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Cycling Activists Pedal through Patagonia

The article as it appeared in The Santiago Times on December 12, 2011:

Cycling Activists Pedal through Patagonia

Hope to learn from locals, warn them about HidroAysén

“Patagonia Sin Represas!” is a stirring, popular battle cry for environmentalists and activists in Chile these days. More than 40,000 took to the streets of Santiago last May when the first phase of the US$10 billion HidroAysén project – construction of five dams on Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua rivers – was approved by government officials.

Now, with the second phase of the project in the news – right of way for issues related to the 2,300 km chain of transmission towers – Santiago activists are preparing a 1,000 km bike ride to the heart of Aysén to help fight the project and encourage locals in their opposition.

A small but dedicated group of cyclists will arrive in Raul Marin Balmaceda on Tuesday to start their month long bike journey along the Carretera Austral, the roughest ripio road in Chile. Three ideas power their collective wheels: promote environmental awareness and protection; demonstrate low-impact “ciclo-turismo” as a viable Chileno lifestyle; and enable citizen participation in the environment vs. energy debate.

“We’re against HidroAysén,” explains Viviana Albornoz Donoso. “But this trip is not about forcing our ideas on people.” Vivian is a psychologist and urban cyclist from Santiago with dark cherry hair and lips to match. “We’re going with humility. With open minds, more to listen than to speak. And within that space, by way of discussion, we might say, ‘Listen, you know about this project? You know they want to build these dams? What do you think about it?’ We want to join the communities’ own discussion and
share ideas.”

The cyclists’ timing is fortuitous. HidroAysén made front page news in local newspapers last week as the company began a series of open houses to present their plan for the 2,300 km transmission line. The principal goal, according to HidroAysén’s website, is “to listen to the demands and the inquietudes of the inhabitants along the company’s proposed transmission line.” (http://www.hidroaysen.cl/comunicados-de-prensa/aysen-transmision-presenta-trazado-de-la-linea-que-transportara-la-energia-de-las-centrales-baker-y-pascua/)

But as the company begins making its case to the public, the bikers, under the banner “Una Ciclo-ruta Patagonica” will be initiating discussions of their own. Their 1,000 km route will take them through most of the same localities where HidroAysen will be presenting its dog and pony show: La Junta, Puyuhuapi, Villa Amengual, Villa Manihuales, El Balseo, Coyhaique, Vista Hermosa, Cerro Castillo, Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Puerto Bertrand, Cochrane, and Caleta Tortel.

The bikers’ itinerary includes cultural exchanges, visits with local  communities and cyclists, workshops on renewable energies, small demonstrations against HidroAysen, and plenty of time to explore the natural treasures of Aysen that the bikers wish to preserve for future generations. Struggling to repair a loose support on her bike seat, Viviana said, “Patagonia’s always in our mind as this general idea, this image of pure nature. But too many Chileans have never been there. I’ve only seen a small part of it. And now that there’s this big proposal to destroy part of it, it’s crucial that we as Chileans go and see what is at stake.”

The Ciclo-ruta movement began in Santiago, after the government’s environmental commission in Coyhaique voted to approve the dams on May 9. Among the 40,000 demonstrators in the streets were bicyclists, pedaling instead of marching.

“We realized we had these interests in common: cycling and the environment,” said Isabel Núñoz, one of the Patagonia-bound cyclists. They began organizing weekly bike demonstrations in the city. After a Puerto Montt court voted to reject the appeals presented by the Council for the Defense of Patagonia, the bikers’ idea to bring their message out of the city and into Patagonia solidified. “It makes sense,” Isabel said. “Cyclists are natural activists. They care about their carbon footprint, and so they choose to travel by bike instead of by car.”

Each of the four cyclists leading this first expedition has his or her own reason for pedaling. Max Pereira is a mountain guide from Coyhaique, and the impetus of the expedition. “We have to defend our land. But not my land. The land.”

Expedition coordinator Martín Muñoz Torrealba creases his brow, thinking, before agreeing with Max. “We have to defend the rivers from the capitalist interests that want to destroy it. I mean, the earth is the one who sustains us. I want to raise consciousness, that sitting next to a river is about more than just seeing it. I feel a connection with the water, and I want to show others how to feel the same flow.”

For Viviana, a passionate cyclist, the method of travel is the most important. “Ciclo-turismo lets you get closer to nature and people. When you’re biking, you’re a part of everything, the rain, the sun. You’re paying constant attention to your surroundings. But a bike isn’t anything unless someone is riding it. It makes us take an active role in our travel. Our trip, I think, will open up the bicycling lifestyle for more Chilenos. We want to inspire other people.”

To Isabel, a sociologist, the people within the environmental debate are the most important part of the equation. “I’m riding to defend the right of the people of Aysen to say no – or yes! – to HidroAysen.”

The group is sponsored by the clothing company Patagonia, Inc., as well as Chilean NGO Ecosistemas. In the back yard of Max’s brother’s house in Panitao, just outside of Puerto Montt, they hang their banner for a photo. “Pedaling for a Patagonian Bike Route. Patagonia Sin Represas! An action in constant motion,” it says. This is the sign they’ll display at their workshops and demonstrations, but the message carried with them on their bicycles is this: exploration through ciclo-tourismo is good for the environment, good for tourism, good for Chile, and especially, good for Chilenos.