Voices against HidroAysén Raise Questions of Illegal Conduct during the Project's Most Recent Environmental Review

New voices in Chile’s state agencies and government have recently been calling for the rejection of HidroAysén’s massive hydroelectric proposal in Patagonia – some even questioning the legality of the most recent phase in the project’s environmental review process.  This new disapproval of the scheme clearly shows that the company’s recent national media campaign is not working yet.  During the months leading up to the next phase of the project’s environmental impact review in April 2011, it will be crucial for these voices – and more – to continue to cry out against this destructive, unnecessary project. 

HidroAysén’s environmental assessment process began over two years ago, in August 2008.  Since then, the company has filed over 15,000 pages of studies, data and maps, yet has failed to provide the information needed to prove that the project deserves its environmental approval.  I’ve described the documents’ failings here.  During the first two rounds of the process, the National Forest Agency (or CONAF, as it is usually referred to), filed some of the toughest comments HidroAysén’s plans for the five proposed dams.  The crux of their argument was that the project would flood part of Laguna San Rafael National Park and other reserves protected by both national law and international treaty.  CONAF has been one of several agencies which conducted their reviews with integrity and professionalism.  We had hoped that, during the third and most recent round of HidroAysén’s environmental review in November, these agencies would not bow to increasing political pressure to approve the unworthy project. 

However, CONAF did just that, by filing only two, rather toothless comments.  The first describes how HidroAysén’s proposal would not affect any “extraordinary” or “scientifically interesting” parts of Laguna San Rafael National Park and therefore could be approved; the second asks HidroAysén to use consistent language in its description of the native flora.  These comments clear the way for the dams’ approval, and must be answered with those filed by other state agencies, by the company in mid-April, 2011. 

In response, two of CONAF’s major unions publicly declared that the National CONAF office altered the comments that the Regional office had filed on HidroAysén’s latest Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), in order ease the project’s approval.  The Presidents of both the Workers’ Union of CONAF in the Region of Aysén and of the National Union of Professionals in CONAF released a joint declaration to inform the public that the final submission from CONAF did not represent the work of the Regional analysts, which was done “according to the professional ethic and… legal disposition that governing laws require.”  They described the original, tougher comments, which argued strongly that HidroAysén's flooding of Laguna San Rafael National Park and the other protected areas would violate national law as well as international treaty, and so it cannot receive the necessary environmental permits.  They also asserted that the environmental review process has contained “legal irregularities and pressures” from its beginning in August 2008 (some of which I described here).

The Unions’ declaration came almost directly after the Association of Forest Engineers for Native Forests also publically stated that HidroAysén’s proposal is illegal, due to its flooding of protected areas and National Parks.  They expressed their disagreement with the comments filed by the National CONAF, and called upon CONAF’s Unions to take action – which they did.

The government is reacting accordingly.  Congress’s Natural Resources Commission has called the Executive Director of CONAF to testify and explain the agency’s actions.  Congressman Alfonso De Urresti, a member of the Congressional Environmental Commission, also alluded to procedural regularities throughout HidroAysén’s entire environmental review, and called the situation with CONAF “brutal and arrogant.”  In a televised debate this week with the Executive Director of HidroAysén, Daniel Fernandez, Senator Antonio Horvath stated that, “Aysén does not need these large projects… We have vocations to improve our quality of life…without HidroAysén...”

In the past few weeks, HidroAysén’s media campaign has been more aggressive than usual, qualifying as what some call a “terror” campaign.  Commercials show lights going out in a hospital operating room because elsewhere a delivery man buzzes an apartment’s bell – implying that without HidroAysén, the country will experience dire and life-threatening energy shortages.  This is an outlandish message, as a 2009 technical study has proven that the country already has more than enough energy projects approved to meet the national demand for decades, without HidroAysén.  Many Chileans recognize the discrepancy between HidroAysén’s message and reality; on Twitter alone, hundreds of people have voiced their disapproval of the company's media campaign (you can read the incoming messages here). 

Since the beginning of this most recent round of HidroAysén’s environmental review, over 21,600 people from around the world have sent letters to the Chilean government through NRDC’s BioGem website, asking for HidroAysén rejection.  During this critical period, when every voice matters, please join them – and the thousands of Chileans who are against this destructive and unnecessary project – by telling the Chilean government to reject HidroAysén’s proposal