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Lago General Carrera, the second largest in South America after Lake Titicaca, is one of many pristine places that would be disfigured by the HidroAysen power lines.
As President Obama visits Chile, the nation looks toward even riskier solutions for its energy needs -- environment and public safety be damned. Sound familiar?

Third in a series. Read parts one and two.

Just a week ago, we all thought we knew what would happen when President Obama flew into Santiago today for his meetings with his Chilean counterpart, Sebastián Piñera. In the wake of the horrors of Fukushima, Chile and the United States would shunt their long-planned cooperation pact on nuclear energy onto the most discreet back burner they could find.

Well, it turns out we were wrong. U.S ambassador Alejandro Wolff and Chilean foreign minister Alfredo Moreno initialed the agreement last Friday. Piñera’s spin on this seems to be, what’s all the fuss about? These are only technical discussions, and nothing will actually be done to develop nuclear energy for years. Besides, Obama and I are signing agreements on all sorts of things -- let me tell you about our cool plan to bring more English teachers to Chile.

Fall 2006 Cover Story: Patagonia Under Siege

We’re all obsessed with things nuclear right now, which is understandable. But Piñera is right in a sense. Nuclear power in Chile is still more conceptual than real, and focusing on it to the exclusion of all else creates the risk that we will overlook other, more urgent problems. By which I don’t mean English teachers; I mean how far the two presidents will push the limits of what they consider to be "clean, safe energy."

The most pressing question of all, as I’ve been arguing for the past week, is the string of huge dams that a corporate consortium named HidroAysén is proposing to build in the remote south of Patagonia. Nuclear reactors may be a far-off prospect, but the Chilean government will rule on the dam proposal as early as April 15. The indications are that Piñera’s "all-the-above" view of energy development will prevail. Chile faces such a dire energy crisis, in other words, that it needs to build every power plant possible, environment be damned. Or dammed.

I wonder what Obama might think of the dam idea if he took a few days off after his visit to Santiago and took Michelle and the girls on a trip to the far south. Halfway to Patagonia, he would pass through the city of Concepción, which was devastated by an 8.8 magnitude earthquake a little over a year ago. Farther south, at the gateway to Patagonia, he would surely be stopped short by the stunning, snow-covered Osorno volcano, Chile’s answer to Mount Fuji. It’s one of the most active in South America, having erupted at least five times in the 19th century though not since. You might say it’s overdue.

The president would be over the Liquiñe-Ofqui seismic fault now, which runs north-south for more than 600 miles. Soon the dirt road would take him past the flattened cone of Chaitén, which erupted in 2008, burying a nearby town of the same name in ash. Farther still, beyond the town of Coyhaique, which was rattled during my own visit to Patagonia earlier this month by a 5.4 magnitude tremor -- small potatoes by Chilean standards -- Obama would come upon the spectacular Río Ibáñez. He would marvel at the sight of a dead forest, stretching for miles along the valley floor, a casualty of the Hudson volcano, whose eruption in 1991 was one of the largest of the 20th century.

I could go on, all the way to the mouth of the Río Baker, but I suspect you get the drift by now: this is a hell of a place to build five big dams and a 1,400-mile high-tension power line. And let’s not even talk about building nuclear plants in another of the world’s most seismically unstable countries.

Worse, volcanoes and earthquakes are not the only reason why HidroAysén’s plans are so reckless. There’s also the small matter of global warming, which brings the increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods, or GLOFs, from Patagonia’s vast Northern Ice Field. In the headwaters of the Río Colonia, one of the Baker’s main tributaries, is a lake called Cachet 2. There hadn’t been a GLOF at Cachet 2 since the 1960s, but since 2008 there have been seven (the most recent was two weeks ago). Each of them dumped about 50 billion gallons of icy water into the Colonia, and thence into a stretch of the Baker that lies smack in the middle of the two dams that HidroAysén plans to build on the river.

Don’t worry, says HidroAysén: our dams are designed to withstand floods twice as heavy as those caused by the recent GLOFs.

Worry, say the scientists who have studied Cachet 2; physical evidence suggests that past GLOFs may have discharged more than four times as much floodwater as those that have occurred in the past three years.

After tsunami-proof nuclear plants and leak-proof oil wells six miles deep in the Gulf of Mexico, does all this sound a little familiar?

