Who Rules Santiago’s Rivers?

Investigative Report

The Maipo river is the primary source of water for millions of residents in the Santiago metropolitan and the Valparaiso region of Chile.

Jake Leffew & Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

The controversial multi-billion Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project has access to Santiago’s most important rivers, and its construction has thrust one of the nation’s toughest female journalists from retirement back into investigation-mode. But as Gemma Contreras works relentlessly to expose the pitfalls of the U.S. government financed mega-project, Alto Maipo appears to be sowing its own demise.

SANTIAGO — On a warm morning in January 2016, Gemma Contreras crossed the battle line high-up in the Chilean Andes armed with a thermos full of hot tea and a pack of cigarettes. As the 60-year-old former journalist scaled down a rocky embankment toward the Yeso River, her damaged knees forced her to move more slowly than she wanted.

“We were in enemy territory,” she recalled, a sardonic grin cutting across her face.

Gemma and two of her friends, Carla and Felipe, were responding to a tip from a local fly fisherman that claimed a blue pipe was spewing sewage a few hundred meters downstream from Embalse el Yeso, Santiago’s primary drinking and irrigation water reservoir. The pipe led to a nearby workers camp for the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, a two billion dollar development under construction a few hours south of Santiago in the Maipo Canyon.

Activists Rally to Save Santiago’s Most Important River

Sitting by the river and smoking to pass the time, the trio hoped that their water supply was not being contaminated with sewage. But if it was, they wanted to have proof, so they prayed to the Virgen del Carmen, “queen of the mountains and water” that the pipe would conceive (perhaps even immaculately) agua con caca — water with feces.

The blue pipe. (courtesy of Gemma Contreras)

Then, a woman in an orange jacket and white hardhat affiliated with the Project descended from the mountain road to warn them to be wary of the river. In a video taken by Felipe and seen by The Santiago Times, the woman confirms the presence of caca and attributes it to the nearby workers camp.

Still, Gemma and her friends wanted more hard evidence. Sitting beside the pipe, they waited for five hours for liquid to flow in order to try and collect a sample. But nothing happened.
Finally, as they were preparing to leave empty handed, the liquid began to spew from the pipe. Rushing into action, Carla began to film, while Gemma shook the pipe to extract every last drop and Felipe filled up a plastic container of exactly one liter. From above, Alto Maipo workers observed them.

Later, due to other concerns that the water flowing from the work sites contained heavy metals, they sent the sample to the DICTUC lab at Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica to be tested. The results showed levels of arsenic from the pipe water nearly nine times higher than permitted under Chile’s drinking water standards. They then forwarded their findings on to Chile’s environmental police agency, the Investigative Brigade of Crimes Against the Environment, which opened a formal investigation.

For more than two years, Gemma Contreras and her friends have been part of a grassroots movement to investigate the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project, compensating for what they consider to be the Chilean government’s inability to effectively regulate development projects and protect the environment. The report compiled for the Investigative Brigade is one of many inquiries they have made into the Project.

“Here, it’s the community that oversees things,” says Maite Birke, a local councilwoman who frequently uses evidence gathered by Gemma in reports for the municipality.

The liter of dirty water, Gemma and other de-facto watchdogs believe, is just another example of Alto Maipo’s decade of disregard for environmental standards and Chile’s willingness to prioritize economic development without considering the social and environmental costs.

Chile is a country with vast natural resources and its economy relies heavily on the extraction of those resources. Environmental tradeoffs are often made in order to maintain and expand key industries like copper mining. Indeed, as the nation struggles to strike a balance between conservation and economic development, water management — who gets to use water and where it goes — has become one of the nation’s most pressing issues.

In the case of Alto Maipo, the stakes are high. Some of Chile’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens, as well as multiple international development banks, have gambled hundreds of millions of dollars on the Project. The United States government’s development finance institution, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), closed a $245 million USD loan to Alto Maipo in 2013. Still, the Project continues despite concerns about its impact on the water supply of roughly six million people.

Although community activists like Gemma protest the project on environmental terms, Alto Maipo appears to be sinking under immense financial and legal strains. Alto Maipo stated on July 31, 2017 that the hydroelectric project, which is only half-complete, is in technical default following a major legal feud with a contracted construction company.

