Victory Against Dams in Patagonia, Chile

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

On January 7th, we got some exciting news from the fight against hydroelectric development on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in the region of Aysén, Chile. The news broke to me when my Tracking Patagonia co-collaborator Rob Jackson posted the news on the Tracking Patagonia Facebook page. Rob posted a link to this article, written by Amanda Maxwell at the NRDC, a committed activist who we met when she came out to support our little film in Point Reyes a couple of years ago. I’ll quote Amanda here:

A major victory in the fight to protect Chile’s rugged Patagonia came today when media reported that Endesa Chile, the majority owner of HidroAysén, has removed the massive hydroelectric proposal from the list of active projects it presented to investors at the end of 2013. Citing legal challenges and uncertainty surround the dams’ transmission line as reasons for this exclusion, Endesa Chile has finally joined its partner in the joint venture, the Chilean energy company Colbún—as well as the majority of Chilean citizens—in realizing that the $10 billion project simply does not make sense. Although HidroAysén is not dead, this news is a significant step towards that end, and is an important sign that the voices of Chileans who strongly oppose the project are being heard loud and clear.

Funny thing is, when I first heard the news I barely even felt excitement. The truth is I haven’t been thinking about Patagonia that much lately. I’m working on new projects and I’ve become accustomed to the stream of news in relation to HydroAysén: the ups and downs, successes and failures, approvals and rejections.

But then the gravity of everything started to sink in. I stopped, stepped out of my bustling self-involvement, and thought:

Woah. This is big.

I remember when we first started shooting Tracking Patagonia. At the time, we felt we were the only people positioned to tell the story to the outside world. Nobody else with a camera seemed to be around. We were young and hadn’t the slightest idea what we were doing, but our mission felt grave and important. During post-production, I felt a great pressure to get the film done– would we finish before the dams were approved?

Filming on the Pascua River, 2008

Filming on the Pascua River, 2008

In the austral summer (January-February) of 2010, we returned to our beloved Aysén with a finished cut of the film. We couldn’t wait to deliver what we felt was an incredible awareness-raising tool into the hands of local activists. We toured the region “TPat style,” meaning slap-dash and low-budget, borrowing sheets to hang and projecting the film in public spaces, or sometimes just showing it in the homes of the people we knew and loved, leaving them copies and hoping they would spread the word. (You can read my reflections on the summer tour in our travel blog.)

Community screening in Villa Cerro Castillo, 2010

Community screening in Villa Cerro Castillo, 2010

The truth is, things did not look good during the summer of 2010. Many folks who had been outspoken opponents of the HydroAysén project during our filming had switched sides, retiring their “Patagonia Sin Represas” stickers in exchange for money, goods, or sponsorship from the deep pockets of HydroAysén. Those who continued in opposition seemed to be quiet, worn-out, and  less energized.

So while we left feeling moved and exhilarated from the reconnection with our documentary subjects, things were somewhat bittersweet. Tracking Patagonia went on to show in some film festivals around the US and in Argentina, and even a small fest over in Switzerland. And we went back to our lives, realizing that making a sweet little film is just that. We were still us, and we hadn’t become famous or rich or heroic, so we just went back to work.

A couple of years later, I was living in Buenos Aires when I got the news that the Environmental Impact Assessment for the HydroAysén project had been approved. I was heartbroken. It seemed to be over.

Then people woke up. A few days later I found myself joining Chilean ex-pats in marching down the grand Avenida de Mayo in Buenos Aires to the Chilean Consulate, chanting “Patagonia Sin Represas!” In the middle of the city streets, we shared mate and stories about our love for the Baker River. The resistance was alive.

Marching in Buenos Aires, 2011

Marching in Buenos Aires, 2011

By this time, a whole crop of documentary films had picked up where Tracking Patagonia left off: the fun adventure flick 180 South (by one of my surfing heroes Chris Malloy) brought a lot of attention to the issue, followed by Patagonia Rising and the Ríos Libres project, which is co-produced by Rob Jackson of the Tracking Patagonia team. It seemed that every day there were more and more articles about the HidroAysén issue in the New York Times and other major news outlets. And more and more Chileans were voicing their opposition.

Fast forward another year. Michelle Bachelet has just been elected to serve her second term as president of Chile. Bachelet, who had previously been non-committal on taking a stance about HidroAysén, changed her mind. She is quoted as saying that the project is not viable and should not go on. (Read the article at International Rivers.)

And with that, ENDESA, 51% owner of HidroAysén, took the dams off its active projects list.

The confluence of the Baker and Neff Rivers

The confluence of the Baker and Neff Rivers

It is so easy to look away, to feel powerless, to do nothing.

Fighting against the HidroAysén project seemed, at many times, like a lost cause. The odds were stacked against us. It would have been easy to do nothing, but enough people did something.

One documentary, and then another.

Songs, artwork, photographs.

Research. Legal action. Symbolic action.

Blogs, reports, videos, tweets, Facebook pages.

Community activism.

Sharing mate in the streets of Buenos Aires.

Floating the Baker River.

Flying the PATAGONIA SIN REPRESAS flag high and proud, wherever you might be.

Condor, somewhere north of Villa O'Higgins

Condor, somewhere north of Villa O’Higgins

For the love of the heavens, the rivers, and all things good and holy: go out there and do something. Say it. Get involved in something that is insanely ambitious and intimidating and real.

There is still much work to be done, and the strong arm of “development at all costs” is reaching farther into the most pristine corners of this planet we call home.

This is not a call for heroes and heroic action. It is a call to us, as human beings, to do what we know and feel in our hearts to be true.

(Want to learn more? You can watch the Tracking Patagonia documentary in full over on Vimeo.)

Update on 1/22/2014: You can now sign a petition to tell Endesa to cancel HidroAysén for good! Check out the cancel HidroAysén Petition. (It will take you all of 30 seconds.)

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