The worst part of this story is not that an energy giant would disfigure one of the most beautiful places in the world; not that multibillion-dollar dams are dinosaurs that the rest of the world is tearing down faster than new ones are being built; and not that Hidroaysén (not to mention the investors who are supposed to pony up $7 billion for the project) is courting disastrous physical risks. It’s that the whole thing is totally unnecessary. Chile simply doesn’t need the additional 2,750 megawatts that the project would supply.

Chile’s problem is not that it lacks energy, but that it lacks a national energy policy. The massive privatization of the energy sector means that the development of new sources is driven not by any coherent plan but by the whims and profit motives of corporations with near-monopoly power. In his first year in office President Piñera has done nothing to change that. If examples are needed, look no further than his decision just last month to permit Eike Batista, the richest man in Brazil, to build six new coal-fired power plants -- another 2,100 MW -- on an environmentally sensitive stretch of the Chilean coast.

Piñera says that Chile will need to add another 14,000 MW to the capacity of its central grid by 2025, doubling its energy supply. But studies by Chilean and U.S. energy experts have argued that this claim is based on grossly inflated projections of future economic growth. More realistic estimates, coupled with a serious California-style energy efficiency program, could reduce the projected increase by half. (Piñera, unfortunately, has slashed the budget for Chile’s energy efficiency agency.)

The real silver bullet, however, is the country’s remarkable potential to develop genuinely renewable energy sources, not spuriously "green" ones like mega-dams. The Atacama desert, scene of last year’s emotional rescue of the 33 trapped miners, has limitless solar potential; astronomers flock to the Atacama because it has the clearest skies in the world. And in the greatest irony of all, the very things that make HidroAysén’s project so risky -- the volcanoes and seismic faults of the Pacific Ring of Fire -- also represent an untapped and virtually limitless source of geothermal energy.

To become competitive, of course, these energies of the future require the kind of start-up support and financial cushions against risk that only governments can provide. If corporate monopolies are allowed to dictate the rules of the energy market and meet the "need" with reckless projects like the dams on the Baker, they will remove the incentives for cleaner, safer, and more reliable renewable sources.

We’re at a historic crossroads right now, with one country after another making huge, far-reaching decisions about its energy future. Ever since the Pinochet dictatorship ended 20 years ago, Chile has prided itself -- with good reason -- on being a model for the developing world. President Piñera has a basic choice to make: he can make his reputation as a visionary leader, charting a path for the rest of the developing world, or he can be just one more laggard, doing things in the same old dirty, dangerous, and destructive way. And even if Obama doesn’t take that fantasy trip  to Patagonia, as he takes out his pen to sign the nuclear agreement he might ask himself the same question.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
The power line that would carry energy from Patagonia to Santiago would cut through the beautiful valley of the Rio La Paloma.
The plan for damming Chile’s spectacular unspoiled rivers has sparked public anger and engendered wide-ranging criticism. So why is it on the verge of approval?

Second in a series. Read part one.

COYHAIQUE, CHILE -- It’s hard to believe that last week -- March 11, to be exact -- marked the 20th anniversary of the departure from office of the late, unlamented General Augusto Pinochet, who presided over the darkest period in this country’s history. Yet there is a bitter irony to the story of Chile’s return to democracy. Pinochet may no longer be around to torture and murder his opponents, but the system he built lives on in other ways. Though his democratic successors have chipped away at the edges of his radical free-market experiment, economic power and political influence remain concentrated in a few private hands. And those hands are now poised to strangle one of the last untouched corners of the planet.

One of Pinochet’s most harmful legacies was the creation of a virtual private monopoly over two key sectors of the economy: water and energy. A law passed in 1981 gave corporations the right to buy, sell, and trade water like any other commodity -- and that meant primarily the right to harness the energy of the nation’s rivers by damming them. Expecting a corporation to own water rights without exploiting them is a little like expecting a farmer to leave his fields permanently fallow.

Fall 2006 Cover Story: Patagonia Under Siege

On the eve of Pinochet’s departure, a company called Endesa (then in Chilean hands, now Italian-controlled)  was granted the right -- free of charge and in perpetuity -- to develop the most powerful rivers in Patagonia. It is now the majority partner in a consortium called HidroAysén, which plans to build five mega-dams on the pristine Baker and Pascua rivers, deep in the Patagonian wilderness.

