Activists Rally to Save Santiago’s Most Important River

Over a thousand activists marched down La Avenida Concha y Toro in downtown Puente Alto. Photo by Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

The Santiago Times Staff

SANTIAGO – Many of Chile’s most recognizable environmental activists and more than a thousand demonstrators gathered in front of the municipal building of Puente Alto on Saturday morning.

Water activist groups led supporters in calling on local officials to halt the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project (PHAM), which protesters say will cause “irreversible” damage to Santiago’s water supply – besides destabilizing the natural beauty of Maipo canyon.

The Maipo river is the primary source of water for millions of residents in the Santiago metropolitan region. Yet activists fear the project violates environmental health and safety standards.

As Marcela Mella, the spokeswoman for Coordinadora Ciudadana Ríos del Maipo, said, “We suspect this water is being contaminated by the project and this is why we are all in the streets – to defend the water and recover it for our communities.”

A young girl waves the wenufoye, the flag of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche.Photo by Jake Leffew/The Santiago Times Staff

The PHAM plans to divert water for more than 100 kilometers from the Maipo river’s three main tributaries. The water will be diverted through nearly 70 kilometers of underground tunnels carved out of the Andes Mountains, according to the Center for International Environmental Law. As of January 2017, less than half of the project had been completed.

Financed by nine international and Chilean banks and led by AES Gener, a Chilean energy company, the project is expected to cost more than $2 billion. Two Washington D.C-based groups – the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) – have invested a combined $350 million into the project.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Chile privatized nearly all its public water utilities. These policies built on a 1981 neoliberal overhaul of the nation’s water laws by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the former military dictator. The reforms enabled mining, agriculture, and energy companies to acquire vast quantities of the nation’s water supply free of charge.

According to Rodrigo Mundaca, director of the prominent water activism organization Modatima, much of Chile’s large wealth disparity is rooted in the “massive appropriation of natural, communal resources – particularly water – into private, financial capital.”

“Water in Chile is a business,” Mundaca said.

An Andean folk band marches through Puente Alto. Photo by Jack Brook/The Santiago Times Staff

Starting at 10 a.m., the hollow notes of Andean siku pipes, the thump of bass drums, and the clamoring of trumpets and megaphones filled the plaza in front of the municipal building of Puente Alto. Indigenous dance groups adorned bright costumes and student organizations congregated, while protesters passed out red and white banners reading “Save the Rivers of the Maipo Canyon” and “Danger: Maipo Hydroelectric Dam.”

Patricio Cavieras, a spokesman for Agua y Soberanía, said local officials are “complicit” in what he calls environmental “atrocities”. He said that Saturday’s protest sought to increase pressure on Santiago municipalities to prioritize environmental protections over corporate interests.

“They have the power to demand that [the PHAM] respects environmental standards,” Cavieras said.

Jose Etsai, among the first to arrive at the protest, held aloft the wenufoye – the red, green and blue striped flag of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people. Like many of the protesters, Etsai is frustrated with Chile’s water policies, and considers the PHAM to be another mistake.

“Ecologically, the project is a disaster,” said Etsai, a law student at the University of Alberto Ibañez in Santiago. “It interferes with the balance and stabilization of the whole Maipo region, which is also important for producing both industrial agriculture and rural farming.”

The Maipo canyon, famous for its natural beauty, is one of Chile’s most popular tourist sites. The canyon is also known for its delicately balanced ecosystem, which protesters fear is under siege.

In January 2017, activist groups filed a formal complaint at the IFC’s and IDF’s headquarters in Washington D.C., saying that the project’s environmental impact exceeds the minimum standards for international bank loans, according to a press release from the Center of International Environmental Law.

According to the internal investigative departments at the IFC and the IDF, the complaints about the project merited further review, and remain open.

The majority-stakeholder, AES Gener, has continued to develop the project.

“There are other regions of the country where people severely lack water and they even have to use plastic bags for their bodily necessities,” said Paola Chávez Madrid, one of the event’s organizers, as she led the protesters down Avenida Concha y Toro, Puente Alto’s main street.

“If this project goes through, our water, too, will be jeopardized.”