The Norwegian hydroelectric power giant SN Power has big plans for Chile. The company has already started constructing one plant and has another four projects on the drawing pad.
The planned plants have a total value of about NOK 3 billion (391 million €) and will be larger than any other investment the company has made abroad. SN Power, which is jointly owned by Statkraft and Norfund, believes it has nothing to worry about. “We perceive that the majority of the local population now welcomes the projects and considers this a possibility for jobs and local economic development,” SN Power told Norwatch.
The Chilean critics do not agree. “The resistance has never been greater,” claimed anthropologist Silvia Schoenenberger in the human rights organisation Observatorio de Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenos.
Chile’s indigenous population, the Mapuche Indians, have attempted to stop three of the company’s four planned projects. In September the Chilean Mapuches protested against the Norwegian hydroelectric project. Posters against the project have been hung along the roads in the area, and activists travel from village to village to mobilise against the hydroelectric plants.
The Mapuches have in the past century been marginalised in large areas of their traditional habitat in Chile. One of the main areas for their culture is today in the mountains in the eastern part of the country. There they to a great extent live on tourism. The Mapuche fear that the hydroelectric project will threaten their livelihood.
The Dictatorship Laid the Premises
“The company bought the rights to this water without considering that it is located in the middle of Mapuche territory”, anthropologist Schoenenberger told Norwatch.
She said the problem of water rights in Chile can be traced back to the time of the dictatorship. Then it became possible for individuals and companies to buy the right to rivers. As a result, many of the rivers in southern Chile are in the hands of national and international companies. These quickly end up in conflict with indigenous populations and other Chileans who have traditionally made use of the water.
According to Schoenenberger, the river water to which SN Power has bought the rights is already being used by local communities in the area. The water is important both for animal husbandry and agricultural purposes, and the population is unsure whether there is enough water for both the company and themselves.
“The importance of the water and the rivers to the Mapuche communities furthermore extends far beyond the simple use of the water”, said Schoenenberger and explained that the rivers have a deeply religious meaning to the inhabitants.
One of the mayors in the region, Alejandro Kohler, has also taken up the fight against the project. At a demonstration in September the mayor made an appeal against the plans. “Today there is a growing development in the tourist industry here. My opinion as a mayor is that the plants that may possibly be constructed here will disturb the development of the tourist industry”, Kohler told a Chilean newspaper.
“We must oppose a plant of this dimension, for it is not a matter of just one but at least three or four plants. That will have an extremely negative effect on our area, on our people and on our nature”, Kohler said.
SN Power, on the other hand, believes that the hydroelectric power plants only to a very small extent will be noticeable in their surroundings when they are finished. “Some stretches of the river will have reduced water flow, but we shall always maintain the minimum water flow necessary out of consideration for nature, animal life and the people dependent on the river water. The project will upgrade roads and other infrastructure in areas that today are not easily accessible and will in that respect contribute to increase the influx of tourists”, Marte Lerberg Kopstad of SN Power told Norwatch.
Kopstad explained the Mapuche’s scepticism towards the project in that, in previous hydroelectric developments in Chile, local wishes and needs have to a very small extent been taken into consideration. This is particularly true of a dam project in the nineties which resulted in the Mapuche community having to be relocated.
“SN Power is going to construct hydraulic power plants – that is, power plants without large dams. The water is withdrawn from the river and is sent through the turbines before it is led back into the river further down. Consequently, no one will be directly affected by or will have to move because of our projects. This is, however, not easy for the local population to understand, since they connect hydroelectric power primarily with large dams and forced relocation of villages”, Kopstad said.
Kopstad told Norwatch that the dialogue with the local population has improved during the past year and that the majority of the people now support the plans. The company will now carry out extensive analyses of the consequences for the environment and the community and has entered into a dialog with the population to explain the nature of the plans. SN Power has also engaged Mapuches and anthropologists in the dialog process with the local population, which started right after SN Power took over the water rights.
“If the studies were to indicate that the projects will have extremely great negative consequences that we can not manage, we shall have to shelve them. On the basis of what we know now, this does not seem likely”, Kopstad said.
SN Power is owned by Norfund (the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries) and Statkraft, with 50% each.