Longing for Land

The Promises of a Development Project Divide an Andean Village

Victoria Ortega waits for AES Gener workers to purchase bread from the makeshift store inside her family's home. –Photo by Jack Brook

Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

SANTIAGO – On a Monday morning before sunrise in early July, Victoria Ortega begins the arduous process of bread-making inside a blue house with the words “We Sell Bread” written on the door in Spanish.

Wrapped in her customary headscarf, Ortega works her knuckles into the dough. She has spent her entire 64 years in the village of El Alfalfal, a snakey two-hour drive from Santiago in Chile’s mountainous Maipo Canyon region.

The 200 person village lies desolate below an austere gorge on the edge of a glacial reach. The Maipo river tumbles over the rocks alongside Ortega’s home.

Sheep skins hang from strings in backyards, and chickens and children trot down the single dirt road. Most people still prefer horses to cars. In the afternoons, the men drive home their livestock.

Growing up, Ortega’s mother raised a goat to support their family. And until a few years ago, most people worked with cattle, in tourism, or up north in the mines. There was no bus stop, cellular signal, or internet, and some people had dirt floors and no bathrooms. Now, the infrastructure of the village has changed – but at a cost.

Outside Ortega’s kitchen, the cries of roosters and dog barks are drowned out by the sound of large trucks rumbling through the town.

The trucks are headed into an adjacent construction site for Chile’s Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project (PHAM), a multi-billion dollar development project intended to produce cheaper energy with minimal environmental impact.

The project requires 70 kilometers of tunneling through mountainous terrain to redirect water to generate electricity in a process known as run-of-the-river. PHAM plans to use the expanse of river beside El Alfalfal as a strategic reservoir site to channel water to a nearby hydroelectric plant.

PHAM has been subject to controversy for years – in 2009, the Chilean Congress condemned the project for skirting environmental regulations in its approval process. Since January of 2017, PHAM has faced fourteen unresolved sanctions from the Superintendencia del Medio Ambiente, the government agency tasked with ensuring that companies comply with environmental law. Other serious financial issues – such as a messy court battle with the PHAM’s lead construction company – have raised the possibility that AES Gener, the company behind PHAM, might not be able to complete the project.

The village of El Alfalfal has been surrounded by a wall, constructed by AES Gener to protect residents from noise, for several years.–Photo by Jack Brook

Residents of El Alfalfal, like Ortega, however, have their eye on the company for another reason. They want AES Gener to complete its obligations outlined in “El Convenio” – The Agreement, as it is reverently known in the village.

Every resident has an underlined, dog-eared, and marked up copy of El Convenio that is practically memorized. On August 5th, 2014, Ortega, as the head of the El Alfalfal Committee for Advancement, signed the contract on behalf of the other residents, while a man named Armando Lolas Caneo, signed for AES Gener.

In the agreement AES Gener effectively lays out a series of promises for improving life in the village: the preferential hiring of residents to work on construction; improved quality of the drinking water and sewage systems; additional recreational spaces; an overhaul of the electrical system; and assistance, through “free legal and technical advice”, in the development of a new plot of land for twelve families to live on in the hill above the village.

But of all the promises, there is one that Ortega and her fellow residents long for above all else: ownership of their land.

None of the residents of El Alfalfal own the land their homes are built on. In 1986, the Maipo river produced a flash flood that killed 29 people working near the village, causing the Chilean government to declare the area a “zone of risk” and assume indefinite ownership of the land.

“We have lived all life here and then for us to receive the land – that would be like saying we won the lottery,” says Ortega, whose family settled in El Alfalfal in the early 1900s. “Because who does not want to have the title of domain of your house?”

In the contract, Alto Maipo promised to provide free legal guidance and attempt to help change the zoning restrictions. It is one of many promises that residents say has been forgotten.

While the streets are now lit at night and the company installed a new sewage system, after three years the water still remains unsafe to drink, according to residents. They either have to buy bottled water or install a filtration system, which not everyone can afford. The expanded housing development has gone nowhere. And because of the “zone of risk” designation, there is very little that it appears AES Gener can do to influence the Chilean government to attain titles of domain for the residents.

“The promise to give us new housing and the titles of domain was a lie,” says one woman, whose family was one of the twelve that was supposed to receive new housing. “We had a dream for our land but years have passed. I don’t think AES Gener can do anything for us because we are in a zone of risk and they must have known that when they signed to help us. They gave us false dreams.”

