Thursday, April 28, 2011

Patagonia Sin Represas o con Represasas?

That is the question. If you are like me and didn't know what a represa is but had seen billboards everywhere supporting one stance or the other then let me help you out.
A represa is a dam. And the question is whether to build 2-5 very large dam projects in the region of Patagonia where we just were. Oh course my first reaction is "no freakin' way!" but hold on there cowboy and lets look at the different sides and lets even see if I am allowed to have an opinion as such. For a very one-sided look, but well produced, take a look at this website to see about the projects.
If you have been reading my blog, you maybe can get a sense for how fantastic this part of the world is. We drove and drove and got a peep of a remote and wild landscape that just goes on and on and on and on. Ironic that we saw it from a road which when it was put in dramatically altered the landscape but granted access to it. However, if you look at a map you can see that there is a whole lot more that is not accessible by road which feels really good.
Why does it feel good? I think it incredibly important for our psyche as humans to know there are places in the planet that are incredibly hard to get to and that are relatively unaltered by humans. Places where things can happen "naturally" and where an animal or plant may never know that humans exist. We need these places and there are very few of them in the world. The thing about these types of places is that once we affect them, it is very hard to go back. Or… if we do have an impact then we should try to minimize our impact in small ways.
Patagonian Chile has some mighty big rivers fed by some mighty big icefields and glaciers.
The Rio Baker is a turquoise blue or dull green (depending on how far down river you are looking at it) with a flow of 1000 cubic meters per second. That is a cube of water 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet passing by every second. It cuts through a few rock canyons on it 700 foot drop from the second largest lake in South America to the Pacific Ocean at Tortel. Depending on how you look at it, it just begs to have some dams put on it or it is spectacular river unlike anything I have ever seen and needs to be preserved as such. Megan and I both marveled at this river as we drove along it commenting that we just don't have rivers like this in the states- they are all dammed.
[perfect for damming] The plan is to build 2 mega dams along this bad boy and send the energy via high tension power lines thousands of miles up north to Santiago and even further north to the copper mines. There is also a plan to build another 3 dams further south of O'Higgins on the river that drains Lake O'Higgins.
Why does Chile need this much energy? Depends who you talk to, but copper mining is the source of income for Chile and copper mining needs energy. Also, Santiago is a growing metropolis and needs more electricity. The way it is put, they can get it from Hydro, or they can get it from burning gas.
Who wants to see a dam go in? The impact would be huge. Thousands of large construction trucks driving up and down the Austral. New roads put in to create the power lines? Enormous lakes where once there was only a beautiful river. 
My thought is this, and it is easy for me to have this thought since I don't actually have to make a decision and since I certainly do not know all of the facts, but thats what we do, make judgements on things without knowing all of the facts and without actually having to be culpable for our decisions, right?
Does Chile actually "need" the energy? Are there energy savings that can be made to put off needing more electricity? I bet there is. If in fact, they do need more energy, can they get it from smaller scale projects like microdams, solar (there is plenty of that in the north), and wind? I know these things cost more money are more of a pain in the butt than 2-3 mega dams, but is it worth the sacrifice to save these parts of Patagonia?
I suspect a few people and corporations have a lot to gain by building these new dams. These people have a lot of power and sway and know that if they keep pushing, the general apathy of society will allow it to happen.
But I'm just a guy who drove through on a motorcycle, burning gas the whole way, using electricity when it was available and who doesn't actually have to live with the affects of the project (or lack thereof). I think it is important for me to get information and form an opinion, but I have to keep an open mind and allow for the fact that I don't know everything and that my opinion could need to change. Or that if I hold my opinion, than my lifestyle could need to change to support my thoughts.

How did we get thrust into the Represas debate so quickly? Well, we drove through Patagonia for a while and were deeply affected by what we saw. But after finally getting gas in O'Higgins we decided to stay a night in Tortel, a town that until about 8 years ago was only accessible by boat. This town is built on the edge of a fjord with no flat land available anywhere. People just built their houses into the hillsides and then connected them by wooden walkways. So Tortel has no streets, only raised wooden walkways that zigzag down 7 km of rugged coastline. It is a interesting place to visit. 
It is also a difficult place to find safe parking for the motorcycles since there is generally a large (unsecure) gravel lot where cars park and then you walk into town.
We managed to find a dumpy place to stay that allowed our bikes to be somewhat close to us and since our bikes comfort is more important than ours, we hunkered down here for the night. As we were getting ready to cook our Pasta Panamericana for the night a french guy comes walking into town and also stays in our small little place. Since there is literally no open restaurant in town (it is low season), we offered to cook him food and we chatted. Turns out he is a journalist with a french new agency doing a 1 hour documentary on the dams. His angle is to interview the scientists who are measuring the impact of the project and doing the research on what the ecosystems of Patagonia. He's a very thoughtful, energetic person who has learned a lot about the projects, their impacts, and the implications. For those of you in Seattle, he reminded me a lot of Frank Huster (not only because he is french) but by his throw himself at the world with enthusiasm approach.As any good journalist (not editorialist) he refuses to have an opinion until after he has finished he work. He can see all sides of the story and I think because of this has been granted access to all sorts of interesting people. 
We thoroughly enjoyed passing a rainy evening huddled around a small wood stove learning about what Antoin had learned about.
I look forward to his documentary even though it will be in French. Perhaps I can get someone to translate for me.

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