By The Somos del Rio Team;
Evan, Jesse, Leif, Pete and Maija
Snaking along the Carretera Austral our last views of the mighty Rio Baker flashed before us through the bus windows like scenes from a movie we’d seen once, but needed to watch again to fully comprehend. Heading north for the first time during our trip, there was a palpable feeling of longing to turn the bus around and to keep the journey moving south. The end of our time in Chile for most of us was a mere four days and 40 some odd hours of bus rides away. The mission was still on. As we were heading straight into the lion’s den, we pressed onward, back to Coyhaique, to confront HidroAysén.
A little background on Hidro-Aysén is necessary here. The project to develop five large-scale hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers has gone through numerous iterations, as some of the parties involved have had plans for developing these rivers for over 20 years. As the political climate and on-the-ground situation has changed, so has the strategy and plans for the project. In its current form the Hidro-Aysén project is being proposed by a corporation created solely to deal with all the components of that specific project, also by the name HidroAysén. They have a small office in Cochrane and a pretty large staff in Coyhaique. A PR representative from this entity is who we’d be meeting with.
Answers, and More Questions
We were happy that we were even getting the opportunity to speak with HidroAysén at all, but when you get a PR person you generally have to go in expecting responses as fluffy as the wave holes on the Rio Baker. We game planned before the meeting on how to push their representative deep enough to get some real responses to the conflicting claims we had heard throughout our trip. We were pleasantly surprised, though, at the candidness of the responses from Maria Irene Soto,
the representative we spoke with. It seemed as if the developers had finally realized that people had grown weary of their secrecy and false promises, and that they were at least going to attempt to meet the opposition to their project face to face.
This realization probably has a lot to do with the popular resistance and the political reality they are currently facing. The conservation groups’ strategy of stalling the project to death was admittedly working, and we found that they were going to go a different route through legal maneuvering to try and get the transmission lines built. They confirmed the semi-nightmare scenario that we had already heard rumors of, that their new strategy was to move a bill through the state legislature which would have the government, not the corporation, building the transmission lines to meet, not only their projects needs, but the needs of proposed hydro-electric projects from Cochrane to Santiago.
The silver lining for those fighting against the dams is that the project is essentially at a standstill until the transmission line bill succeeds or fails. Maria also answered all of our questions about how many people would actually be displaced, where the energy would end up, how they were going to meet their promise of cutting the energy costs in Cochrane in half, the plan for other hydro-projects in Patagonia and a host of others. We nailed her down for over an hour, and her answers were almost alarmingly satisfactory. We didn’t always agree with her but it was apparent that she was being as transparent and forthcoming as possible with Hidro-Aysén’s current situation and plans for the future.
It was interesting to sit down with the boogeyman and realize that these people are just trying to do their job and what they think is best for the country. We came away from the meeting confirming our thoughts going in, that these dams and the future of Patagonia should be up to the Chilean people and will ultimately be decided by the political will of the people’s representatives. Coming from the United States it’s kind of the best thing you can hope for, right? Democracy in action or something like that. Just like us, they elect leaders and pray they do the right thing but usually expect the opposite. Then they take to the streets and demand what they want and sometimes get it. We’ll just have to wait and see.
While riding the bus for long stretches, there was plenty of time to reflect on our new understanding after every stop during the tour. The 36-hour ride back to Santiago probably afforded a little too much time for this and boxed wine was substituted for reflection during a number of the evening bus hours. Looking back though it was amazing how far we’d come. Without an exact plan (by design of course) we’d managed to get more on-the-ground information than we’d ever expected. Our understanding of not only hydro-electric development in Patagonia, but really of how development in wild places happens across the world grew throughout the journey.
Staring out the bus window, I couldn’t help looking back on the amount of contributions to our project, the willingness to jump on the train for the ride and put some serious work into our mission—from people who we weren’t even remotely counting on and didn’t even really know before the trip. They all played a huge role, and really the trip wouldn’t have even been possible without them. We got seriously lucky.
We became acutely aware of the complexities surrounding the development of free-flowing rivers, and it was amazing to see the personal evolution of everyone involved. During the day we rarely stopped to contemplate the new information and ideas as they came to light during our investigation. As evening crept in, though, with the wine flowing freely we’d lay all our newly acquired bits and pieces to the puzzle down and arrange them until the picture became clearer than it was the day before. A truly enthralling process, one that relied heavily on the excellence of our team and was an attribute of this trip that made this experience one we won’t soon forget.
By the Numbers
Hours on a bus 76 (avg per person)
Miles paddled 147 (avg per person)
Miles Traveled 13,744 (avg per person)
Gigabytes of footage 1,100
White bread sandwiches 29 (avg per person)
Bottles of wine 11 (avg per person)
Guys thrown in the lake while wrestling 1 (Pete)
Extra team members for entire trip 2
Travel days 9
Total days 32
Paddling days 12 (avg per person)
Kayak Swims 0 (total, not even Pete)
Guys with one eye 1
Guys who drank pisco and sour glass
with prosthetic eye in it 1 (Jesse)