The silence of Endesa on the future of Futaleufu: what next?

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By Tomas Moggia
 
In late October, El Diario Financiero, a Chilean business newspaper, reported that Endesa has supposedly decided to cancel its plans for three hydroelectric dams on the Futaleufu River in Chilean Patagonia.
 
The news was celebrated by many, but others are more cautious. That’s because this multinational still owns the water rights on the river, and as such there remains the possibility of reviving the project at a later date, or selling the water rights to another company that might in turn pursue developing a dam.
 
The uncertainty surrounding the future of Futaleufu only increases while Endesa keeps silent on the matter. No corporate officer from Endesa has publicly spoken on the subject, and despite repeated attempts by Patagon Journal, they chose not to respond to our interview request. The recent government rejection of Hidroaysén due to widespread public opposition, not only influenced Endesa’s decision to cancel the project in Futaleufu, but also likely served as a lesson for them to keep their plans under wraps, says Patrick Lynch, International Director of Futaleufu Riverkeeper, an environmental group that has spent two years working in the Futaleufu area.
 
The American lawyer, who is a resident of Chile, criticizes both the State and the company for their lack of transparency on the future of the Futaleufu. "It is the role of government to pressure the company into explaining what it wants to do with its water rights. Basically, what Endesa is doing with Futaleufu is playing with what in other countries is a common good, not a company asset like it is here in Chile.”
 
In Futaleufu, some 40 percent of the population depends on the river in some way for their livelihood. According to Futaleufu Riverkeeper, almost half of the people who live there work in tourism on a river that is acclaimed worldwide for its spectacular whitewater opportunities for rafting and kayaking and the great quality of its fly fishing. Such uses bring benefits to local communities that are clearly not compatible with the development of large-scale hydroelectric projects. It is urgent to reform the nation’s water laws, which date back to 1981.
 
Recently, the Special Committee on Water Resources, Desertification and Drought of Chile’s Congress received 16 motions to make amendments to the country’s constitution and related legislation, among them an amendment establishing water as a national good for public use. Despite such advances, Reinaldo Ruiz, the Bachelet government’s special presidential delegate for water resources, criticizes the lack of political will in the congress on this issue.
 
Ruiz said the national water situation is bleak, and there are increasing social and environmental conflicts because Chile is the only country in the world to grant water rights in perpetuity to private entities. While privatization of Chile’s water resources began during the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship, after the return to democracy in 1990 there has been tepid interest among Chilean parliamentarians in changing existing water laws and conserving wild rivers for future generations.
 
Chilean Senator Antonio Horvath, a longtime defender of Patagonia, recently allied with Senator Patricio Walker to pursue the re-nationalization of water. Both senators are members of the Senate Environment Committee, and have also played a key role in the discussion of a bill that would create a Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service. That’s an important initiative as well because it, among other things, also seeks to strengthen the National System of Protected Areas (SNASPE) and under current legislation incredibly neither rivers nor national parks are safe from destructive projects proposed by energy companies or other industries like mining.
 
Senator Horvath urges a special form of protection for rivers with high conservation value, similar to the Wild and Scenic River Act in the United States, which permanently protects rivers at a federal level and allows for sustainable economic activities involving recreation, tourism and local business.
 
"We are looking at putting several rivers of Patagonia under that type of legal protection in Chile. The issue is having a strong legal basis because, for example, the previous Bachelet government tried by administrative decree to declare some rivers as having ‘protection interest,’ but then the Piñera government reversed this decree. So, this is something that must have a continuity over time," said Horvath in an interview with Patagon Journal published in Issue 6 of the magazine.
 
"In Chile there is no law that protects in a definitive way an area," adds Patrick Lynch. "If Futaleufu and its watershed were declared a national park tomorrow, it would still not be protected because the current system is not very strong.  That’s why we are participating in a process for drafting a bill, so that in the future a beautiful and world-class place like Futaleufu can be protected permanently, and not by private actors, but by the State with the community actively participating in its protection,” he said.
 
Photo: Sebastian Alvarez