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What’s a Couple More Dams, Anyway?

Today, without meaning to, I walked straight into the heart of the Chilean Patagonia. I found it at a bar, El Clinic, near the Belles Artes metro stop. It doesn’t live there, obviously, but that’s where we happened to meet. I’ve spent the past week in Santiago poring through various media, trying to assimilate the facts of Chilean history, energy policy and non-conventional renewable resources. These are complex issues. I could spend years studying Chilean energy policy and I am sorry to say that I would probably arrive at the same opinon as the young man I spoke to at the bar: “It’s a terrible shame, but in the global perspective, what’s a couple more dams?”

Indeed. And where is Aysen, anyway? Three months ago when I started researching this story, I didn’t know, either. It took a bit of research to find Aysen on the map, or rather, the communities that make up the region of Aysen. Less than 100,000 people live there. Most are campesinos, or gauchos, people who live off the land and raise cattle; others operate tourist businesses. There’s only one real road through the region, the Carretera Austral, and this is split by lakes and fiords that can only be crossed by ferry. Aysen is remote, uncivilized, untouched, and it’s only a small part of the whole of Patagonia. Just ask HidroAysen: they have very stylish multimedia on their website that demonstrate just how small an area their dams will affect in relation to the whole of Patagonia and all of Chile.

But what is not small about Aysen is the sense of identity that its inhabitants possess. Immediately before my appointment at El Clinic, I stood in a public park with a group of students from Aysen, now living here in Santiago to study at the University of Chile. They all but stood in a line in front of me, waiting their turn to rage against HidroAysen and express their frustration with a government that they feel doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Even the national NGOs fighting against the dams were subject to the students’ critique. “Aysen is more than trees and rivers. We honor the natural environment, sure, but it’s our communities, above all, that we are trying to save.” Their passion was infective, and I felt myself deflate like a punctured tire when I spoke to my friend at the bar and heard his very well-informed impression of the global political climate.

And that’s where I saw it: the heart of Patagonia, and the core of my nascent story. Dams are being constructed all over the world. HidroAysen is just another large corporation doing what corporations do best. The political history of Chile is truly relevant only in Chile, and the environmental rules and regulations are only interesting when compared to those of other countries. Whether or not Chile needs these dams is a question for the energy analysts. But why the world should pay attention to Aysen, and why it is worthy of our attention: this is my job. I’m best at bringing isolated parts of the world into focus, giving color and life to the specks on the map. And so my focus has begun to zero in on Aysen itself and its people. Still with an unbiased approach, for there are people in Aysen who are just as firmly pro-dams as today’s students are against them. But who they are, why they are for or against, how their lives will be changed by this project, and what is important to them, this is where my story is. More to come.

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