As required by Chilean law, HidroAysén presented its original environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project  in November 2008. The 10,000-page submission was greeted with thousands of critical comments, which basically told the developers that while their document might be useful as a doorstop, it had little value as a serious piece of analysis of the likely environmental damage.

If the government now approves HidroAysén’s latest round of revisions -- which will be delivered on April 15 -- Endesa and its local partner, Colbún, which is owned by one of the richest families in Latin Americawill control close to 90 percent of energy generation for Chile’s central electricity grid. As if that weren’t enough, HidroAysén has also applied for mining concessions along the path of the 1,400-mile transmission line that will carry the juice to the capital, Santiago. (Mining, thanks in part to soaring copper prices, is the main force driving Chile’s rampaging demand for energy.)

Also, by what one could politely call a quirk of Chilean law, the environmental impacts of the dams and the transmission line have to be assessed separately. The moment the dam assessment is approved by the government, HidroAysén starts pouring cement. But the power line study does not fall due until September. I think in the trade this is called creating a fait accompli.

For opponents of the dams, the great conundrum is how a plan that continues to sidestep all the basic criticisms that have been leveled at it, may still be given the green light. The answer is that it’s all about power. Public opinion polls show that a consistent majority of Chileans oppose large-scale energy development in Patagonia. But the task of actively opposing it falls to a collection of small and desperately underfunded local environmental and civic groups, who, together with some larger international organizations (including NRDC) have banded together in a loose coalition called the Council for the Defense of Patagonia.

Even with their limited resources, the opponents of the dams made some impressive early headway. They successfully dramatized the threat by publicizing photo-montages of gorgeous landscapes disfigured by power lines. They started the first serious debate about energy efficiency as an alternative to endless new power plants. And they put Patagonia -- a place that had been as remote to many Chileans as deep space -- squarely on the national political agenda.

HidroAysén responded with a publicity offensive of its own, as fierce and powerful in its way as the waters of the Río Baker. In came Burson Marsteller, the 800-pound gorilla of global public relations. The firm has long experience in this sort of fight. Its previous clients include Union Carbide after the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, Philip Morris in its fight against tobacco regulation, and the designers of the Three Mile Island plant after the partial core meltdown in 1979.

The campaign started with scare tactics. TV commercials warned that Chile would grind to a standstill without more energy: a woman pressed an elevator button and power cut out to a hospital operating theater; another switched on her hairdrier, and the national soccer stadium went dark -- the equivalent for fútbol-crazed Chileans of a blackout during the Super Bowl. Recently, the approach has become more subtle. Literally the first billboard a visitor sees today on leaving Santiago’s international airport is an eco-friendly message from HidroAysén: A FAVOR DEL AGUA. Limpia. Renovable. Chilena. FOR WATER. Clean. Renewable. Chilean.

Our Rivers Are Much More Than Energy: An anti-dam billboard near Lago General Carrera on Chile's southern highway, the Carretera Austral.

Anti-dam billboards do show up along the Carretera Austral, the dirt road that runs north-south through Patagonia, planted in fields and forest clearings that presumably are cheaper to rent than an airport off-ramp. In Coyhaique, 1,100 miles from Santiago and the only town of any size in the region, local anti-dam activists invited me to attend a Saturday demonstration and concert. By a generous count there were 300 people at the rally, if I included the babies in strollers. Posters around the stage showed sinister men from Endesa with dark glasses, briefcases, and skinny ties. Two rappers chanted slogans denouncing the corporation as mentirosa, engañosa, ladrona -- lying, thieving cheats. The sense of an unequal battle is very strong down here.

Two hundred miles farther south, in Cochrane, the small, remote settlement that would be the hub of the dam-building operation, Tatiana Aguilera, a member of the town council, acknowledged gloomily that opinion is split. The siren song of the dam-builders is potent: HidroAysén means progress, modernity, a microwave oven. There will be jobs, of course -- 5,000 of them, the dam-builders promise, though most will be temporary and few will go to locals, who lack the requisite skills. HidroAysén will also bring scholarships for local kids, digital connectivity, money for the soccer team. When you’re about to throw $7 billion at something (an estimated $3.2 billion for the dams and $3.8 billion for the transmission line), greasing the wheels like this comes out of petty cash.

Opponents of the dam say they spend a lot of time debating how to turn their relative weakness into strength. Is this a case of David and Goliath, where they search for the single well-placed stone? Or are they Lilliputians, trying to tie down Gulliver with a thousand strings of publicity, litigation, technical argument, street demonstrations, YouTube videos, whatever it takes to buy a little time?