As Alto Maipo scrambles to pay more than $600 million USD in debt and finance its increasing costs, one woman is smoking a pack of Pall Malls and enjoying the spectacle with unabashed pleasure.

Gozando la agonía del monstruo,” Gemma says. (I’m enjoying the agony of the monster).

One of Gemma Contreras’ biggest concerns is that the company plans to cut roughly 70 kilometers of tunnels through the Andes mountains in the Maipo Canyon, making it one of the largest hydro-tunnel complexes in the world.

A WOMAN ON A MISSION

Though only a one-hour car ride away from Santiago, the Maipo Canyon seems to exist in another atmosphere. As opposed to the commotion and suffocating smog of the capital city, the air in the Canyon is fresh and still. On weekends, Santiago residents come for the views: slanted mountains, daunting glaciers, and the deep, green gorge that frames the Maipo River. The beauty of the region is the foundation for the local economy, and many of the Canyon’s residents rely on tourism for their livelihood.

In a gated community up a dirt street, Gemma Contreras lives on a spacious property that contains a well-tended garden full of cats, chickens, and yapping, vest-clad dogs. She always seems preoccupied with something: heating up tea, preparing dinner for her two adult sons and husband (the well-known Chilean actor Fernando Alarcón), or worrying about how her guests’ feet might be getting cold on the hard tile floor.

When Gemma finally takes a seat at the table, she jabs at her computer screen with a cigarette dangling out of two fingers. Ever skeptical of authority, Gemma begins to meticulously pick through one of Alto Maipo’s internal auditing reports.

She channels her visceral dislike of the Project by dissecting the most minute of details. And while she occasionally takes on the air of a conspiracy theorist, her claims are always well-researched.

“They were supposed to apply measures to mitigate the harm, but they haven’t done that,” Gemma says in a kitchen monologue. “To the area, the environment, the community — everyone.”

One of Gemma’s biggest concerns is that the company plans to cut roughly 70 kilometers of tunnels through the Andes mountains in the Maipo Canyon, making it one of the largest hydro-tunnel complexes in the world. The run-of-the-river hydroelectric project requires a vast system of underground tunnels that will divert a large percentage of the water from three tributaries to energy stations constructed along the main river. In lieu of a Hoover Dam-style reservoir, the hydroelectric stations will harvest energy from the flow of the water, hence the name run-of-the-river.

A photo of the inside of one of Alto Maipo’s tunnels, near the Embalse el Yeso construction site. During a strike, Alto Maipo construction workers allowed Gemma’s friend Carla Ortúzar to enter the tunnel, where she noted signs of flooding.—Photo Courtesy/Gemma Contreras

Gemma scribbles a diagram on a napkin to show how the tunneling would slice the subsurface aquifers — porous rock layers that provide natural filtration systems for water — and potentially disturb this process. She worries that the tunneling poses a danger to construction workers and will be a source of contamination. She says the leaking, unfiltered water could contain higher levels of arsenic and other heavy metals than would normally exist, while waste from the construction could wash into the nearby streams.

Alto Maipo, in its environmental impact assessment, said that there would be no significant effect on the aquifers, and that it planned to reinforce the interior of the tunnel to prevent flooding and contamination.

“Look here,” Gemma exclaims, motioning to a corporate spreadsheet from an internal audit on air pollution. The company, she says, had insisted it would only remove a minimal amount of water from inside the mountain — just enough to wet the roads as a way to limit pollution from the dust that churns up when large trucks drive through.

Gemma pulls out her calculator, multiplying the daily volume of water extracted from the tunnels by five — operating days Monday through Friday — to see the volume of water extracted from that week. According to her, the tabulation of the water volumes in the truck receipts shows that the company is having flooding problems that they are fully not reporting.

“See! They’re pulling out way more water than they said they would,” she says, flashing the screen of her calculator.

Hijos de puta,” she mutters under her breath. (Sons of bitches)

Gemma has been obsessive about reviewing the information in the company’s auditing reports — especially after she realized that the Chilean environmental department tasked with reviewing the company’s self-audits does not read the reports in a timely manner, if at all.

In January 2016, through Chile’s version of the Freedom of Information Act, Gemma requested a copy of a self-auditing report that Alto Maipo submitted to Chilean environmental agencies. When she received the report at the end of March, it came attached with a note from the department explaining that “the information provided … has not yet been reviewed or analyzed by the Superintendencia.”

