THE RIVERS OF AYSÉN
It's clear, as the fjords and rainforests give way to open brown pampas, fields of newly harvested wheat, and herds of grazing cattle, that the idea of pristine wilderness has limited relevance here. This is not Pumalín. Even when the cattle lands give way in turn to the steep-sided glacial valleys of the Río Blanco and the Río La Paloma, appearances are deceptive. These rivers, tinted a deep turquoise by glacial silt, could not look more wild. Black-necked swans glide across the quieter reaches of the Río La Paloma; Patagonian torrent ducks skim back and forth over the stretches of white water. But then around the next corner come three members of a family of huasos -- first cousins to the Argentine gaucho -- father on the first horse, brother and sister hunched together on a glossy chestnut mare, all three wrapped in faded brown ponchos, with dark, wind-beaten faces. And you see that the slope behind their modest farmhouse is a chaotic latticework of dead trees, the residue of the epic burns that denuded these hillsides when the region was first colonized.
Admiral Robert Simpson, the Englishman who gave his name to the river that runs through Coyhaique, was mourning the destruction of the native forests as early as 1870. "It is lamentable," he wrote, "to see the wastefulness with which these riches are exploited, which constitute the principal future of the province; for each tree that is used, at least ten are destroyed." The pace increased dramatically in the 1930s and 1940s, when cattle ranchers were granted vast concessions by the Chilean government. "They needed grass for pasture," Peter Hartmann had told me, "but they found forests. The government told them that if they wanted free land they had to clear it first. And people weren't going to do that with an axe, so they set the forests on fire. They burned down almost three million hectares [7.4 million acres], more than half of all the forests in Aysén." The small, hardscrabble farmers, colonos, who came in the wake of the concessions but were relegated to the higher altitudes and the poorer soils, did much the same. Along the way, in their isolated valleys, they developed their own idiosyncratic culture -- self-reliant, deeply conservative, and fiercely protective of their land.
Like most roads in Patagonia, this one leads, via ruts and potholes and a rickety, hand-operated ferry, back to water, to more fjords, to more rivers that tumble from the high snow peaks to the deep blue-green of the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the road are two small port towns, Puerto Aysén and Puerto Chacabuco. They're dismal places that have recently made the transition from commercial fishing to salmon farming, and the sheltered natural harbor of Puerto Chacabuco is enveloped in the stench of fish meal. Drugs are a problem here. Bored teenagers form gangs and fight one another and the police. Some of them practice a Chileanized version of gangsta rap and dream of escape to the big city, far from the water that has been the lifeblood of these towns -- but also their curse.
In 1995 a Canadian mining company called Noranda began sniffing around here, salivating, like Endesa now, over all the untapped hydropower that could be extracted from the rivers that flow into the Fjordo Aysén. The logic, Peter Hartmann pointed out, was very much the same as that of the aluminum industry in the Pacific Northwest during the Depression, when it built giant dams on the Columbia River. Noranda dreamed of building a mammoth aluminum smelter in Aysén, using bauxite ore imported from Australia, Brazil, and Jamaica and powered by two imposing dams on the Río Blanco and the Río Cuervo, with a smaller one on the nearby Río Cóndor. The 434-megawatt dam on the Cuervo would rise 380 feet from the valley floor; the new plant, which the corporation called Alumysa, would produce 440,000 tons of aluminum bars a year. There would be 60 miles of new and upgraded roads, more than 50 miles of power lines, a deep-water port. The foreign investment would total $2.75 billion. There would be jobs for all. The Chilean government touted Alumysa as a project of strategic national importance.
The project would also generate -- though this point was not emphasized by Noranda -- 60,000 tons of solid waste each year during its 50-year life span, and this turned out to be its Achilles' heel. Hartmann put together a coalition of 11 local groups -- environmental organizations, labor unions, tourism operators, cultural and community groups -- to oppose Alumysa. It was a fractious alliance; sometimes the whole business felt like herding cats. Doug Tompkins funded the work for a while, but then stopped.
