Demonstrating by the Baker to Keep Patagonia’s Rivers Wild

Yesterday morning, we loaded up the big white dump truck with six lambs prepared for roasting, firewood, an axe, big picnic tables, and sacks of bread and potatoes—standard supplies for anti-dam demonstrators around here.   Conservacion Patagonica had taken charge of the afternoon’s asado on the banks of the Baker River.  The meat and other sundries would reinvigorate the 150+ protesters to continue the fight against HydroAysen’s proposal to construct five mega-dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers.  All of us would rally along and across the Baker to show support for this river-in-peril and to take a group photo in a spectacular spot for the campaign to use.

We set off to Pasarela El Manzano, a suspension foot & horse bridge near the confluence of the Baker and Neff Rivers, about half an hour north on the Carretera Austral from the future park.  An old 70-seater bus had brought protesters from Coyhaique down the night before. The maté circles around the breakfast campfire began to mobilize as numerous minivans from Cochrane and pick-up trucks from around the region arrived with more demonstrators.

Marcos Oliviera from the Neff River area rides to the demonstration

A group of men on horseback, with sheepskin chaps and wool ponchos, made a grand entrance riding across the bridge towards the group.  They had left their farms in the Neff River drainage six hours before to make the ride to the protest. Meanwhile, some hung banners across the bridge while others got to know new like-minded friends and took photos of the spectacularly beautiful (doomed?) river.

The crowd included numerous journalists, taking note of the proceedings.

Soon the speeches began, with various representatives from grassroots Sin Represas groups from Cochrane, Chile Chico, Coyhaique, and other towns in the Aysen region calling on demonstrators to continue the fights.  This campaign, now over five years old, has reached a critical point.  In a month, the government will issue a decision on the next phase of the environmental impact assessment.   The fate of the campaign largely hinges on mobilizing Chileans to pressure their government to oppose this project, which would inflict an enormous impact through a large area of the country’s most wild region.

One of the first speeches of the day

Conservacion Patagonica’s own Daniela Castro spoke to this point, declaring that only large numbers of people taking a stand and protesting would force the government to take a stand against the project.  Public pressure, she noted, has a strong history of shaping public policy here in Chile.  A local priest led a reading of a prayer written for the fate of the Baker and the Aysen region, marveling on its natural beauty and wild character and calling on its defenders to continue the struggle to protect it.

Intermingled with the speeches came numerous rounds of call-and-response chants:

“¡Patagonia—”

“—Sin Represas!”

“¡El Baker vive, vive—”

“—La lucha sigue, sigue!”

“¡Rios libres para ahora—“

“—Y para siempre!”

Finally came the moment to organize the assembled crowd for the annual photo in front of the river.  Some stood on the bridge behind the banners while others gathered on the bank, all holding hands and cheering.  The photo marked a high point for the group, as everyone saw the size and spirit of the local crowd who had turned out on a chilly autumn Sunday to support the campaign.

CP's Francisco Panichini, Fernando Muñoz, and Elbio Cumian prepare lamb for the crowd

Meanwhile, our lambs roasted away by the bonfire—ready just in time to feed the hungry crowd.  The food fest, music hour, and chat session lasted long into the afternoon, with activists from different communities in Aysen getting a chance to meet and catch up with each other.  At last, the big bus had to begin the long drive back to Coyhaique.  We put out the fire, cleaned up, and piled back into the dump truck to return to the park.

Some of the CP staff and volunteers in attendence. Daniela Castro, technical coordinator for the campaign, and her son Gabriel on right.

We at Conservacion Patagonica get asked sometimes: why do you park-builders take a stand as activists against the proposed megadams in Aysen?  Wouldn’t it be easier to not express an opinion, and steer clear of the controversy?

It’s true: none of HydroAysen’s five hydroelectric dams would directly impact the future park.   The reservoirs will not flood any of our land.  You won’t see the massive transmission towers or lines from the park headquarters.  We will keep doing exactly what we’ve planned to do whether or not the dams get built.  So why do we leave the safety zone of neutrality to join the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign?

At the heart of our work lies more than creating new national parks.  We seek to inspire a more sustainable mode of development and pattern of engagement with nature throughout the Patagonia region.  We believe that initiatives such as the future Patagonia National Park work most effectively towards achieving our larger mission: protecting and restoring wildlands, biodiversity, and healthy communities.  However, when far-way industrialists such as HydroAysen threaten to “mine” this region’s resources, we believe we must join the campaign as we continue our park-building work.

We offer what support we can to our neighbors and friends fighting this shortsighted project, be it bringing lamb or educating park visitors about the impacts of this project.  Doing so generates some controversy: this campaign has become the largest environmental battle in Chile’s history, and HydroAysen has spent millions on PR campaigns to convince Chileans that Aysen can be sacrificed to provide a solution to Chile’s energy shortage.  But as studies have proved, Chile has ample renewable energy resources, which when coupled with stronger energy efficiency efforts, could contribute to a more dynamic and sustainable energy plan.

The fate of the Baker and Pascua Rivers still hang in the balance.  You can send a message to three of the key politicians involved in this process here, and can learn more about the campaign here.  Meanwhile, we’ll press on as conservationist-activists, advocating for Patagonia’s wild future.

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