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‘They paid for it with misery’: Q&A with Chile dam critic Jose Marihuan Ancanao

  • Jose Marihuan Ancanao, president of the Ayin Mapu La Peña community, spoke to Mongabay’s Maxwell Radwin about the impact of hydropower plants in parts of the Chilean Andes that are home to Indigenous people with a spiritual connection to rivers and the surrounding mountains.
  • Marihuan was relocated in the early 2000s by a different hydropower plant and, although relocation isn’t a threat this time around, is witnessing the construction of another mega dam near his community.
  • The 90-megawatt Rucalhue power plant has resulted in the felling of nationally protected trees sacred to the Pehuenche and, once finished, would flood some ancestral land.

SANTA BÁRBARA, Chile — The Bío Bío River is the second-longest in Chile, forming in the Andes near the Argentine border and running 380 kilometers (240 miles) northwest before emptying into the Pacific.

The river passes through rural, sometimes uninhabited, mountains and foothills, making it seem ideal for hydroelectric development. But other areas are home to Indigenous Pehuenche peoples, a subsection of the Mapuche who live in the mountains, turning seemingly benign dam projects into environmental and human rights catastrophes.

In 2004, the construction of the 690-megawatt Ralco power plant flooded Pehuenche land and forced families to relocate farther down the mountains. Although the Chilean government promised to stop building dams that affect Indigenous land, several others have since been built or are underway, including the 90-MW Rucalhue power plant.

Jose Marihuan Ancanao was relocated as a teenager by the Ralco dam and is now living near the Rucalhue construction site. Although development is currently paused while permits are being processed by the government, he said he’s worried construction will eventually start back up, damaging the environment and Indigenous culture.

Jose Marihuan Ancanao on his property in southern Chile. (Photo by Maxwell Radwin)

Marihuan serves as president of the Ayin Mapu La Peña community, and has watched residents speak out against the dam, participate in sit-ins, and file petitions with the government. Resistance to the project is taking place against the backdrop of nationwide political unrest, driven by the 2019 estallido social, or “social outburst,” that saw Chileans take to the streets for social and economic reforms, including the drafting of a more inclusive, environmentally friendly constitution.

Mongabay’s Maxwell Radwin visited Jose Marihuan Ancanao’s farm to speak about these issues and what he thinks about the impact of hydropower on the area. The following interview has been translated from Spanish and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: Can you explain what some of the community’s biggest concerns are when it comes to the construction of the Rucalhue dam and other hydroelectric projects?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: For us, the environmental impact is important because what the Rucalhue dam is going to do to us is hurt the production of animals, agriculturally speaking. I hope they’ll consider the cultural issue built into this, as well. Because we’re losing more of that all the time, too. Me, I’m still young. I’m 38. This is important because I’ve also got children. But the mayor here isn’t helping us, isn’t helping the community. He doesn’t consider us … Hopefully he’ll start to consider us and take us into account. Because we’re really close to the Rucalhue power plant, because the previous power plant is even closer, the Angostura power plant, and our community was not taken into account. We weren’t even asked if we agreed with that plant being built. And, shoot, I live near the power plant, on that other plot of land over there. I’m about 500 or 600 meters [1,600-2,000 feet] from it and, at night, the power plant doesn’t let me sleep.

Mongabay: You and many residents were relocated from higher up in the mountains when the Ralco power plant was built. How does more dam development make you feel today?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: They were all relocated by the Ralco power plant. After that came the Angostura plant. With Angostura, our community wasn’t even asked if we agreed or disagreed with construction. We weren’t considered at all. Now, they’ve come to inform us that there’s going to be another dam here. They told us that they’re going to build a dam and that, this time, they didn’t intend to bother or harm the Indigenous communities that were relocated before, because both the [communities] were already relocated, and they promised us there weren’t going to be any more dams near us. But here they are again. For me it’s a nuisance.

The beginnings of the Rucalhue dam. (Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay)

Mongabay: There can’t be a lot of trust when government officials come to discuss these issues, making promises to the community. What’s going through your minds when those discussions are being had?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: When they make promises, I honestly don’t believe the government at all because, when they were talking to us the first time, they promised to help us. But in the end, that didn’t end up happening. We’ve been left more and more alone. And there’s a lot of need in my community … They don’t care about the youth. Today’s youth want to live a more dignified life. But I feel bad, as president of the community, because, shoot, the government doesn’t help. The municipal government doesn’t help. It’s like living up [in the mountain community of] Alto Bío Bío, but even worse. And I say worse because the houses up there weren’t as bad as this. Here, they’ve been building little by little because the youth need to have a right to their own property and right now only their parents have it. Up there in the mountains, you could just show up and build your house and live [where you wanted]. We had plenty of water, which we don’t have here. And we had electricity without a problem. Here, the electricity is so expensive even though we’re surrounded by power plants.

Mongabay: What impact does dam development have on Pehuenche culture?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: That’s where there’s a worry, because what we have is almost a lost cause. They instilled a lot of things into us here, including evangelicalism, which has also harmed and divided us. Today, I can say that only about 20% of the children understand [the local language Mapudungun] 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. And that’s the fault of dam construction because they came and started to build something we weren’t expecting. When we want to visit parts of the river or the canyons with our children, we can’t because the other communities up there don’t know us anymore because we were moved here.

Mongabay: Do you think there’s more activism against the incoming dams than there was in the past?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: Yes. At least, I’ve spoken about that with other communities, how they agree about dam construction and everything. I was even talking with a community leader about an area where they seemed to be preparing another dam. The head of a Canadian company spoke to him and I told him not to sign anything. Being Indigenous, we know the studies are very basic, and we know what happened to us last time. It happened to my mother and father. They grabbed their hands and made them sign but they didn’t know what they were signing and they paid for it in misery. It was maybe 2 or 3 million pesos [today approximately $3,100] and that wasn’t going to cover anything. It really didn’t help with anything at all. The damage that they did to us, to my brother, can be felt even to this day. In an area of land of about 8 hectares [19 acres], we can’t do anything. Everything is closed off [with fences]. Before, we let the animals go here and there and no one fought with their neighbors. Now, if someone breaks a fence, he’s arguing with his neighbor and fighting. Everything is much more complicated.

Graffiti reading “Free rivers” sprayed on a wall near the construction site. (Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay)

Mongabay: What do you think this area will look like in the years to come?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: I’m afraid about the future because I’ve had to go find work in northern Chile. I finished school after a lot of effort and went to work in mining. So I’ve worked outside of this area and I have some perspective. I was in a city called Talca, which they installed with a power plant and doesn’t have a river at all. They started out with one and now I don’t even know how many power plants they have. But I’ll tell you the truth, they live a sad life. They don’t have water to bathe in because everything is private. That’s how it happens. The water is all privatized. I wouldn’t like what happened in Talca to happen here. So much scarcity. The cost of it is so much worse than what you get in return. For example, I’d say to people that are negotiating here with the builders that the money disappears from the community as much as the water does. But if they hold on to the water, they’ll have it for the rest of their lives, and for their children and grandchildren, for everyone.

Mongabay: Do you think Chile adopting a new constitution will help any of this?

Jose Marihuan Ancanao: Yes, I think so. Because they need to adopt some kind of law on water, the water that originates here. Because, ultimately, this is where they’re building the power plants. But a lot of people don’t know about it, that the energy generated here isn’t even used in Chile. It goes to other countries. So they should have laws that ensure the water isn’t touched again.

Banner image: Chile’s Bío Bío River. Photo by Maxwell Radwin/Mongabay.

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