AES Gener told residents of El Alfalfal that it planned to help them construct twelve additional housing (“Alfalfal Alto” units above the current village site (“Alfalfal Bajo”) where there is no longer enough space for all the residents. The promises have been forgotten. “They gave us false dreams,” says one anonymous woman, who depends on AES Gener for her employment.–Photo by Jack Brook

She insisted on remaining anonymous, since she says that AES Gener actively reviews negative press and those who speak out within the village are punished – losing their jobs or access to additional employment opportunities. Others refuse to speak even under the cover of anonymity, explaining that AES confronted a woman who gave an anonymous interview to the prominent Chilean publication The Clinic in 2016. Nearly everyone in the village relies on AES Gener, either directly or indirectly, for their employment.

The promises of the convenio and the arrival of development has bitterly divided the once tranquil village between those who believe PHAM will benefit them in the long run and those who believe the integrity of the village has been irreversibly corrupted. A large and imposing red wall, built under court-order by AES Gener to minimize noise and protect the residents from the construction, has come to symbolize for many residents the steep trade off of the project.

“The wall is like a sickness for us,” says 58-year-old Juacolda Artuolillo. “There is too much noise, there are no rules. We can’t see anything anymore, you used to be able to see the forest, the river, the road.”

Juacolda Artuolillo can see the wall constructed by AES Gener from her window. She and her husband, who does not work for AES Gener, are among the few in the village who have been speaking out against the development. “We can’t see anything anymore, you used to be able to see the forest, the river, the road,” Artuolillo says.–Photo by Jack Brook

Sitting at her table, drinking tea made from bottled water, Victoria Ortega shakes her head, dismissing concerns. From the kitchen window, the red wall blocks out her old view of the river.

“We have a paper signed by them, they [AES Gener] can’t violate it,” she says. “They will comply. The wall will come down.”

The history of the Alto Maipo project, however, is the history of a company that repeatedly violated its agreements, as evidenced by the sanctions it currently faces. No one, however, denies that AES Gener has provided transformative benefits to the people of El Alfalfal.

This is why Ortega does not mind the wall or the construction next door. Her kitchen – and the connected shop where workmen in orange vests arrive to buy her bread – come courtesy of the nearly 8,000,000 pesos (around $12,000) the company gave each of the families as part of a compensation package. (The compensation package came after a lawsuit filed by residents and over a year after the Convenio was signed).

Ortega’s son, Miguel, also works for the project, like many of the other residents of El Alfalfal. Instead of having to travel north for weeks to work, he can now work seven days on, seven days off in the construction and come home at night to his wife and baby boy.

On the side of the village’s single street, a sign promises scholarships for students in Alfalfal. Kids entertain themselves by ramming into each other with beaten-up strollers and kick a soccer ball back and forth on the edge of town in a small concrete field, while behind them a construction machine lifts dirt into the air. The official grass recreation field has now been moved to the town of Maintenes, a ten minute drive away, due to the construction.

Beside the soccer field, Paula Lobos, 36, sweeps her yard, one of the nicer ones in Alfalfal. She has a wrought iron metal gate out front, and cabañas for housing thirteen workers beside her family’s home.

“If you told me five years ago that I would have the opportunity to travel and maybe the opportunity to buy a nice house I would have told you I didn’t believe it,” Lobos says.

Her family has arguably benefited the most from the project, a fact she readily acknowledges. Only some people got the opportunity to house workers, based on whether or not their houses met health standards. These people then received additional funds to expand their homes to accommodate workers, Lobos explains.

She says that in almost every family, there are people working either directly or indirectly for Alto Maipo. Her husband previously worked for AES Gener for 15 years at the nearby Alfalfal I Hydroelectric project, though few others in the village are employed there. Her father-in-law was killed in the flood that swept through the area years earlier.

Her mother, Maria Flores, houses 18 people in her home and, a five minute drive away in the area behind the Alfalfal I generator, she has a slew of cabañas that at the height of the new project housed 180 workers. She feeds them breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and at night the dining hall converts into a makeshift casino. She started her business in the 80s with the first project, but after it ended the cabañas lay empty for decades.

“We waited twenty years for a new project,” Maria Flores says. “I’m investing everything into expanding this business. I’m going to keep adding to the casino and build more cabañas.”

Maria Flores, who now drives an SUV and owns the largest house in Alfalfal, doesn’t appear concerned that within a year or two there will likely be few workers, if any, to feed and house. Of the dozens of construction workers currently employed by AES to build the hydroelectric generator, only a handful will continue to work and live in the area after the construction finishes; there won’t be enough employment opportunities for everyone in the village.

Flores says she plans to open up her property to tourists and turn the real estate into a recreational complex, although due to the remote location of the village and the fact it will now be sandwiched next to a large hydroelectric generation plant, it’s hard to imagine tourists vacationing in the clear-cut valley.

