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China-funded dam could disrupt key Argentine glaciers and biodiversity

  • Two dams are being built on the 380-kilometer (236-mile) Santa Cruz River in Argentina’s Patagonia, threatening glacier movements and endemic wildlife that rely on the surrounding wetlands.
  • Several Indigenous Mapuche communities, who consider the area to be important to their cultural heritage, say officials failed to consult with them before starting the project.
  • Despite protests, lawsuits and court orders to pause construction, work on the complex, part of the China-funded Belt and Road Initiative, has continued.

A hydroelectric dam complex in southern Argentina, one of the country’s largest energy projects, is facing backlash from conservationists and Indigenous communities who are worried about its impact on the surrounding glaciers.

The mega project, which includes the Néstor Kirchner and Jorge Cepernic dams, is expected to supply around 5% of Argentina’s national energy needs. But it may also flood vital wetlands, disrupt the trajectory of some of the world’s largest glaciers found outside of the poles, and destroy ancestral Mapuche land.

Despite protests, lawsuits and court orders to pause construction so that adequate environmental studies can be carried out, work on the complex has continued, often to the bewilderment of conservationists.

Early construction designs of the dam complex. (Photo courtesy of Ministry of Energy and Mining)

“The authorities know the laws. They know how this should work,” Cristian Fernández of the Forest Bank Foundation for Sustainable Management of Natural Resources, one of the organizations fighting the project in court, told Mongabay. The organizations Aves Argentinas and Vida Silvestre have also been involved in the judicial process.

“The problem is that they don’t care,” Fernández added. “They don’t care because they want to move forward on the project at all costs.”

Glaciers, rivers and migratory habitats

The dams are being built on the 380-kilometer (236-mile) Santa Cruz River, the largest waterway in southern Argentina. The river starts in the Andes mountains and passes through Santa Cruz province before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, filling two lakes along the way.

There are more than 1,000 glaciers in the Santa Cruz River Basin, three of which are in contact with one of the lakes, according to a court statement made by the Argentine Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA). The organization said the river and lake systems have a direct impact on the glaciers’ movements and melting rates.

The dam project is expected to flood nearly 35,000 hectares (86,500 acres) of the surrounding area, according to the National Parks Administration.

Flooding and other changes to the surrounding area could also have long-term negative impacts on breeding areas for birds like the ruddy-headed goose (Chloephaga rubidiceps) and pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps). The National Parks Administration said terrestrial flora, much of it endemic, would be permanently and irreversibly destroyed by the flooding.

“I hope from the bottom of my heart that the Supreme Court takes action on this issue and stops the work,” Fernández said, “because it’s about more than violating a lot of environmental laws. It’s about the damage being done to the biodiversity, to the glaciers.”

The complex is being built by Unión Transitoria de Empresas Represas Patagonia, a partnership between China Gezhouba Group Company and Hidrocuyo S.A., Electroingeniería S.A., with financing from several Chinese development banks.

Flooding could impact breeding areas for endangered birds like the ruddy-headed goose. Photo courtesy of Flickr/David Cook

The project has been incorporated into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a scheme aimed at strengthening Beijing’s international relations through infrastructure development in more than 140 countries.

Throughout 2020, environmental organizations in Argentina wrote letters to China’s Ministry of Commerce and other Chinese authorities to reiterate their complaints about the dam. They never received a response, according to the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), another organization involved in the judicial process.

Chinese authorities didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.

Flawed environmental studies

The dam complex, like most major infrastructure projects, was subject to environmental impact studies during development so that changes could be made to mitigate potential impacts. But in this case, the studies were plagued with inaccuracies and a lack of detail, according to numerous organizations that reviewed them in a lawsuit presented to the Supreme Court.

The National Parks Administration said last year that the studies lacked sufficient data on the migratory patterns of birds and exotic fish, and urged officials to further examine the potential impact on local ecosystems.

IANIGLA’s statement to the Supreme Court said the studies largely relied on outdated information from a 1996 study of glaciers, and that some parts of their analysis were “weak.”

In a similar conclusion submitted last May, the National Institute of Seismic Prevention (INPRES) said some geological and earthquake data in the studies were “questionable” and that soil types around the dams — an important factor for determining seismic activity — were never mentioned in the original studies.

“The studies carried out do not allow for the confirmation of [the project’s] complete sustainability,” INPRES said in a statement.

Santa Cruz river would flood once dam construction is finished. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Mariono Manuel)

Some of the soil testing work has been carried out with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method of opening the ground through the high-pressure injection of liquid. This may have contributed to two earthquakes early last year on the Rio Bote geological fault on the west side of the Santa Cruz River, according to INPRES.

“Using the fracking method is clearly crazy,” the Forest Bank Foundation told the Supreme Court in a statement. “We are in the presence of a seismically active area.”

Despite these geological hazards, there are no known plans to move the project out of the area to avoid sparking additional earthquakes.

Argentina’s Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Questionable consultation with Indigenous communities

The Indigenous Mapuche community of Lof Fem Mapu in Santa Cruz filed a lawsuit in 2017 — with 14 other communities joining the case later on — asking that they be properly consulted about the dimensions of the project, since it could negatively impact their cultural patrimony, most notably by altering the flow of the river, which is important to their belief system.

“It would have never occurred to us to dam a river,” Sergio Nahuelquir, a Mapuche community leader, told Mongabay. “Because everything that exists, the biodiversity, the mountains, the river, the birds, the rocks themselves, all of that has a life force for us, a spirit and energy. That energy helps human beings live.”

The lawsuit was filed against the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs, as well as the province of Santa Cruz, among other regional entities. The builder, Represas Patagonia, was also listed as a respondent in the suit.

“The right to prior, free and informed consultation has not yet been guaranteed and made effective, both for the Lof Fem Mapu community and the other Indigenous communities that may see their rights affected by the project’s execution,” the lawsuit said. “[This is] despite [the project developers] having already started the preliminary development and being close to starting the main works.”

Spegazzini Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, one of 1000s of glaciers in the area. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Before construction can begin on the dam, officials are required by law to meet with residents to discuss how the project will impact their communities. However, Indigenous leaders say the consultation process was never carried out. Others said they only heard from officials after construction had already begun, according to the lawsuit.

Represas Patagonia didn’t respond to a request for comment. On its website, the sections for environmental impact and community relations are blank.

In October 2017, a judge ordered that a consultation be carried out within the next 20 days. But Indigenous residents said it never happened.

“The federal court of Río Gallegos told them they have to do the prior consultation, but they still haven’t done it,” Melina Lorenti, a lawyer representing the communities, told Mongabay. “This company is ignoring all the laws.”

Lorenti said that although they face an uphill battle from the court, there are always other legal avenues they can take to keep fighting dam construction. Nevertheless, this sets a bad precedent for future communities and conservationists trying to stop other kinds of environmental destruction by mega infrastructure projects, she said.

“What the justice system did in this case is recognize that rights were going unfulfilled, that a free, informed and prior consultation for Indigenous communities wasn’t carried out,” Lorenti said. “Yet work on the dams didn’t stop.”

Banner image: Perito Moreno glacier, one of the most famous glacier in Argentina  (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

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