A photo of tunnel flooding in an Alto Maipo’s construction site near the Embalse el Yeso reservoir, taken by Carla in November 2016 during worker strikes.—Photo Courtesy/Gemma Contreras

For the average person, the volume of information related to Alto Maipo can seem like an impenetrable abyss of confusion. While NGOs and activists battle multinational corporations, bloodying the Canyon in chaotic environmental warfare, Gemma has cast herself apart as a lone sniper. She picks off her targets — government reports, corporate audits, and scientific studies — with devastating precision, but remains unaffiliated with any official activist group.

“I like to work behind the scenes and actually get things done,” Gemma says.

While Gemma has preferred to keep a low profile, Marcela Mella serves as the well-known face of the resistance as the spokeswoman for Coordinadora Ciudadana Ríos del Maipo, the largest activist group working against Alto Maipo. A tough, articulate woman with a flair for organizing protests, Mella frequently appears on television and in newspapers.

Along with Juan Pablo Orrego, one of Chile’s most well-known environmental activists, Mella has made trips to Washington, D.C. to talk with U.S. senators and to file formal complaints against the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Both banks have launched formal reviews into their combined $350 million USD in financing to Alto Maipo.

As the vice-president of Chile’s Juventud Socialista during the Pinochet regime, Mella knows what it means to organize resistance and has garnered a loyal following.
“There is no other leader of this movement,” one member of the Coordinadora says. “Marcela Mella is the only one.”

While Gemma is deeply concerned about the environmental impact of the project, she doesn’t think of herself as an environmentalist in the way that the other activists might. (“We use plastic bags!” her son Tomás, a corporate lawyer, jokes).

Gemma is one of the most informed citizens in the Maipo Canyon about Alto Maipo, but she does not go to protests or make television appearances. She believes the approach taken by public activists has been ineffective — “Alto Maipo is still going forward, isn’t it?” — and says that diligent fact-gathering can be used to raise awareness and hold the company accountable through the available legal means.

“In the end, information is power,” Gemma says. “The other way is to protest, but protest for what? When you teach people to use their power, they use it well.”

Gemma Contreras in Carla’s backyard in the Maipo Canyon, during one of their frequent meetings to discuss the Alto Maipo Project.— Photo by Jake Leffew/The Santiago Times Staff

BENDING THE RULES

Santiago’s primary supplier of potable water, Aguas Andinas, had been among the most vocal opponents of Alto Maipo before the Project’s approval in 2009.

“The project does not prove that it will not affect the system of potable water that supplies a significant part of the city of Santiago,” wrote Felipe Larraín Aspillaga, general manager of Aguas Andinas, in a formal complaint.

The complaint also stated that any removal of rocks, “large or small” would affect the company’s ability to provide clean water. The company would need to remove 2.7 million cubic meters of material to complete the project — the majority dirt and rock from the Andes to construct the tunnels — “without indicating with precision [the extracted rock’s] destination.”

After the Chilean government began privatizing its public water utilities in the late 1990s, Aguas Andinas acquired a near-monopoly on the capital city’s drinking water. Since then, the company has been upheld by its supporters as a model of neoliberal water management — an example that a private corporation could successfully expand access to clean water in a major city. Yet while Santiago residents are said to receive some of the best drinking water in Latin America, they also pay some of the highest rates.

According to Zafar Adeel, an expert on global water policy and the former chair of UN-Water, drilling through large amounts of subsurface rock can be risky. As Adeel explains, arsenic is an element that occurs naturally in rocks that have been stored for long periods of time, as in the Andes. However, following natural or human disturbances, arsenic and heavy metals found in the rocks can be exposed and then washed into the water supply by melting snow or rain.

“When you tap into aquifers that haven’t been used… mobilizing arsenic is a real likelihood,” says Adeel. “You undertake significant analysis of the subsurface before doing this.”

However, activists charge that Alto Maipo never did thorough hydrogeological studies to understand the durability of the rocks it would drill into, and whether underground water systems would be affected in the process. (In 2016, their claims were bolstered when Alto Maipo first admitted problems related to the construction of tunnels and predicted a ten to twenty percent increase in the cost of the project).

