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Patagonia Ecotourism: No to Mega Dam Projects!

The beleaguered HidroAysén mega dam project that aims to build five hydroelectric power plants in Chile’s Aysén region is looking less and less assured by the day, as it wavers in the face of fierce campaigning by environmentalists and the local population. But the Aysén region and Chilean Patagonia as a whole still lives under the shadow of the threat of more dam projects. To understand the reasons why these projects would be so devastating both environmentally and economically for Chile, we sat down to interview Javier Lopez, one of the co-founders and co-owners of EcoCamp Patagonia and Cascada Expediciones. As a trained engineer and a self-starter in Chile’s ecotourism sector, he is in a unique position to provide an intriguing insight into the problems posed by mega dam projects in general and in Patagonia in particular.

Given that hydroelectric energy is often considered as less damaging for the environment since it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, why are you opposed to these mega-dam projects?
With regard to these huge mega-dams for large power stations, we’re against them because of the well-documented negative impacts on the environment such as sedimentation, blocking the transport of organic material and the visual pollution that such an eyesore represents. A mega-dam does not produce clean energy. It negatively affects the entire surrounding area, it affects the ecosystem downstream of the dam, it affects the natural flow of fish and organic material. It even affects the temperature of the area since the large pool of standing water behind the dam retains heat where flowing water would have carried it away. Moreover, the lifespan of a mega-dam would go very little beyond 30 years due to sedimentation and changes in rain cycles.
As an engineer, I find the technical solution of using mega-dams to generate electricity to be incredibly antiquated. As a technology, almost nothing has changed about the way these dams have been constructed and operated in the last 40 years. I feel that this represents a really dismal effort on our part as humans to develop a more elegant and less harmful solution. 
I like to use the example of an iPhone. Just think about the amount of work that goes into developing and manufacturing that phone; the research, the development, the man-hours... It would take hundreds of pages of explanation for most people to begin to understand the inner-workings of an iPhone. Then think about a dam, which is incredibly simple and can be understood with a single diagram. It seems really lazy to me that we’re willing to accept a solution like that, which contains minimal technology and has a hugely damaging impact on the environment. We could develop more technologically advanced alternatives, in fact we’ve already got more technologically advanced alternatives like solar power, wind generators and geothermal energy, which are far less invasive. So not using them is a sign that we’re not giving our best as human beings.
It requires more work to develop new solutions. It means making the effort to bring new technologies to Chile and to send Chilean engineers abroad to train. It’s more complex and it requires greater resources but it’s something we have to do.
Have you personally experienced the negative impact of any mega dam projects that have already been built?
Yes, the building of the Pangue and Ralco Hydroelectric Plants and dams on the Bío Bío River between 2004 and 2006. It affected the region in a variety of different ways.
biobio riverFirstly, there was the obvious damage to the landscape. The area around the river used to be densely forested and was an icon of Chile’s pristine wilderness. It was also home to a community of indigenous Pehuenche people and it was the only place in Chile where an indigenous people lived in such close symbiosis with a river. So it wasn’t just a natural ecosystem, it was a human, cultural ecosystem; it represented the sustainable union of humans and nature. My children will never get to know that.
Secondly, when the Bío Bío River was dammed we lost a world-class rafting and kayaking river. To put it in context, it’s as if you were living in the United States and you lost Yosemite National Park. Here’s this river that belongs to everyone, it’s part of the world’s heritage. No single person can claim to have the right to do what they want with it. I’ve run rivers in other places in the world and I can tell you that it was truly an exceptional river with a great deal of soul. It makes me genuinely very sad that I can’t share that with my children. So you begin to see that the value of a river, including its economic value, is actually far higher than the dam projects that replace it.
The damming of the Bío Bío River had a devastating economic impact on all those of us who had businesses based around the river and in that area. These days there’s very little left of the tourism industry on the Bío Bío River, just the odd cabin for rent here and there. It’s finished, and the huge corporations behind the dam have never paid the opportunity cost; that bill was picked up by the Chilean people. The social cost of this project was huge and they never factored that into their calculations. I picture the Bío Bío without the dams as a world class river resort, with many lodges for fishing, rafting, kayaking, hiking, biking and outdoor living, with visitors coming from all over the world to enjoy its white water, immaculate landscape and ancestral Pehuenche culture. I see hundreds of employees being employed by lodges and adventure outfitters, hundreds of small local business providing the lodges, camp grounds, outfitters and tourists with vegetables, homemade bread, marmalade, cheese, transport, groceries, handicrafts, community lodging, etc. This tremendous potential for a strong, healthy economy and labour was lost, together with one of the most powerful tourist brands (BíoBío) that Chile could ever have. None of this loss was paid for by Endesa nor will it ever be; we the people paid for that.
