of such an event is to allow citizens to participate in the evaluation of projects proposed by companies that will affect their communities and surroundings. The EIA mechanism is intended to promote the democratic processes of informed consultation and participation.

According to the CONAMA website (Chile’s National Environmental Commission), citizen participation and access to environmental information are part of the 1994 Environmental Law (no. 19.300). The site further states that the CONAMA has promoted civil society participation in environmental management, as it is also considered a priority of the Concertación government, as formulated in their principles of co-responsibility, as a democratic mechanism. Under the Presidential Instructive on Citizen Participation (of December 2000), the public sector must generated the information required by its citizens, and citizen participation is a contribution to collaboration and mutual respect between the State and the citizenry, in order to strengthen civil society and achieve more legitimacy for public policy. The site further mentions social capital, relationships of trust, solidarity and cooperation, transparency, respect, equal opportunities and incorporating the citizenry in the elaboration and evaluation of environmental plans, projects, policies and norms. The CONAMA considers sustainable development as a national goal. Therefore, they are aiming to “perfect” the mechanisms and amplify the spaces of participation and the right to information, so that the citizenry can contribute to decisions taken concerning the protection of the environment. This was apparently forgotten at the COREMA in Valdivia on October 22nd. Since 1997, one of the principle instruments applied by the CONAMA, as required under the Environmental Law is the EIA system. This system is designed to evaluate the design and execution of projects or activities conducted in the country, according to environmental and sustainability requirements. Any company, such as Colbun in this case, proposing an industrial megaproject, must submit an EIA report to the CONAMA, based on the EIA norms. They normally receive a two-year period to perform the studies necessary to write the report. Colbun had been granted two extentions for the deadline for which they were to submit it. Thereafter, CONAMA publishes the report and the general public has only 60 days to respond to and evaluate the report. The environmental law presents an inequality in that it obviously favours the companies over the public opinion in allowing them more time to complete their reports (in this case, Colbón was allotted two extensions) to submit their reports, and the citizens hardly receive any time at all to respond, nor do they have the same amount of resources to do so. Their feedback is supposed to inform the environmental commission’s decision on whether or not to approve the project. The final decision to approve or reject the plan is made at the end of this period, at the regional office (COREMA), as occurred in Valdivia on October 22nd. The meeting is supposed to be open to the public (which it was not on October 22nd). The approval is won by a majority vote by the board members of the COREMA. In June 2008, Colbún submitted a report that had received 125 observations made by diverse civil society, and public institutions, to which Colbún responded by retracting it, and promised to submit a second report within the very short time frame of three weeks. The “citizen participation” thus proves to be merely a discourse, as in practice the public building was locked shut, and the only elected authority of the municipality of Panguipulli, the mayor Alejandro Kohler, was not allowed to express his opinion on the matter. The decision to approve the project seems to come from above, the centralized and authoritarian State in Santiago. The approval is won by a majority vote by the board members of the COREMA. The board on the 22nd included ten regional ministerial secretaries, four regional counsillors, the governors of Valdivia and Ranco, and the executive secretary of COREMA, as well as the regional governor, Ivan Flores. In June 2008, Colbún submitted a report that had received 125 observations made by diverse civil society, and public institutions, to which Colbún responded by retracting it, and promised to submit a second report within the very short time frame of three weeks.