“When you see that this powerful company is not able to assess the quality of the rock that they are going to have to bore through, how can we trust that they understand anything about the hydrogeology?” says activist Juan Pablo Orrego, a long-time resident of the Maipo Canyon. “They don’t.”

The Embalse el Yeso reservoir, controlled by Aguas Andinas, is the primary water supply for Santiago, serving over six million residents. It is also a major weekend destination for people all across Chile.—Photo by Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

How, then, did Alto Maipo get the green light?

“We are able to confirm that numerous public agencies looked the other way in order to let the titled company simply do what it pleased,” stated Roberto Sepúlveda, the head of the Natural Resources Commission in the House of Representatives during an 11-month investigation into Alto Maipo. “[T]he project…does not comply with the Base Environmental Law,” he wrote.

The approval, Sepulveda lamented, “truly make[s] one ashamed of the country’s environmental regulations.”

At the time of Alto Maipo’s approval, Chile was desperate for renewable energy projects, says Ronald Fischer, who teaches economics at the University of Chile. The project was promoted as an opportunity to pump large amounts of energy into Chile’s central grid when energy demands were high and the economy was growing rapidly.

AES Gener, the company behind Alto Maipo and a subsidiary of the American-based energy company AES, presented the project as a way to diversify and bolster Chile’s energy supply. A trusted name in the area, AES Gener already operated four smaller run-of-the-river projects in the Maipo Canyon.

Aguas Andinas’ resistance to the Project was one of the greatest obstacles for Alto Maipo, which needed to purchase the rights to use a percentage of the water that Aguas Andinas was tasked with purifying for Santiago. Based on Aguas Andinas’ letter of opposition, it appears the corporation was stiffly opposed to the Project as it was initially presented.

But in an about-face in mid-2011, Aguas Andinas signed a secret contract with Alto Maipo. The corporations refused to release the agreement until forced by court order in 2013. According to the document, Aguas Andinas would provide Alto Maipo with 2.5 cubic meters of water per second from two large reservoirs in exchange for monthly payments over a 40-year span.

In the midst of a record drought, Alto Maipo would now have the ability to draw from Santiago’s drinking supply reserves.

It was a moment that made many residents of the Maipo Canyon scratch their heads in confusion.
“What we should do with the watershed that provides drinking and irrigation water to the whole metropolitan region is protect, conserve, and restore,” says Juan Pablo Orrego. “Alto Maipo is the worst thing you can do here.”

An aerial view of an Alto Maipo tunnel exit point, part of the 67 kilometers of underground tunnels required for the run of the river project.—Photo courtesy of Nomad Productions

THE DICTATOR AND THE JOURNALIST

In 1980, after the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet had already killed and tortured thousands of Chileans and implemented harsh press censorship, 24-year-old Gemma Contreras became a correspondent at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

She worked for Radio Cooperativa, one of Chile’s largest news outlets.

“I used to talk with Pinochet twice a week,” she says. “He didn’t like criticism.”

As a news outlet that Pinochet perceived as part of the opposition, the radio station had to walk a tight line between presenting the facts and not editorializing to protect itself.

“The goal was to recover the democracy,” Gemma says. “We all worked together to change the system with this idea in mind.”

In the same year that Gemma began her work, Pinochet and his advisors re-wrote the country’s constitution to prolong the dictator’s rule and ensure that socialist policies could never again be put in place. Urged by his economic advisors — disciples of conservative economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago — Pinochet instituted a series of sweeping neoliberal reforms that strengthened the property rights of businesses and deconstructed the government’s ability to regulate them.

“Not everything bad that we have in Chile today happened during the dictatorship,” Juan Pablo Orrego says. “What the dictatorship did was to open the space totally for these reforms that empowered corporations to be refined, distilled and then entrenched in our constitution and laws.”

Pinochet created a unique system of water rights that separated water property from land property. Under the 1981 water code reforms, water became a property that could be bought and sold like real estate, and the government had little ability to oversee it. The theory was that the private market would allocate water resources in the most efficient way.

“Pinochet’s transformation created the system that has allowed projects like Alto Maipo to exist,” says Carl Bauer, a professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in Chilean water policy.

“The government has to stand back and let private users do whatever they want,” Bauer adds. “That’s what makes the case of Chile so unique.”