The shred of good news is that all is not lost, at least not yet. A decision on the EIA may be imminent, but for all HidroAysén’s wealth and political clout, the most significant doubts and technical questions remain unanswered. For opponents of the project, there may still be a little time left for both Lilliputian strings and David’s slingshot. The dams will threaten endangered species and flood portions of an iconic national park. Both dams and transmission line must run a gauntlet of floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Look at the map and you’ll see that  Patagonia lies at one end of the Ring of Fire, the lethal string of seismic fault lines that girdles the Pacific Ocean. At the other end, in case we need reminding, is Japan.

Coming Monday in The Edge: As President Obama visits Chile, we examine why it is too risky to build giant dams in the Ring of Fire -- and why Chile doesn’t need them anyway.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
Patagonia's Baker River
The Chilean government is poised to give an energy consortium permission to build a string of five colossal dams on Patagonia's pristine Baker River and the nearby Pascua River, producing a total of 2,750 megawatts of power.
At the tip of South America lies the most beautiful untamed river in the world. Are we willing to tear up Patagonia for power and profit?

First in a series. Read parts two and three.

COCHRANE, CHILEAN PATAGONIA -- Normally I’m allergic to hyperbole. People who toss around overused (and more often than not inaccurate) words like unique and pristine, or describe everything from the Grand Canyon to a babbling brook in Connecticut as totally awesome, can be deeply annoying. But I will make an exception to this general rule in the case of the Río Baker, here in the remote south of Chile. I will go out on a limb, in fact, and say that this may be the most beautiful untamed river in the world. If you disagree, please send photographs to support your nominations.

There’s a belief, deeply rooted in the 19th century and still passionately held by many environmentalists, that untouched wilderness like southern Patagonia is the true, authentic face of the world, and that encountering it teaches us who we are, what we should be, and how we have fallen from grace. Again, I tend to stop short of such a sweeping view of things. Philosophically, I see our coexistence with the land as necessarily a tough, pragmatic battle, in which we preserve what we can and make bitter compromises where we must. But even for the pragmatist, there are places like the Baker, where the utter wildness and beauty overwhelm all thoughts of compromise, where you want to build some environmental equivalent of the Great Wall of China and hang a sign that says “OFF LIMITS. FOREVER.”

Ironically, it’s the very wildness of the Baker (Chileans pronounce it Backer) that now places it at risk, for there is always someone who looks at this kind of raw power and says, what a waste, what a squandering of potential profits. In Chile, that someone is an energy consortium called HidroAysén. And forever, in the case of the Baker, may mean just another month or so -- the period in which the Chilean government is likely to give its seal of approval to a plan by HidroAysén to bury long stretches of the Baker and the nearby Pascua in cement and steel.

Fall 2006 Cover Story: Patagonia Under Siege

Arguing that the country faces a critical energy deficit between now and 2025, HidroAysén has been lobbying for the past five years, against bitter opposition, to build a string of five colossal dams on these two pristine rivers, producing a total of 2,750 megawatts of power. That’s bigger than the Hoover Dam and equivalent to more than a quarter of the total current capacity of Chile’s central electricity grid. In themselves, these five dams would be no more than ugly, useless slabs of masonry, stuck away in the middle of nowhere. But the even greater affront to the land is that carrying all those megawatts to Chile’s urban and industrial heartland will also mean building a 1,400-mile transmission line, a parade of 6,000 pylons, each as much as 262 feet tall, marching north to the capital, Santiago.

Think of this transmission line as a gigantic power strip. Once it is built, every other wild river in Patagonia can be plugged into it at will like a domestic appliance. And under a unique Chilean law, the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship, Endesa, the Spanish-owned majority partner in the HidroAysén consortium, owns the rights to develop most of those rivers, too. (Note: Click photos to read captions.)

When I first came to Patagonia five years ago, I described the fight over the Baker (which was then just beginning) as a "global parable." (See "Patagonia Under Seige," Fall 2006.) I believe that more than ever today, because the HidroAysén project poses some of the most fundamental questions of our time. Where do we draw the line in our insatiable demand for energy? If not in Patagonia, then where? Can we meet our needs in a rational and far-sighted way, or do we mortgage the future to the entrenched interests of powerful corporations like Endesa? At a moment in history when the whole world has to make fundamental choices about its long-term energy strategies, which path will Chile take? That’s more than a parochial question: Chile’s self-image is bound up with the belief that the country represents a model for the developing world, and on March 21 President Sebastián Piñera is scheduled to welcome Barack Obama to Santiago -- the principal item on their agenda being clean energy, no less.