The plan proposed by Colbún to build a dam in the San Pedro River will affect two municipalities, Los Lagos and Panguipulli. The municipality of Los Lagos had signed their approval of the project on September 5th, 2008, as Colbún has promised to build a lakeside resort and a bus terminal as compensation for any negative impacts generated by the construction of the dam, as written in the third addendum to the EIA. In the recent (October 26, 2008) elections, the mayor was not reelected: the people are not pleased with a mayor who negotiates away the area’s national resources. The municipality of Panguipulli, however, especially the mayor and six of the seven deputy mayors, as well as the director of the National Tourism Service (SERNAM) had made their opposition to the project very publically clear since the beginning. Letters were written and sent to the COREMA evaluating the plan, and rejecting it altogether. In general, the project is rejected due to environmental and sustainability concerns, it will affect nearby Mapuche communities and because it is not deemed favourable to the development of tourism, which is the development strategy of the municipality of Panguipulli since 2000, and it was declared a Zone of Touristic Interest in 2008. Tourism in the area is mainly based on small-scale, locally owned and operated ecotourism outfits. Colbún’s EIA does not include a socio-economic evaluation of the area that considers this industry or the priorities of the Mapuche communities, nor does it include a mitigation or compensation plan. Furthermore, seismological considerations are not included, as the area contains a geological fault to which the Chaitén volcano belongs, a volcano that was previously dormant for thousands of years until its multiple eruptions in May of 2008. Furthermore, the EIA only considers the 12 kilometres of the river that the dam will directly affect, and not the entire surrounding region that will be indirectly affected by the project. The dam will consist of a 56-metre wall that will capture millions of litres of water and in the case of an earthquake or volcanic eruption; the dam could crumble and pose a serious threat to the towns downriver. The San Pedro River becomes the Calle Calle River, on its way to the sea, one of Valdivia’s landmarks. The effects on the Calle Calle were not included in the report, and Valdivia was not included in the citizen participation to evaluate the project.

It was Alejandro Kohler, Vladimir Riesco and two doctors from Panguipulli who had made it into the meeting at the COREMA and voiced their opinions in opposition of the projects. Their objections during the meeting centred on the many irregularities of the EIA and important information that has been kept from the public about the project, such as rare fish species in the San Pedro River that will be affected by the dam, and the union of the reservoir with lake Riñihue. The COREMA kept refusing them the word, so they started to speak anyway. This was the only reason for their arrests: they spoke out of turn, a turn they had never received, because they were in opposition. Before the start of the meeting, half of the board members were in opposition to the plans. Two days before the meeting, the COREMA had threatened the regional ministerial secretaries that if they did not approve the project, they would lose their jobs. After many hours of discussion, and the governor having called the military police to have the opponents removed from the room and arrested, the votes were 16 to 1 in favour, and one abstained. The project was approved.

This incident has sparked the debate about the state of democracy in Chile once again. Furthermore, a wide public discussion has ensued concerning the EIA process and the type of development that this form of industrialization implies, as well as a discussion on the political power of market forces, reinforcing authoritarian practices in order to extinguish the voices of the citizenry. Protests have taken place in Valdivia, and will most likely mark the beginning of a long conflict over the San Pedro dam. This project is one of three hydroelectric megaprojects for the Rivers Region. There are plans to build seven hydroelectric plants, resulting in the generation of 10% of Chile’s electric consumption, which would drastically alter the economic makeup of the region. One of Chile’s major natural assets is water, and the State is aiming to exploit it to its fullest, so that hydropower will form the major source of energy for the nation. At the same time, the opposition to hydroelectric projects has been the fiercest. At least 25 projects currently in progress, completed, or being planned are found from the first region in the north, down to Aysén, in southern Patagonia. There are at least 10 (multi)national energy companies involved in the installation of these mega-projects throughout Chile. The rights to water were separated from land and privatized in 1982 by the Pinochet regime. In 2006, these rights were further liberalized and have been auctioned off to the highest bidders, which in the Rivers Region meant the sale to the corporate energy companies ENDESA of Spain, SN Power of Norway, and Colbún.