On October 5, 1988, the regime held a plebiscite to determine if Gen. Pinochet would maintain his grip on power. At one of the most crucial moments in Chile’s contemporary history, Gemma was the woman-on-the-ground for Radio Cooperative at the presidential palace.

As the radio kept tab on the results by exit polling, it became clear that the majority of Chileans had voted against Pinochet.

“At 7pm we knew [the results of the plebiscite],” Gemma recalls. “But the government didn’t say anything for hours. We were worried because we thought people would go out into the street and there’d be a massacre.

Just after midnight, three members of the military junta arrived at the presidential palace. Gemma spotted Gen. Fernando Matthei, commander of the air force, as he walked into the palace to meet with the dictator.

Tape recorder in hand, Gemma hustled up to Gen. Matthei and asked his opinion on the plebiscite. ”It seems to me, really, that the ‘No’ won,” he admitted in a now famous statement that marked the beginning of the end of the Pinochet regime. “At least to me, it’s very clear. The victory of the ‘No’ has to be recognized.”

In less than a minute, Radio Cooperativa had broadcast the answer and Gemma became the first reporter to break the news that the regime would soon be over, ushering in a new generation of Chilean democracy.

Nearly 30 years later, Gemma now finds the nature of her investigation into Alto Maipo — attempting to provide the public with accurate information and prevent the company from cutting environmental corners — similar to her reporting in the Pinochet era. For her, working to document the impact of Alto Maipo is merely the continuation of a lifelong pursuit to distill truth from a system that can seem intent on obscuring it.

“It’s an intellectual challenge,” says Gemma of her work. “How do you get the information when all the doors are closed? How do you beat them?”

An Alto Maipo construction site near the Embalse el Yeso reservoir.—Photo by Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

THE INVISIBLE HAND

Alto Maipo’s approval by Chile’s environmental authorities did not guarantee the Project’s ultimate construction. While AES Gener took a crucial step forward by signing the contract with water supplier Aguas Andinas, the corporation still had to secure the loans to get the Project moving.

In late 2013, Alto Maipo got what it had been waiting for — a windfall of loans totaling $1.2 billion USD from nine Chilean and international development banks, including the United States government.

The support that Alto Maipo got from lenders was generous as far as average international development projects go. But the sudden outpouring came only after Chile’s wealthiest and most powerful family, the Luksic’s, joined in.

Andrónico Luksic Abaroa, the self-made son of Croatian immigrant, began his career with a Ford dealership and went on to found the Luksic Group, a massive conglomerate of business interests that is involved in many facets of Chilean society: banking, mining, soft drinks, and television news. In the early 2000s, the Luksic family became the wealthiest in Latin America, acquiring outsized political influence along the way.

It’s an open secret in Chilean society that the Luksic family has serious power over the “traffic of influence” in the government. Politicians from both the Left and Right, including Chile’s current president from the Socialist Party, Michelle Bachelet, have been linked to corruption scandals involving the Luksic family.

In 2013, Antofagasta Minerals, owned by the Luksic Group, signed a contract with Alto Maipo to acquire a 40 percent stake in the company and a guarantee that one of its mining complexes, Los Pelambres, would receive a substantial chunk of the energy from the project.

“…[A]t the time, energy prices were higher in Chile than they are now and there weren’t than many new energy projects being built,” a spokesperson for Antofagasta Minerals told The Santiago Times.

Then, OPIC agreed to loan $245 million USD; the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation would fund a combined $350 million USD.

But investments in Chilean renewable projects turned out to be poorly timed.

A flood of loans, including more than $600 million USD from OPIC for five solar projects in the north of Chile, helped drive down the price of energy at a time when the economy had been sluggish, considerably lessening the value of projects like Alto Maipo. In May, Reuters reported that the United States government was auditing OPIC’s nearly one-billion dollar Chilean energy portfolio to assess the bank’s loan approval process.

“If we knew what was going to happen,” Professor Ronald Fischer explains, referring to the drop in energy prices, “Alto Maipo may have never been made.”

Indeed, even Chile’s most powerful family was not insulated from the trouble wrought by the change in circumstances.

In a video posted on YouTube in April 2016, billionaire Andrónico Luksic Craig — the son of magnate Andrónico Luksic Abaroa and the current chairman of the Luksic Group — lamented the insults that he had faced in light of the difficulties that his massive investment in Alto Maipo has caused him and his family.

