Our Fall 2006 cover story, "Patagonia Under Siege," looked at plans to dam the two biggest rivers in southern Chile. Together the Spanish utility Endesa and the Chilean energy company Colbún want to invest $4 billion in four colossal dams that would supply Chile with 2,400 megawatts of urgently needed electricity.
This always had the feel of an unequal fight: local activists pitted against powerful corporations. Now the government seems to have signaled which side it's on. The dams, says Rodrigo Iglesias of the National Energy Commission, will "strengthen [Chile's] energy security and independence."
Now here's the irony: While Iglesias talks of energy security, the dam-builders cite hydropower as proof of their environmental commitment. The Matte Group, which owns a controlling interest in Colbún, is making large investments in biomass, wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar. Endesa is now the fifth-largest generator of wind power in the world. Meanwhile, another Chilean company has requested water rights to a dozen other rivers, all of which could be easily plugged into the 1,000-mile transmission line that Endesa and Colbún want to build to connect the far south to the Chilean heartland. And that would destroy Patagonia.
In the fight to reduce carbon emissions there are bound to be tradeoffs. But the risk is that things that were once at the heart of the environmental agenda -- like the preservation of our last wild places -- may just come to be seen as the necessary collateral damage.