There is a majority opposition to the projects by the locals. However, the energy companies are employing strategies and tactics to convince the locals of the benefits of their projects. One of the tactics employed by the companies is having asados (barbeques) with the people, talking about all the great things their projects will bring them. They have withheld crucial information from the public, they occupy the media to spread propaganda and hold secret meetings with certain individuals behind closed doors, they promise to build roads, cellular phone and internet infrastructure, computers for the schools and jobs for the unemployed. These types of promises are well-known strategies of companies such as Colbún, ENDESA and SN Power to obtain a majority support for their projects and convince the people of their good will. They pretend to be socially responsible, but corporate companies are not social organizations that have experience in rural development. They are capitalist enterprises that wish to take advantage of the lack of implementation of Chilean and international law that protects the rights of the local population and environment. Their sole purpose to generate cheap energy and maximize profits. For a company with that much economic power to offer to pay for a road, equipment for the fire department, computers for the school, internet and cellphone connections is very little. It is an insult to the intelligence of the local people. In reality, the company will install all that is necessary for the construction of the plants. After that, the people will be left to their own devices once again. They are employing the manipulation of the media and the rumour network of the small towns, making the people believe that all are in favour of their projects which is not only good for their corporate image in the Chilean media, but convinces the affected populations that they have no other choice but to support the projects, so that they may receive benefits in the process of negotiation. They are also publicizing their false success stories of "participation" in order to pretend to live up to the "corporate social responsibility" mandate. Therefore, the people are left to turn to alternative forms of communication, in order to inform and publicize their disagreement with the proposed plans and the company's presence in their communities. The civil society organizations in opposition to the megaprojects are made up of local citizens, dozens of Mapuche comunidades and local tourism enterprises and organizations. These are local citizens concerned about their environment and communities and prepared to defend their rights to live in a zone free of interventions by megaprojects. They are concerned about the manner in which the energy company executives are intervening in the area, especially in the unauthorized entrance into indigenous territory and private property; the intimidation of Mapuche leaders, the threatening of people that do not want to cooperate; the bribing of local businessmen to support the projects, the bribing of local and non-local Mapuche who are portrayed as leaders by the company in their reports; but do not actually have any legitimacy or representation within the communities, in order to convince the rest of the community to support the projects; the collection of signatures under false pretences to support the projects, such as having participants in a “development” workshop sign a blank document with their social security numbers, supposedly attesting to their participation; or signatures for the receipt of food aid.

Colbún is not only planning a dam for the San Pedro, but also the third dam in the megaproject started on the Bío Bío River by ENDESA in 1994. The controversial Pangue (457 MW) and Ralco (690 MW) dams built there required the displacement of indigenous communities. The Ralco dam was highly publicized and sparked a national debate on dams and development, and the relationship between the State and indigenous peoples. Having the dam approved required several political manipulations and abuses of power by the Frei Ruiz-Tagle government (1994-2000), who had shares in both ENDESA and the construction company, BESALCO. Frei`s attitude suggested that anyone who did not agree with the government on Ralco, had to go. The Ralco dam would be constructed “Si o Si”. Despite all the protests from countless citizens, institutions, civil society organisations, and every level of government, the construction of the dam continued relentlessly. The National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI) had declared the Ralco project as “illegal”, as the Indigenous Law not only requires informed consent, but also equivalent compensation for their lands, requiring the approval of CONADI. Neither was deemed sufficient by CONADI’s indigenous council. However, CONADI was incapable of holding its own under the political force of the Frei government, who had forced two consecutive indigenous directors of the CONADI who did not approve of the land exchanges to resign. The politics of the government were very clear: the land exchanges were to be approved. When the CONAMA rejected the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mainly due to the social implications, ENDESA wrote an “addendum”, which was also rejected. It was finally the second “addendum”, which actually included a relocation plan for the Pewenche, which was approved, despite repeated protests by the CONADI. The final addendum to the original EIA report included a 10-year commitment of financial support, housing, electricity, schools, technical farming assistance, and medical centres. However, a lot of these have not materialized to date. These types of failed interventions are all too common in Chile today, especially concerning its original peoples. There is no doubt that the energy sector means big business. In Chile, Pinochet’s 1982 Electricity Law continues to ensure that investors will prosper. The CNE (National Energy Commission) fixes the base costs of electricity according to the construction and operational costs of the plants, maintaining a determined level of profit. Due to this amazing amount of State support, a company can construct a very inefficient, expensive project, and the costs will only be borne by the consumers. Thus, the inefficiency of Ralco was convenient and profitable for ENDESA, although it caused inflation in electricity on the national level. However, during the Ralco conflict, an aggressive media campaign was launched to sway Chilean public opinion in favour of the dam, focused on the ‘need for Ralco’s power to support industrial development’ in a period of economic recession.