He begins the video with a strong emotional appeal, saying that when he is called un hijo de puta (a son of a bitch), referring to an insult from a Chilean Congressman, he feels doubly insulted, since he has both a biological mother and a stepmother.

“Without a doubt,” he says, “Alto Maipo has had a tremendous cost to the Luksic family and to me in particular … If we have made mistakes I apologize for that. I am sorry, but they have not been on purpose, they were not to harm.”

Months later, Antofagasta Minerals divested from the project at a loss of $350 million USD.

Andrónico Luksic Craig.—YouTube

AN UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP

Gemma, while diligent, tends to tends to assert herself with an overpowering sense of bluster, often directed towards Alto Maipo’s community liaisons. They have the unenviable task of dealing with Gemma, whose friends liken her to a pitbull. (Dismissing one Alto Maipo representative, Gemma remarked: “He is a little thing, you make some noise and he shrinks away”).

Gemma’s closest ally, however, does not possess the same blunt and vocal personality. Carla Ortúzar, a 40-year-old psychologist and mother living in the Maipo Canyon, is less brazen though equally determined.

While most people did not care enough to show up to the company’s community meetings, Gemma and Carla were among the first to express concerns about the project.

While they met only two years ago, they are now close allies, whose strengths appear to complement each other.

“It has not been easy, but with encouragement, respect, affection and humor we have worked very well,” Carla says. “With clarity in the sense of contributing to our community and the environment.”

Gemma and Carla bonded over day-long stakeouts of Alto Maipo’s construction sites, where they once unrolled a blanket on the rocky dirt hill, drank tea, and picnicked while observing the company’s progress through binoculars.

Gemma and Carla explain the tunnels.—Photo by Jake Leffew/The Santiago Times

The pair soon developed a reputation around the Canyon.

When Alto Maipo workers went on a major strike in November 2016, citing unsafe working conditions, they called councilwoman Maite Birke. Maite, who often relied on evidence compiled by Gemma and Carla in her work on behalf of the municipality, invited the two to accompany her to the construction site.

Although Gemma couldn’t make it that day, Maite and Carla went to speak with workers and tour the inside of a construction site, where they found the camp in complete disarray. Maite recalled that they spoke with workers and many reported being frustrated with what they felt were poor and unsafe conditions, coupled with low pay and lack of proper gear.

The women also walked through the tunnels for the first time. Despite the cement and rock lining the inside of the tunnel, water dripped everywhere and pooled off on the sides. Some of the machines appeared to be flooded.

Gemma, Carla, and Maite compiled new photographs and videos, along with years-worth of additional research they had gathered, into a lengthy report indicting Alto Maipo. In September 2016, they sent the report to an official at USAID, whose inspector general office is charged with overseeing OPIC.

They never got a reply.

A few months later in June 2017, Maite called Gemma to tell her that there would be a meeting at with representatives from the international development banks including the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

“I yelled, ‘Bring me!,” Gemma says.

This was the moment she had been waiting for — the chance to confront the banks and unleash years of pent-up frustration and meticulous research.

Yet, according to Maite and Gemma, an official told Gemma she was not authorized to speak at the request of the CEO of Alto Maipo. Then, the bank representatives asked Maite about the report she had sent to USAID. Maite responded that if they wanted to know about the report, they should direct their questions directly to Gemma, who had been instrumental in compiling the information. Insulted, Gemma and Maite stood up to leave. One of the bank representatives insisted the women forget about the scuffle, stay at the meeting, and explain their findings.

Gemma then began an impromptu speech in which, like a seasoned trial lawyer, she walked the banks through the case against Alto Maipo, and why she believed their loans were a massive waste of capital. She spoke for over an hour.

Concluding, she finally got to ask the simple question that had kept her awake for many nights over the past few years:

“Why are you helping such a bad and expensive project?”

But the answer was not revelatory. The bank representatives merely offered the same rationale that Alto Maipo and its financiers had been using since the project’s inception, stating that the Project was necessary in the midst of Chile’s energy crisis.

Later, Gemma and Maite sent the representatives a lengthy essay on why no such energy crisis existed and the basis of the Project appeared to be an economic mirage. Even so, following the meeting, they realized with greater clarity the obstinacy and inertia of financial institutions once they have committed millions to a project.