"Why?" I ask Hartmann.
He chooses his words carefully. "It was bad timing," he says. "He had to stop all his funding in Chile. He was under a lot of scrutiny from the government. It was very difficult."
Hartmann soldiered on, worked the media, organized demonstrations, went to Canada to attend one of Noranda's annual general meetings and buttonhole the company's shareholders. "They didn't like that," he grins. But the trump card was played by the salmon-farming industry, which had its eyes on Puerto Chacabuco as a flagship location. "It was ironic," Hartmann says. "We knew we needed them, but it took them a long time to get involved. When we criticized the salmoneros, they said we were green fundamentalists opposed to development and jobs. Then when we criticized Alumysa, they said the same thing. But then the salmon farmers started saying that Alumysa were polluters, and Alumysa said the salmon farmers were polluters, and we weren't green fundamentalists anymore. We were respectable people now!"
Technically, the smelter project isn't dead. Occasionally you'll still hear talk of Noranda's scouting for other locations. But it is, Hartmann says, "in the deep freeze." Forced to choose, the Chilean government seems to have decided that Alumysa was the bird in the bush; salmon farming is the bird in the hand.
THE SPIRIT OF PATAGONIA
The Alumysa saga convinced Peter Hartmann that alliances of the pure-hearted don't necessarily get you far; on issues of this magnitude, you need to take your friends where you can find them, understanding their idiosyncracies. It's a lesson that he has obviously taken to heart as he marshals his forces to block Endesa's dams on the Baker and the Pascua.
Thanks to Pinochet's free-market reforms, Endesa obtained the water rights to the two rivers in the waning days of the military regime. "The Chilean water system was unique in the world," says NRDC's Ari Hershowitz. "If you had the resources to map it, you could basically own a river on demand." That changed last year, however, when the law was modified to impose hefty royalty payments, which escalate over time, on owners who leave their water rights unexploited. Patagonia, where Endesa owns the rights to 90 percent of the rivers, was granted a seven-year grace period before these royalties kick in -- thus giving the company an excellent incentive to accelerate its dam-building plans.
The four proposed dams on the Baker and the Pascua would be enormous, generating a total of 2,430 megawatts. The estimated cost of the project is $4 billion, $1.5 billion of which will be used to build a transmission line almost 1,000 miles long. Construction is projected to begin in 2008, and the first installation -- the 680-megawatt Baker I -- will go on line in 2012. Endesa won't talk about its plans on the record, but a rivers advocate in Santiago, Juan Pablo Orrego, shows me a copy of a Power Point presentation the company has produced, and its message seems pretty clear: This is a patriotic initiative -- un proyecto país -- in which private profit is a secondary consideration. Dams are the only solution to Chile's mounting energy crisis, and energy from hydropower is clean energy.
Endesa's public-relations strategy has run into a speed bump of broad-based public opposition, however. "It's an extraordinary alliance," Orrego remarks. "NGOs, big businessmen, local landowners, operators of fishing lodges and tourist businesses, and Doug Tompkins, the deep ecologist."
"I was very nervous when Tompkins got involved," Hartmann says. "He gets into a fight with Endesa and the press loves it. But now other big landowners and salmon farmers are also against the project. The involvement of Puchi and Alcalde really changed things." Enrique Alcalde is a powerful cattle rancher on the Río Baker; Victor Hugo Puchi is the president of AquaChile, a $750 million salmon-farming company, the biggest in the country. More important, perhaps, the Puchi family traces its ancestry to Patagonia's earliest colonizers. This is not just about money and privilege, in other words; it's also about roots, about people who have, in Doug Tompkins's phrase, "a love of the peculiarities and particularities of place." The coalition opposing Endesa is not called Save Our Rivers, or Protect Our Ecosystems. It's called Los Defensores del Espíritu de la Patagonia: The Defenders of the Spirit of Patagonia. Thinking of this, I remember the huasos on horseback, in their hidden valley.