Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” —Albert Einstein
When I left for the Futaleufu, I thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip. Now, fully in thrall of the most enchanting landscape and culture I’ve ever visited, I ache to return. I want to run the bigger water I haven’t made it to yet. I want to learn some more Spanish and feel less like an alien. I want to bring my family.
If my only barriers were time and money, I’d feel pretty confident that the chance will come around again, that my trip-of-a-lifetime could evolve into a repeat pilgrimage. Sadly, however, time may be running out for the Futaleufu Valley as the government of Chile edges toward a course of massive multi-river hydropower development that would profoundly alter all of Patagonia. The Futaleufu itself has two proposed dam sites that would not only submerge the river’s whitewater but also destroy the local economic base of ranching and tourism.
It’s a depressingly familiar story—the local people stand to lose their lands, their livelihoods, their way of life, and their connection to their heritage, all in the name of economic development for people living elsewhere. The whole HidroAysen project would both drown the major rivers draining Patagonian Chile and create in the world’s largest clearcut in the form of a 1200 mile long high-voltage transmission corridor. The audacity of such a scheme in a region as remote and beautiful and culturally unique as Patagonia is nothing short of breathtaking. I’d compare it to the kind of thinking in this country that led to proposals for dams and reservoirs in the Grand Canyon only forty years ago, culminating in an environmental battle that seems patently preposterous today. Chileans, I am told, love Patagonia with the same sort of national pride that we have for our own signature National Parks; will the HidroAysen proposal be the undoing of unspoiled Patagonia or a catalyst for its sustainable future?
Even as opposition grows throughout the region, however, the latest headlines detail new proposals by the Chilean government to throw around enough money to try to hush the locals. “Here, tell us what you think of this idea—we’ll take away your honest livelihood, destroy your way of life, and rape the landscape you call home, but you get to live on energy-project-supported welfare from this day forward.”
Now, I understand Chile has its own energy crisis to deal with and is in desperate need for solutions. And I appreciate that hydropower is a renewable and “clean” energy source. But before you try to sell me on the need for and the righteousness of damming the Futaleufu, can we try some simple alternatives? Madam President Bachelet, for the cost of one dam, how many inefficient light bulbs in Santiago could be replaced with CFL or LED technology? How many roofs could be fitted with solar panels? How many homes could be insulated? What about large-scale solar-thermal generation in the Atacama Desert or geothermal development anywhere in your narrow country (which sits smack-dab on top of the infamous Ring of Fire)?
Forty years from now, I think future generations of Chileans will look back and find it preposterous that we could even contemplate damming the Futaleufu. I just hope they don’t look back in sorrow for our lack of vision. That said, I’ve got one or two quick emails to send.