THE MOSQUITOS

The fighting around the project has been exhausting and relentless: numerous lawsuits and workers strikes, damning reports and denouncements, and now a major financial fallout.

Perhaps the most perplexing feud has been a defamation suit led by Alto Maipo against one of Chile’s most respected toxicologists, Dr. Andrei Tchernitchin, the head of the Environmental Department at the Medical College of Chile.

In November 2015, Dr. Tchernitchin tested the water quality at multiple locations near the Alto Maipo project and downstream from the project. He says that he was concerned by the project’s plan to tunnel through the Andes because the extraction of rocks and their disposal near rivers could pose a threat to public health in the area and damage the drinking water supply.

“Its an enormous amount of cut-up rock and with new fractures that likely contains heavy metals,” he explains.

His report shows high levels of heavy metals — including arsenic, manganese, and iron — in the rivers and in the drinking water at a recreational center for Chile’s national police force.

AES Gener later published a counter-study from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Medical College of Chile. The company’s lengthy rebuttal concluded that Dr. Tchernitchin’s study was “skewed and incomplete.”

The corporation is now suing him for defamation, though Dr. Tchernitchin has continued to stand by his study.

Dr. Andrei Tchernitchin in his office at the Medical College of Chile. Tchernitchin conducted a widely-disputed study indicating contamination in the water of the Maipo Canyon from high levels of heavy metals.—Photo by Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

In the cascade of problems that the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project has run into over the last decade, it seems like very few people have benefitted from the Project. Some small shop owners have noted a bump in traffic to their businesses, and one family living in the small village of El Alfalfal made enough money from their new hotel, catered to Alto Maipo workers, that they took a trip to Paris.

Nevertheless, on the whole, the mega-project has been a headache for many residents, not to mention Alto Maipo’s lenders and the contractors. For reasons that are still unclear, Alto Maipo and its main construction company terminated their contract, which violated Alto Maipo’s financing agreements with its lenders. For now, the company is unable to receive new loan disbursements, must pay back $613 million USD in debt over the next year, and requires increased funding to prevent the Project from being shut down.

Alto Maipo’s current mess appears to affirm what Gemma and others opposed to the Project had been claiming for years.

“The Project is not going to be finished,” Gemma had said weeks before. “I think the environment is not going to allow it — it’s a superior energy.”

Maybe the Virgen del Carmen, Chile’s patron saint who delivered on prayers for agua con caca, has her own divine plan in store. But for now, like a bloodied elephant wounded by hunters, the project lethargically trudges forward, spurred by the momentum of its own massiveness.

Gemma has no illusions about her power to stop the Project; she knows her work will not be what brings the beast down. If it does collapse, it will be due to its own financial and legal troubles. Still, Gemma and her friends liken themselves to mosquitos — ultimately powerless, but a persistent annoyance nonetheless.

When an auditing report neglects to mention that there is a sewage pipe dumping waste into the river, Gemma highlights their mistakes. When Alto Maipo offers a public meeting, she sits in on it with a file full of facts to make sure the company is being honest. She wants the company to know someone is paying attention.

“At least by bothering Alto Maipo, we make it harder,” Gemma says.

Even if Gemma can’t stop Alto Maipo, she at least wants people to understand its impact. With the help of her son Tomás, she and her friends host regular meetings for community members where they talk about the rights of citizens in Chile. Gemma says it’s important that people learn about the law and how authorities can violate it. The most important thing is that residents of the Maipo Canyon come to her meetings, listen, and ask questions.

It’s Gemma’s quiet way of resisting— different from being on television or protesting. In her mind, it’s more powerful.

“When there is a change in the community, people have to know why,” she explains. “Development is inevitable, but it has to come with knowledge.”

Still, she can’t help but be sucked into the relentless, if futile, pursuit of the Project; a Captain Ahab who has discovered her own white whale.

Sitting at her computer on chilly July evening, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, she leans in close to the screen to watch drone footage of the construction sites she’d uploaded to her computer.

Gemma was sure that the image on her screen — a trickle of water leading away from a construction site — was another sign of water contamination.

She exhaled a cloud of smoke and shook her head, cursing the sons of bitches under her breath. Hijos de puta.

“We are trying to produce an impact. We have to do it. We have to continue with it,” she says.

“And if we don’t do it, who else will?”

(Editing by Dawood Rehman)

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