The US$ 500 million, 360 MW “Angostura Project” Colbún is now proposing for the Bío Bío will again necessitate the displacement of 45 families, many of which had already been relocated for the Pangue dam. The EIA states that the dam would flood 640 hectares, creating an 16 kilometer reservoir along the Bio Bio, and 5 kilometers along the Huequecura River. The inundation would not only require relocations, it would also mean the disappearance of sacred Pehuenche sites. Colbún is employing tactics similar to ENDESA for the Pangue and Ralco dams, as Colbún has already bought land destined for the relocation sites, and has brought the people there to have a look, before the EIA has been approved by the CONAMA, making it seem as if the dam’s construction is a matter of fact. Locals criticize the project and are in opposition, however they have received very little media attention, and are actually tired out from the decade-long Ralco conflict. Contradictorily, the Chilean government stated before the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2004 that it would not allow anymore megaprojects in the Alto Bío Bío area in the future. Locals are urging the state to keep this promise, and hope to share their objections with CONAMA, who is about to decide on the approval of the project. In 2006, Colbun partnered up with ENDESA to form HidroAysén, for the megaproject (2750 MW) they are planning for the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Aysen, Chile’s XIth Region. The project would also require the construction of a transmission line almost 1600 kilometers long. The project’s construction is projected to be conducted from 2008 to 2012. There is enormous opposition to this project, uniting big business such as the salmon farmers, local landowners, operators of local fishing lodges and other small-scale tourism enterprises, and U.S. entrepreneur and conservationist Douglas Tompkins. The protest is highly publicized, although the opponents claim that HydroAysén has not been transparent about their plans. The opposition is concerned about the flooding of 93 billion hectares, its ecological repercussions and the conversion of the small town of Cochrane into a booming industrial hub. They also fear that the dams on the Baker and the Pascua will only be the start of the damming of every river in Patagonia. Additionally, there is concern for the loss of international (eco)tourists visiting the region. Government officials claim that if they do not dam the Baker and the Pascua, which would generate 20% of the country’s energy needs, the only alternative will be nuclear power. HydroAysén’s EIA report is expected in 2008. Tompkins has repeatedly opposed the industrialization of Patagonia. Consecutive governments have tried to delegitimize his conservationist efforts, naming him a communist, terrorist, Zionist cult leader and interventionist preventing foreign investment. The irony of Chile’s liberal climate for foreign investment is shown when it welcomes those companies that want to extract the country’s natural resources, but is hostile towards those that want to invest their fortunes in conserving them.

Foreigners are not the only critics of Chilean policies. Many Chileans oppose industrial megaprojects, such as mining, forestry, cellulose, salmon farming, and hydroelectric plants. They feel that this type of development is out of control, that there is no true consideration for future generations. They fear the loss of biodiversity and natural resources, whose Chile’s economy has always depended upon. Due to all of these environmental conflicts in Chile and the State’s tendency to favour large private companies, many Chileans question the meaning of the “sustainable development” discourse. Cynics criticize EIAs as “only a formality”, as industrial projects tend to be approved in Chile, no matter what the social and environmental consequences. Political decisions have far reaching impacts in democratic processes, such as the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The Ralco case showed that EIAs can reinforce a political decision and uphold its discourse, instead of ensuring a democratic and informed process in practice, that in principle, they are supposed to uphold. Through financing of reports and subsequent ownership of the information, interest groups retain control over their use. Even researchers come to be removed from their own conclusions in ways that are quite alarming. The corrupt EIA process in Chile is a manifestation of the authoritarian culture where dialogue is not practiced, where decisions are taken by a small group of politically and economically powerful elite, and the local peoples, in this case original peoples, are not heard. Energy, thus, being of “national interest” goes above all. This idea is recognized and conformed to by the political structure that imposes this discourse. The institutionalization of this legitimacy is effectively manifested in the institutions that facilitate the attitude of the State towards local peoples and the private sector, and the clear disposition towards economic development without considering the social and environmental costs. The large majority of the private companies that implement hydroelectric, geothermal, biofuel or mining projects in Chile are of from outside the region, such as Spain, Norway, Germany, Italy, England, Switzerland, Canada, and Australia. It all revolves around making money for their CEOs, and maybe a little GDP for Chile. Meanwhile, energy costs within Chile skyrocket, so that not only the local citizens have to live with the negative effects of these projects, they also get the short end of the stick in the actual resulting product. Thus, there is a general discontent, distrust, and disbelief that the “system” will work for them. Especially concerning environmental laws and institutions have lost the respect of the people, as they adhere to corporate pressure, not only in hydroelectric megaprojects, but also in other forms of industrialisation such as mining, forestry, cellulose and salmon farming. To the locals being affected by such megaprojects, the beautiful discourse of “transparency” and “participation” are nothing but that: just empty words. It is definitely not the reality for most of the citizens of Chile.

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