Defending the Puelo Valley on horseback

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By Cristobal Perez  
The citizen movement to protect the Puelo River watershed continues to build momentum through protests, social media and lawsuits in the courts. This time it was a protest on horseback. More than thirty riders led their majestic horses through the streets of Puerto Montt on Monday morning, with nearly 300 protestors joining them on foot as they marched to the downtown office of the intendente (equivalent to a governor) of Chile’s Los Lagos Region.

There, eleven leaders from Puelo región communities - including Cochamó, Río Puelo, Segundo Corral, Primer Corral and Ventisqueros - personally delivered to the intendente, Leonardo De La Prida, a formal letter addressed to Chile President Michelle Bachelet. The letter outlined a series of grievances and demands from the communities, including their firm opposition to a hydroelectric project in the Puelo watershed, their rejection of a road presently under construction in the zone “without an environmental impact study,” their demand for formal land titles for longtime residents, and a formal request that the government declare the Puelo River watershed a protected area.
“For four years we have been protesting and they never listen to us: we say no to the Mediterraneo dam project,” fervently declared Ina Lonco Eliecer Cayún, a representative of the Mapuche indigenous community Domingo Cayún Panicheo, on the cloudy day for the peaceful protest despite the presence of several policemen. Added Cayún: “We are opposing the Mediterraneo project because it opens the door to not just these dams, but also mining and timber companies. Our Puelo and Manso river valleys will become ‘territories of sacrifice.’ We are not going to permit such a horrendous thing to happen to us.”
Among the several reasons they oppose the Mediterraeno hydroelectric project, said the Mapuche lonko chief, was that the groundwater will not be fed with a tube, which he asserts would mean droughts in the area will have double the impact. “They say that the dams that create big reservoirs are much more destructive than run-of-the-river dams, but that’s a lie. One is flooding and the accumulation of enormous quantities of water, the other is drought.”

The Mediterráneo project
The Mediterráneo Project is a 210 megawatt, run-of-the-river hydroelectric project planned for the confluence of the Torrentoso and Manso rivers, in a sector of the Puelo watershed called La Junta.
According to the environmental group Puelo Patagonia, "the aim of the project is to supply energy to Chile’s national energy grid, laying tubes on 92% of the flow rate of the Manso River on 5.5 kilometers of one of the most pristine valleys of Chile, and constructing 210 high voltage towers on a scenic route which attracts around 40,000 tourists in the summer season.”
Among the citizen complaints made to Chile’s special environmental courts include the lack of prior consultation with indigenous communities, the negative impacts on tourism, the construction of an illegal road with environmental damage, and the violation of a treaty between Chile and Argentina to protect binational watersheds. In November 2016, Chile’s environmental court ruled against the project and annulled the environmental permissions for the Mediterraneano project. Now, the citizen lawsuits await the last word of the Supreme Court.

The road and land titles
Nearby the proposed location of the hydroelectric power station is Paso El Leon, a small community whose residents would potentially benefit from a road that currently is, illegally, under construction. But Roberto Hagemann is owner of Fundo Puchegüín, a 100,000-hectare property where the Mediterraneo Project will be sited. He is moreover the owner of the water rights on the Manso River and thus one of the leading partners and largest boosters of the dam project.
The road may severely threaten the homes of local residents, says Mapuche leader Cayún. "The road isn’t going to remove the people of Paso El Leon from isolation, it will remove them from their homes,” he said. “Each person that goes against Hagemann is going to have to leave there, because they are on the lands of Hagemann. The government has never recognized their years of sacrifice and that they are the owners of these lands for generations."

Cayún says that up to 30 families have been waiting years and years for the government to give them their formal land deeds. “These people do not have their land titles, so how are they going to fight? This is one of the gravest problems happening there. There are many homes that have already been abandoned, only the people who have lived here for decades still remain there,” said Cayún. “If they build a road, but not for Mediterráneo, we are in agreement. Only if Mediterráneo goes away are we in favor…and Hagemann has to make a park to protect that territory.”

For Cayún, the economy in the Rio Puelo valley must move away from natural resource extraction and move toward tourism and organic agriculture. "We want responsible tourism that integrates the people of the territory. Not tourism companies arriving, but tourism that takes advantage of the resources of the people who live there: horseback riding, fishing, guides, trekking. And with agriculture, there are many things that you can do there!"

A plea for unity, a plea to the government
After deliving the letter to the regional governor, the horseback ride continued to the Plaza de Armas in the center of Puerto Montt, where participants enjoyed live music as well as final speeches from some of the leaders of the protest.

Puelo Sin Torres activist Salvador Abazúa emphasized that governmental policies are causing division and distrust inside communities as they fight for their rights, but he said the problem is not only the Chilean government. “Here the enemy is also the timber companies, the salmon farming companies, and other extractive businesses that want to destroy the little that we have left on the planet. We must unite,” exclaimed Abazúa to the crowd.
As well, a community leader, Verónica Vargas, issued a call to government officials: “To the intendente, to mister senator of the nation, Rabindranath Quinteros, to mister congressman Patricio Vallespín: go help the communities of Puelo so that they can go forward and prosper. And to the big businessmen and large landowners, do not tread more on our Mapuche people that have been fighting for these lands for centuries!”

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