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Dam construction ignites Indigenous youth movement in southern Chile

  • Dam construction on the Bío Bío watershed has plagued Indigenous Mapuche-Pehuenche communities in south-central Chile for decades, with many families having to relocate due to flooding of ancestral lands.
  • The 90-megawatt Rucalhue hydropower plant, located near the town of Santa Bárbara, is the latest project causing controversy among local communities, who say they’re sick of battling infrastructure projects that disrespect their culture and traditions.
  • Young people have been particularly outspoken against the project, staging sit-ins at the work site, sending petitions to government agencies, and helping organize a local plebiscite.
  • Hydropower plants, while less polluting than many other forms of energy generation, still require the clearing of trees and the disrupting of river flows, which can have a significant impact on surrounding ecosystems.

SANTA BÁRBARA, Chile — For the last 30 years, more and more hydroelectric power plants have been popping up along Chile’s Bío Bío River, the second-largest in the country. Every time a new one breaks ground, Indigenous communities speak out about the environmental and cultural damage that will result, the flooding of their lands, and the families who will need to be relocated.

The Bío Bío River forms high up in the Andes, near the Argentine border, and passes through local jurisdictions that are overwhelmingly Pehuenche, a subsection of Indigenous Mapuche with ancestral connections to the mountains.

Today, despite the history of controversial projects, several dams are being developed on the Bío Bío River and its watershed. The largest of them, the 90-megawatt Rucalhue hydroelectric plant, has drawn an especially vocal backlash from residents. They say they’re fed up with mega infrastructure projects and foreign companies making false promises about jobs and reparations.

“People from other countries come and get rich off Chile,” said Aurelia Marihuan Mora, a Pehuenche activist who fought against one of the first dams built in the area. “The foreign companies come here and enrich themselves on the country’s natural resources. And we’re the ones who pay for it.”

But resistance to the Rucalhue power plant has taken a different form than the protests against past projects. The movement is more organized and ambitious, with young people helping to lead sit-ins, organizing a local plebiscite, and sending petitions to national government agencies.

Activists trying to stop the construction of the Rucalhue power plant talk about the project as symbolic of a greater fight to save Andean ecosystems and Indigenous culture. At some point, they told Mongabay, the country needs to move away from hydropower development — or at least leave Pehuenche land alone.

“Why not let us Indigenous people live in peace?” Marihuan said. “Leave us be. Let us live in peace with our families with the little that has been left to us.”

Construction at Rucalhue is currently paused while permit requests are evaluated. (Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay)

Broken promises, broken trust

A wave of development arrived in the region in the early 1990s, when the Spanish electric company Endesa tried to launch a long-term plan to build six hydropower plants along the river and its offshoots. Even then, many Pehuenche were skeptical about the idea because it involved flooding ancestral land.

But because many of them couldn’t read or write, they accepted the agreements offered without fully understanding their rights. Others thought they would be adequately compensated by the company and government.

The first dam to be built, the 450-MW Pangue plant, was completed between 1996 and 1997, flooding the area. Then, less than a decade later, the 690-MW Ralco plant — built approximately 18 kilometers (11 miles) south of Pangue — not only caused flooding but also forced many residents to relocate.

In response to the controversies surrounding Ralco’s construction, the Chilean government signed an agreement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, promising “the non-installation of future megaprojects, particularly hydroelectric projects, on Indigenous lands in the Alto Bío Bío.”

Nevertheless, another power plant, called Angostura, began operating in 2014, again flooding Indigenous land.

Although the new dam being built in Rucalhue isn’t expected to result in relocation, it will flood Indigenous land and, residents said, further accelerate the loss of Pehuenche traditions connected to the Bío Bío watershed.

Altering the river’s flow and water level is a direct threat to their cultural traditions, they said. It also makes it harder for the community to develop ecotourism projects that could help conserve the area.

The Angostura dam. (Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay)

“These outsiders who come to build don’t know the life that Mapuche people make around nature or that we understand the river in a different way than other people who aren’t Mapuche do, people who don’t have the same spiritual connection to nature,” said Feña Purran, president of the Malen Leubü Women’s Collective.

The Pehuenche also have a spiritual connection with several species of trees, including the Chilean citronella (Citronella mucronata), that were allegedly cut down during the initial phase of construction in Rucalhue. Because they’re nationally protected, the trees can only be cut down with a permit.

The dam developers don’t have all the permits needed to continue construction, one reason the project is currently paused. The area remains a cleared field where trees once stood, surrounded by a barbed wire fence and patrolled by security guards.

Rucalhue Energía Spa, the company building the power plant, was unavailable for comment. Chile’s National Forest Corporation (CONAF) didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Jose Marihuan Ancanao, president of Ayin Mapu La Peña, a community near the Rucalhue construction site, said he’s witnessed the loss of Indigenous practices and language as a result of relocation from the dams, since communities that once lived together are now dispersed and don’t communicate. He said he’s worried that more dam development will only further divide the communities and leave the youngest members unable to speak the Indigenous language.

