You thought we were done with Coyhaique posts? Not quite. See, I’d mentioned getting Rodolfo to guest post, but that is going to happen in approximately 2015, so I figured I’d try to just summarize from what he told me of a particularly interesting conversation he had with the men working in customs at the port in Puerto Chacabuco as I sat in the car in the pouring rain wondering if he was ever coming back. And yes, I really did love every second of our weekend, why do you ask?
It’s pretty impossible to visit Chile and not see the big billboard outside the airport calling for Patagonia Sin Represas – Patagonia without dams. I knew that there was an energy company, HidroAysén, that wants to put dams in several rivers in Chilean Patagonia to provide hydroelectric energy, and I knew that there was a big campaign called Patagonia Sin Represas which says the dams will ruin the natural beauty and the ecosystem. And honestly, that’s about all I knew. I have friends who’ve taken up the anti-represa cause, but I’ve stayed out of the debate because I didn’t feel educated enough to have an opinion. Obviously I’m not in favor of ruining gorgeous landscapes or killing animals, but to be totally honest, if messing up a bit of Patagonia means making a major leap forward in alternative energy that would prevent worse environmental problems in other places, I can see how that would be a fair trade-off.
I still don’t know all that much about the issue, but it’s hard to go to Patagonia, even the northern part of Patagonia just for a few days, and not have it come up. Our first conversation about HidroAysén was with a travel agent in Coyhaique itself. She was talking about how almost all the tourism in Coyhaique is geared toward international tourists who want luxury trips with fancy fly fishing lodges. Of course, if you’re damming up rivers, tourism might just dry up as well. The whole appeal of flying to the end of the earth is that it’s untouched, unspoilt, untamed. No one wants to make the long journey to Patagonia if there’s nothing to see. So score one for Patagonia Sin Represas – at least one local is on their side, and it seemed to us to make sense that plenty of other people whose livelihoods come from tourism would feel similarly. When we mentioned the campaign to stop the project, however, and how we knew a lot of people in Santiago who support it, she just shook her head and said that all this was decided under President Aylwin (1990-1994) and that HidroAysén was going to come in and complete its business deal regardless.
Conversation number two, as I said, occurred in Puerto Chacabuco, and it was surprising to both Rodolfo and me. Rodolfo asked about economic opportunity in Puerto Chacabuco – what do people do? are there chances to improve your lifestyle? – and was told that the main employer is the fishing plant. Because there’s no real competition, salaries are low. The men working at the port were hopeful that the arrival of HidroAysén would mean more jobs with potentially higher salaries. At the very least, it would give people two professional options instead of just one. And you know what? I respect that opinion. I understand that for me in Santiago, it’s easy to say “no, don’t ruin Patagonia, I want to go there on vacation and feel good just knowing it exists even if I never go!” But if you live there, and you’re having trouble making ends meet, and you don’t see any other options, I can definitely see how the idea of your professional horizons widening to double what you’ve got right now would be pretty attractive, and tough luck for the rivers.
I mentioned this second point of view to a colleague, however, and she brought up a good point. How long are those jobs going to last? I figured that there would be low-skilled jobs to be performed in the day-to-day running of a hydroelectric plant that the residents of Puerto Chacabuco, Coyhaique and surrounding areas could do, providing long-term economic opportunity. One source she found, however, indicates that once the dams themselves are built – which does create jobs for low-skilled employees – there’s not a whole lot to do without more education. Apparently plant maintenance requires fewer and more highly-skilled people than I was thinking. So while HidroAysén is technically right in encouraging the locals to get on board with the dams by promising jobs, the question is how long those jobs will last and whether they will really offer any kind of long-term change in locals’ lifestyles once the rivers have been blocked and the scenery’s been forever altered.
I don’t know that I feel much more educated on the whole issue post-Coyhaique in terms of being able to objectively weigh the positives and negatives and decide just how bad the dams are (vs. just how good any potential non-fossil fuel energy generation is). Having been there, I can say that I see why people are so anxious to protect this region, and I will be sad if such an amazing landscape is ruined. More than anything, however, our trip brought the issue of jobs and economic opportunity into my realm of consciousness. While we were there, Rodolfo and I were surprised to see that all tourism is focused on foreigners with big bucks, and we found it a shame that so many Chileans prefer to say they went to Brazil or Argentina over summer vacation – for a similar price since there aren’t many budget travel opportunities in Coyhaique. Perhaps creating lower cost lodging and tour options and encouraging domestic tourism would provide new jobs to locals, give more Chileans the chance to see such a beautiful part of their own country, and create more allies in the fight to keep Patagonia free of damaging industrial projects.