“Many people used to come as tourists, but not anymore,” says Gladys Gonzalez, a middle-aged woman who, before AES Gener arrived, kept bees and sold honey to curious tourists and mountaineers passing through the village.

She, like most of the other residents, relied on tourism for her livelihood. Now, Gonzalez and her neighbors have switched over to servicing the construction project. For the past year, Gonzalez has housed seven workers at a rate of 9,000 pesos a day per person, or a little more than $14.

The village has a single street and a population of 200, most of whom now rely on AES Gener for their livelihood.–Photo by Jack Brook

Gonzalez foresees an economic crash for the village, which she says will lack both tourists and construction workers to service. “We have to hope that after the company leaves everything will be as it was, that the tourists will return,” she says. “But I don’t believe they will.”

Maria Flores, however, is focused on the positives – her granddaughter is going to university next year and her family has taken trips to Paris and Italy, with the photos on the wall beneath the Eiffel tower to prove it.

“The opportunities were there for everyone in the village,” she says. “We’re the ones who stepped up.”

Beneath the red wall, with a sign reading “Without love, there is no development”, Ruben Arenas San Martín, 57, chops kindling on one of his days off of work. Every two weeks, he goes away to work in the mines in the north of Chile, refusing to work in his backyard for Alto Maipo.

The president of the Neighborhood Committee (“Junta de Vecinos”), Arenas has long been the most vocal critic of the project, asserting that the company has failed to comply with the vast majority of its promises.

“I’ve been watching the destruction of the environment,” Arenas says. “But many people here don’t see that, they only see the money. I am fighting practically alone.”

Most of Arenas’ few allies harboring open resentment against the project were quieted by the monetary compensation. Arenas, too, has benefited.

He lives in a new, albeit sparse home made from clean wood and with a flat screen TV and large, expensive-looking loudspeaker, all bought with AES Gener money. He drinks his tea from a cup that reads “AES Gener” with a picture of smiling children on it. His son-in-law – the father of his ten-month-old grandson – works for the company.

Arenas shrugs off the seeming contradiction – he’s willing to take the company’s money but he believes no amount will ever be sufficient for the damage done to natural landscape surrounding the town. And he feels that what they have offered has been insufficient so far. Despite his seething discontent with the transformation of the town, Arenas, like most other residents, believes that leaving is out of the question.

“Why should I change? Why should I leave? I was born here and grew up here and I am going to die here,” he says. “They have to solve the problems – they interrupted my life, why should I have to leave because of that?”

From his living room, Arenas overlooks the town’s playground, where traditionally the village-wide Christmas gathering has taken place. Residents used to pool money to throw a party for the children. Arenas and other residents say the celebration has splintered off into different groups in recent years, as neighbors with different views about the project have taken to celebrating apart from each other.

The site of the village’s annual collective Christmas party, which residents say no longer occurs because of tensions brought on by nearby development.–Photo by Jack Brook

“The only thing they [Alto Maipo] did was to separate the people, divide families,” Arenas says. “We have already lost the unity that we had before. It’s going to take generations to get past this and return to what we had.”

Most people in the village, though, follow the attitude of Paula Lobos – acknowledging the problems but refusing to speak poorly of the project that is their only source of income in an area with a scarcity of employment opportunities.

Seated at her table, waiting for more workers to come by to buy bread, Kery Ortega, Victoria’s daughter, reflects on the soon-to-pass boom.

“When they go, the tranquility will return – no more trucks and noise but also less work,” she says. “But I don’t imagine it will ever be the same. They (AES Gener) broke things and it will be impossible to fully fix them.”

On the 28th of July – the 225th anniversary of San Jose del Maipo, the region’s capital – Victoria Ortega and her daughters, grandchildren, and husband loaded into their old truck and rattled down to the neighboring village of Maintenes, for a night of celebration.

Victoria Ortega takes a break from the festivities of the 225th anniversary of the San Jose del Maipo.–Photo by Jack Brook

They passed by a tunnel, part of the construction of another component of the hydroelectric project – the other day, a young worker had been killed in an accident, and the tunnel was temporarily shut down.

Once the Ortega family reached the basketball court of Maintenes they were in a festive mood. Friends and neighbors clustered together, sipping spiced hot wine (vino navegado) and swaying to the sound of the hired band for the night, Los Conkistadores del Sur. Otra! People shouted whenever the band stopped. Another one!

Victoria Ortega sat on the bleachers, her feet swinging. The future of the village and the convenio seemed far from her mind. She was ready to dance.

Multiple representatives from AES Gener did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this article.

(Additional Reporting by Jake Leffew)

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