THE DOMINO THEORY
Yet the opposition to Endesa is only partly focused on immediate local concerns, like the 23,000 acres that would be flooded, the threat to sensitive ecosystems, the conversion of sleepy Cochrane, population 2,200, into a squalid boomtown. It's more strategic than that, with much of the argument centered on the likely domino effect of the Baker and Pascua dams, the economic alternatives to hydropower, and the folly of Chile's current energy policy.
Rodrigo Pizarro, an economist who is close to the new Bachelet government and heads a Santiago-based environmental policy group called Terram, thinks Patagonia has plenty of better options, starting with tourism. "It's the fastest-growing industry in the world," he tells me. "Ecotourism is growing rapidly. And that's going to be the value of Patagonia in the future -- the rarity of its virgin temperate rainforest, its free-flowing rivers, its glaciers. Chile's greatest resource today is copper, but 50 years from now it could be Patagonia. It could be like Costa Rica or New Zealand. What's their greatest asset? Biodiversity. Why did they film Lord of the Rings in New Zealand? Because New Zealand put its biological heritage at the filmmakers' disposal. Why would you destroy all that if all you're doing is postponing a solution to your energy crisis?"
Perhaps the most surprising skeptic is Antonio Horvath, a senator from Chile's XIth Region and the salmon industry's most passionate advocate in Santiago. Surprising because Horvath is a political conservative, a onetime ally of the military government, and best known for championing the Carretera Austral, the long ribbon of highway that snakes its way south from Puerto Montt, interrupted by fjords and ferry crossings, all the way down to the remote outpost of Puerto Yungay. There were two reasons for building the highway, and Horvath promoted both. One was to stimulate Patagonia's economic development; the other was to assuage the geopolitical fears of the Pinochet regime, which fretted about an invasion from neighboring Argentina and needed a way to move troops around in the far south. The highway remains a near obsession with Horvath, and his desire to build a missing 40-mile stretch through Pumalín has put him sharply at odds with Doug Tompkins. But now, together with Puchi the salmon baron, Tompkins and Horvath find themselves, improbably, on the same side of the fence.
Horvath's crucial insight is that Endesa's plans jeopardize not only the Baker and the Pascua, but every river in Patagonia. Given Chile's voracious appetite for energy, the new dams on the Baker and the Pascua are nothing more than a stopgap measure. And the dams in themselves aren't really the main threat. The bigger problem is the thousand miles of power lines that will carry their energy to the rest of the country. Once those are in place, every beautiful, free-flowing river along the way -- the Puelo and the Aysén, the Ibañez and the Cisnes, the Palena and the Futaleufú -- is up for grabs, ready to be plugged into the national grid in the blink of an eye. And then what? Patagonia will have ceased to be Patagonia.
"But I've seen statements from government officials," I tell Horvath, "that say if they don't dam the Baker and the Pascua, the only alternative will be nuclear power."
"That's pure blackmail," he snaps. "Throw a scare into people and get them to say yes to the dams. Alternative energy sources are a much better solution, like small-scale run-of-the-river projects. You can build lots of plants like that very quickly if the political will is there. There are studies that say Chile could get 10,000 megawatts from small, high-altitude facilities. And that's just hydroelectricity. But geothermal power is another attractive option." In a country that is basically one long string of volcanoes, he might add.
"And then there's tidal power," he continues. "There are places in Aysén where the currents are so strong that they're not navigable. In Puerto Montt, the tides rise and fall by seven or eight meters. There's fantastic potential there."
But as Horvath says, pursuing such visionary ideas is a matter of political will. In Chile as elsewhere, election campaigns don't specialize in raising (let alone addressing) long-term strategic questions. Politicians don't prosper by asking whether their country is on a fast train to disaster. Politicians say, energy demand is doubling every eight to ten years. That's the real world; the rest is for the philosophers and the poets.
"Damming all these rivers is madness," Rodrigo Pizarro says. "But you can't really blame Endesa. The problem is the failure of the growth model, of our model of energy consumption."
But what about Bachelet -- will she change that? I asked everyone the same question -- Pizarro, Horvath, Tompkins, Hartmann, Juan Pablo Orrego. To a man they shrugged. Too early to tell; and she's up against so many entrenched interests.
Chile's problem, says Orrego, is that its economy has always been based on extraction; it has what he calls "a mining mentality" toward its natural resources. Dig up the copper and sell it to the world in highly concentrated form; cut down the native forests, plant pine and eucalyptus, and turn them into wood chips and cellulose; dredge the ocean for fish meal, turn it into salmon, and trash the fjords; and consume extravagant amounts of energy in the process. A centrist technocrat like Pizarro, a radical deep ecologist like Tompkins -- both would agree with that basic critique of the Chilean "miracle."
Doug Tompkins and I are standing by a razor-sharp row of alerce seedlings at Vodudahue, perhaps the most ambitious of all Pumalín's model farms. Tomorrow the rain will come down again in a daylong torrent, but today the sky is sapphire-blue. Vodudahue means "devil's corner," Tompkins says, an allusion to the sheer granite peaks that enclose the narrow strip of green valley. People first came here in the seventeenth century, adventurers looking for the fabled Lost City of the Caesars, a Chilean version of the El Dorado myth. These fields were once carpeted with alerces, but the loggers put an end to that. Now a team of young Chileans is working on a reforestation project that Tompkins calls Alerce 3000. The neat rows of seedlings and the manicured lawns make a disconcerting contrast with the wildness of the surrounding mountains. Nature here is being... well, controlled may not be the right word, but certainly helped along in an orderly and efficient way. "We're trying to integrate a high degree of beauty here," Tompkins says, "which is missing from today's discourse. We see beauty, ordered beauty, in everything we do." It's an odd remark for a deep ecologist, a devotee of untamed wilderness, but contradictions seem to me by now to be the essence of the man -- as they are, perhaps, for all of us.
We look at the seedlings for a while longer, then I ask, "So what do you think is going to happen with the fight over the Baker?"
He thinks about it for a long time, then pulls a face. "The Baker, that's a tough one," he says at last. "Going to be a big fight, a big face-off. There's no way to call it. But you've got to think of this not just as dams, but as a system. No one knows where everything is going. Grow, grow, grow, and explode? Grow, grow, grow, and collapse? All this development, it's a runaway train. No one's in control. The environmental movement has to keep beating that drum: What's the plan here?"
Later, on the way back to the airstrip, we cross a narrow, swaying footbridge over the Estero Troliguán, a fast-moving tributary of the Río Vodudahue. Below us, the creek flows clear, like vodka over ice cubes. Doug Tompkins stops abruptly, grabs my sleeve, and points down at the little river. "Look down there!" he exclaims. "That's what's really important. Water!"