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HidroAysén

Snaking along the Carretera Austral our last views of the mighty Rio Baker flashed before us through the bus windows like scenes from a movie we’d seen once, but needed to watch again to fully comprehend. Heading north for the first time during our trip, there was a palpable feeling of longing to turn the bus around and to keep the journey moving south. The end of our time in Chile for most of us was a mere four days and 40 some odd hours of bus rides away. The mission was still on, as we were heading straight into the lion’s den, so we pressed onwards, back to Coyhaique, to confront HidroAysén.

A little background on Hidro-Aysén is necessary here. The project to develop five large-scale hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers has gone through numerous iterations, as some of the parties involved have had plans for developing these rivers for over 20 years. As the political climate and on the ground situation has changed, so has the strategy and plans for the project. In its current form the Hidro-Aysén project is being proposed by a corporation created solely to deal with all the components of that specific project, also by the name HidroAysén. They have a small office in Cochrane and a pretty large staff in Coyhaique. A PR representative from this entity is who we’d be meeting with.

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Answers, and More Questions

We were happy that we were even getting the opportunity to speak with HidroAysén at all, but when you get a PR person you generally have to go in expecting responses as fluffy as the wave holes on the Rio Baker. We game planned before the meeting on how to push their representative deep enough to get some real responses to the conflicting claims we had heard throughout our trip. We were pleasantly surprised though at the candidness of the responses from Maria Irene Soto, the representative we spoke with. It seemed as if the developers had finally realized that people had grown weary of their secrecy and false promises, and that they were at least going to attempt to meet the opposition to their project face to face.

This realization probably has a lot to do with the popular resistance and the political reality they are currently facing. The conservation groups strategy of stalling the project to death was admittedly working and we found that they were in fact going to go a different route through legal maneuvering to try and get the transmission lines built. They confirmed the semi-nightmare scenario that we had already heard rumors of, that their new strategy was to move a bill through the state legislature which would have the government, not the corporation, building the transmission lines to meet, not only their projects needs, but the needs of proposed hydro-electric projects from Cochrane to Santiago.

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The silver lining for those fighting against the dams is that the project is essentially at a standstill until the transmission line bill succeeds or fails. Maria also answered all of our questions about how many people would actually be displaced, where the energy would end up, how they were going to meet their promise of cutting the energy costs in Cochrane in half, the plan for other hydro-projects in Patagonia and a host of others. We nailed her down for over an hour and her answers were almost alarmingly satisfactory. We didn’t always agree with her but it was apparent that she was being as transparent and forthcoming as possible with Hidro-Aysén’s current situation and plans for the future.

It was interesting to sit down with the boogeyman and realize that these people are just trying to do their job and what they think is best for the country. We came away from the meeting confirming our thoughts going in, that these dams and the future of Patagonia should be up to the Chilean people and will ultimately be decided by the political will of the people’s representatives. Coming from the United States it’s kind of the best thing you can hope for right? Democracy in action or something like that. Just like us, they elect leaders and pray they do the right thing but usually expect the opposite. Then they take to the streets and demand what they want and they sometimes get it. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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Many Too Many Hours on a Bus

We went directly from our meeting to grab our gear from the hotel, drop the boats to be shipped back to Pucon and then straight to the bus station. It was now time for 36 hours of basically in a row bus rides. The question of why in God’s name we were trying to use public transportation to make this film might be crossing your mind about now. It’s true, this was not ideal in some respects, but it was a fun challenge while also providing for two critical functions. First and foremost it was just the cheapest route we could travel with the size of our crew. Secondly it forced us to travel with the people, to be cognizant of the lives going on around our project and to keep us from getting too insulated by our immediate circle of influence.

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Reflection

While riding the bus for long periods of time there was plenty of time to reflect on our new understanding after every stop during the tour. The 36 hour ride back to Santiago probably afforded a little too much time for this and boxed wine was substituted for reflection during a number of the evening bus hours. Looking back though it was amazing how far we’d come. Without an exact plan (by design of course) we’d managed to get more on the ground information than we’d ever expected. Our understanding of not only hydro-electric development in Patagonia, but really of how development in wild places happens across the world continually grew throughout the journey.

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Staring out the bus window, I couldn’t help looking back on the amount of contributions to our project, the willingness to jump on the train for the ride and put some serious work into our mission, from people who we weren’t even remotely counting on, didn’t even really know before the trip, how big a role they played and really how the trip wouldn’t have even been possible without them. We got seriously lucky.

We became acutely aware of the complexities surrounding the development of free-flowing rivers and it was amazing to see the personal evolution of everyone involved. During the day we rarely stopped to contemplate the new information and ideas as they came to light during our investigation. As evening crept in though, with the wine flowing freely we’d lay all our newly acquired bits and pieces to the puzzle down and arrange them until the picture became clearer than it was the day before. A truly enthralling process, one that relied heavily on the excellence of our team, and was an attribute of this trip that made this experience one we won’t soon forget.

By the Numbers

  • Hours on a bus: 76 (avg per person)
  • Miles paddled: 147 (avg per person)
  • Miles Traveled: 13,744 (avg per person)
  • Gigabytes of footage: 1,100
  • White bread sandwiches: 29 (avg per person)
  • Bottles of wine: 11 (avg per person)
  • Interviews: 24
  • Guys thrown in the lake while wrestling: 1 (Pete)
  • Extra team members for entire trip: 2
  • Travel days: 9
  • Total days: 32
  • Paddling days: 12 (avg per person)
  • Kayak Swims: 0 (total, not even Pete)
  • Guys with one eye: 1
  • Guys who drank pisco and sour glass with prosthetic eye in it: 1 (Jesse)

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Many thanks for the ridiculous digs on the Futa and unbelievable logistics support provided by Bryan Maddox. Many thanks to “Big Wave” Dave Kashinski for deciding that our cause was a worthy adventure to jump on board with and volunteer as much time and energy into the project as anyone. Many thanks to everyone who brought us in and took the time out of their lives to educate us and/or help us logistically to make this trip a reality – Aren, Samuel, Jaime, Marcos, Roberto, Nathaniel, Christian, Ian, Diego, and many more. Finally, many thanks to all our supporters large and small. Without you none of this would have been possible… and my wife might have killed me. What a journey! Thank you! Realize we are hard at work now trying to make our experience come alive and hopefully share at least a piece of what what we learned with you and everyone else we can reach.

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