“Only about 20% of the children understand [the local language Mapudungun],” he told Mongabay. “And only 10% can speak it, but only a few words. Up there in the mountains, we spoke clearly and directly in our own language.”

Graffiti reading “No more dams in the river” is sprayed all over buildings in Santa Bárbara and nearby towns. (Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay)

Some cultural impacts could be mitigated, residents said, with a better process of prior consultation. By law, Chile requires developers to meet with local communities before breaking ground on a construction project, but many residents said that rarely happens.

In the case of Rucalhue, the Indigenous consultation process met the standards of the law: meetings were held with community members and the details of the power plant were explained to them. The problem is that legal standards are too low, activists said, allowing the meetings to be rushed through without serving their intended purpose.

“The less people [who attend the meetings] the better because what really interests them is to get the paperwork done,” Purran said. “But participation doesn’t really exist. The people who do show up immediately look to negotiate. ‘If you give us this, we’ll give you that.’”

Purran and other community leaders said there should be more effort made to inform residents of future projects, whether that means increasing the number of meetings or doing a better job of publicizing when they’re going to happen.

Until that happens, they said, communities won’t be able to speak up about the felling of culturally important trees, the construction of roads through the mountains, or altered water levels on the river, among other things.

“Families don’t have the knowledge of what’s being built,” said Pedro Sandoval, a councilman with the city of Santa Bárbara, one of those that would be affected by the Rucalhue project. “Everyone thought [dams] could be a benefit for our families, for our parents, siblings and neighbors … but deep down the only thing the dams do is destroy our environment.”

A new generation of community activism

Many residents speaking out against the dam are still in university, recently graduated or about to start their families. They said they’ve heard the stories of Pangue, Ralco and Angostura from older relatives. Some of them drive by the dams every day. They’ve visited the museums that were built at the entrances and buy groceries in the plaza in Ralco, a small town that only exists because of the power plant.

They said they see their older family members struggling to farm with agricultural practices they aren’t accustomed to, and with heavy machinery that they struggle to make work on land they feel no connection with.

For many in this younger generation, Rucalhue represents the next chapter in the same story. But they want a say in its outcome this time, so they’re taking action.

“A lot of people understood that we couldn’t leave these problems to someone else, to the representatives we elected,” said Diego Barrientos, a local activist. “We have to empower ourselves as a people and confront the problem until we get the change we want.”

Barrientos participated in a February sit-in at the Rucalhue construction site, where approximately 30 people blocked the access road for heavy machinery and workers. People who didn’t participate pitched in by bringing the activists food or building dry latrines.

Staying in tents around the project site, they managed to keep the protest going until July, when authorities evicted them.

“We had the sense that we wanted to empower ourselves as citizens and face these problems,” Barrientos said. “We weren’t going to wait for a politician to come around during elections and try to offer us something — because that’s what politicians do around election time, right? People were tired of it.”

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Increased citizen participation is partly the result of the estallido social, or “social outburst,” that erupted in 2019 when Chileans across the country started protesting issues related to economic inequality, such as public transportation fees, the cost of living, and wage gaps.

The marches attracted international attention after some activists were shot, arrested, or targeted with tear gas in enclosed spaces like metro stations.

The movement, which lasted until around March 2020, ultimately pressured the national government to announce education and pension reforms, as well as to begin the process of drafting a new constitution. The most recent draft, put to a plebiscite in September, explicitly mentioned land, water and Indigenous rights.

Although the September plebiscite failed to pass, it further ignited broad political debate about a new draft of the new constitution and what rights it should include.

That’s rippled through local political discourse, as well.

“We as citizens empower ourselves in the political space,” said Miguel Millar, a local activist. “We don’t have to apologize to or ask permission from the authorities if we want to present our point of view.”

Around a dozen human rights and environmental organizations have taken up the cause of stopping construction at Rucalhue. But many activists in the area also work independently or have created an informal network with other people also concerned about the dams. They’ve read up on how to file document requests. They’ve written countless letters to different government agencies demanding to see permits and environmental studies that may not be up to regulation.

Flooding the system with complaints can slow down the government and make it harder to move to the next phase of construction.

In September 2021, activists pressured the local government to hold a local plebiscite on whether work on Rucalhue should move forward. They voted overwhelmingly to reject the dam, an outcome that appears to have made a difference. More residents and local officials are speaking out against the project than ever before.

“The dam is not good for this community,” said Pablo Urrutia Maldonado, mayor of the city of Quilaco, one of those that would be affected by the dam. “It’s not good for it. And we really do need energy. But there are more sustainable way of getting it.”

Banner image: Chile’s Bío Bío River, the second-largest in the country. Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay.

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