Why do you think it’s so important to protect the environment in Patagonia specifically?
In Torres del Paine National Park, for example, we have the incredible gift of the Torres del Paine peaks. We didn’t have to build them, we didn’t have to invest thousands of man-hours in research, development and construction, they were already there. Chile is an incredibly rich country in terms of its natural beauty. We should be profoundly grateful for that and strive to be deserving of this wild gift.
baker river deltaAside from the environmental impact, mega dam projects also have huge a economic impact, as in the case in the proposed HidroAysén mega dam project in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia. In the past, it used to be a farming region with most people raising livestock. More recently its main economic activity was salmon farming, but after an outbreak of the ISA virus that devastated Chile’s salmon industry in 2007, tourism is the only viable option for many people in the region now. There’s a great deal of potential for the development of tourism in the Aysén area, for fishing lodges and as the gateway to the North Patagonian Ice Field, etc.
Tourism is an enormous asset for the region, yet the HidroAysén project would do huge damage to the Patagonia brand. Selling out our natural assets like that gives a very negative impression of Chile as a country. If Chile destroys its tourism icons, like Patagonia, it will have a huge impact on public opinion outside of Chile. You only have to think of a country like Malaysia, which two decades ago was the tiger economy of Southeast Asia, but which sold out its natural assets and has lost out as a tourist destination as a result.
Tourism has only very recently come to be appreciated as an important industry in Chile even though it’s the second largest employer in the country after agriculture. It’s not just about how much profit an industry makes, it’s about how that profit is redistributed. There’s a massive problem in Chile with the distribution of wealth but tourism is an industry that inherently redistributes wealth, because it’s very fragmented. If redistribution is a national concern then it’s very important to protect tourism and if we want to protect tourism, we have to protect the environment.
If we don’t build mega-dams, how can we respond to the rising energy demands in a growing country such as Chile?
For me, the solution is to look to alternative energies. If we’re talking about hydro energy specifically, the solution is found in small run-of-the-river projects. At our hotel, EcoCamp Patagonia, we use a micro-hydro turbine which delivers a steady 1K Watt of power without any negative environmental impact. We live in a mountainous country with lots of small streams so it’s entirely possible to use many small run-of-the-river projects to collectively provide a large amount of power with a minimal impact on the environment. Of course, that’s not in the interests of the big energy generation companies, which in Chile is a oligopoly of three, because they would have to allow many smaller companies into the supply chain.
pascua riverThere’s also solar, geothermal and wind power, not to mention reducing energy consumption in the first place. Residential demand only accounts for about 17% of energy consumption in Chile, with the rest coming from heavy industry, so that isn’t the problem. For anyone who’s interested in learning more about the very real alternatives we have, I’d recommend they read the book ‘Se Necesitan Represas en la Patagonia?’ [Are Dams in Patagonia Really Necessary?]  by Stephen Hall, Roberto Roman and others, Ocho Libros, 2009, which addresses this in detail.
Given that you’re a businessman working in ecotourism, a cynic might argue that you’re more motivated by economic concerns that environmental issues. How would you respond?
I used to work as the manager of a telecommunications company. I was fortunate enough to benefit from a very good education and at 28 years old I was a top executive. I walked away from that job to fund a kayaking school and organise rafting trips on the Bío Bío River, which meant reducing my wages ten times over and sometimes not having any income at all. So I think that speaks for itself and demonstrates that the money was never what was truly important. If profit was what my business partner Yerko and I were looking for, we’d never have left the corporate world, but we’ve committed ourselves to this philosophy. Every one of us has a responsibility to protect the environment, especially those of us who’ve been lucky enough to enjoy more opportunities in life than most. The executives at the top of those huge hydroelectric corporations have also enjoyed a privileged life, but they’re not shouldering their part of the responsibility.
Yerko and I see things this way because we created EcoCamp Patagonia and Cascada Expediciones not as businessmen, but because we wanted to live and work in close proximity to nature. It’s a love story. We should all go the extra mile to protect it. 
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, there is. I’d like to make a direct appeal to other business people working in tourism in Chile and in Patagonia. Our hotel, EcoCamp Patagonia, is the only hotel in Chile with ISO 14001 environmental certification, which we’ve held since 1996. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. We’re a small, self-starter company so if we can do it why can’t other larger corporations in the lodging industry do it too? I think there are only two or three hotels in Chile that have committed themselves to running entirely on renewable energy. We’re doing the best that we can do, we’re giving everything we have and others should do so too.