This channel connects Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca, with Lago Bertrand, the source of the Baker.I’ll try to answer each of those questions over the next few days, but for now let’s just stick to the Río Baker, and consider, with the help of a few admittedly amateur snapshots, what is at stake.

Some great rivers begin as tiny mountain rills. Not the Baker, which emerges full-blown from a lake, Lago Bertrand, and rushes southward, already hundreds of feet wide, in unearthly shades of turquoise and pale emerald. Stretches of fast, unbroken current give way to thunderous waterfalls as the river negotiates its path through dense forests, rocky chasms, and lower, drier hills that hint at the steppes of Argentine Patagonia, on the other side of the Continental Divide.

In this interval of arid land, the Río Chacabuco enters from the east, carrying its load of milky blue glacial silt. This is where the 660 MW Baker 1 will be built. Ten miles or so farther downstream is the chilly outpost settlement of Cochrane, the only town of any consequence for hundreds of miles. ("Consequence" meaning two and a half thousand people.) Cochrane is an end-of-the-road kind of place that still carries the aura of the pioneers who began to hack out a living in southern Patagonia a century or so ago. It is a small collection of grid pattern streets lined with homes that are rustic yet charmless, with walls of bare boards or unfinished cedar shingles and roofs of corrugated metal. Smoke from wood fires drifts from tin chimneys. Yet Cochrane would be the nerve center of the HidroAysén enterprise, the hub of a network of trucking routes, port facilities, storage depots, and temporary encampments for the 5,000 or so transient workers building the dams.

South of Cochrane, the washboard dirt road to the Pacific follows the river, past the site of the Baker 2 dam (360 MW), through an ever-lonelier land. On the 80-mile drive to Caleta Tortel, where the river meets the salt, I count fewer than a dozen vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Most are pickups driven by local colonos who work a scattered handful of farms and ranches in the back country. One is the morning bus to Cochrane. A pair of Nordic-looking bikers in Spandex labor their way up a steep incline. A father and son in brown ponchos and the traditional Basque beret of southern Patagonia wheel their horses onto a dirt track leading off into the hills.

Along the way, the Baker picks up one tributary after another. By quirks of geology, soil, vegetation, and gradient, these contribute waters of staggering variety. There are rivers that are chocolate with mud, others that run as clear as gin, others that meander deep-green through forests of native ñirre, coïgue, and lenga. Many carry the runoff from glaciers, tinted every imaginable shade of green, blue, white, even yellow. By the time the Baker reaches its final, open floodplain, it is a surging brown flood a half-mile wide. Brian Reid, an American limnologist, tells me, "The Baker and undammed glacial rivers like it probably contribute 95 percent of the dissolved silica in the fjords of southern Chile. That’s essential for diatoms, the base of the food webs that drive ocean productivity." Dams put an end to all that.

Tiny Caleta Tortel is tucked into a misty fjord between the great (though rapidly melting) northern and southern Patagonian ice fields, the largest reserves of  frozen water on the planet other than those in Greenland and at the poles. Tortel is one of the stranger human settlements. The road stops short of town. The 500 or so inhabitants are served only by a network of red-cedar walkways, which give the whole place the faint smell of a mothproof closet. Boats, more dead than alive, are strewn about on the foreshore among the reeds and fallen cedar limbs.

A few windows have stickers that say Patagonia Sin Represas -- "Patagonia Without Dams." Others have hopeful signs directed at the few tourists, offering boat rides to the Montt and Steffen glaciers, or to the Island of the Dead, a scrap of dry land in the estuary of the Baker that contains the graves of 120 men. They were employed by the Sociedad Explotadora del Baker, an early, failed attempt to colonize this region for cattle ranching. They died in 1906. The official version is that they succumbed to scurvy after a supply ship failed to arrive. But locals tell me darker rumors, that the men were poisoned en masse by their employers to save on wages. Even the limited human history of the Baker is wild and mysterious.

Looking down on the deep-green fjord from the highest point of Tortel’s cedar walkways, my mind turns again to the problem of hyperbole. Crimes against nature is another of those overused phrases that grate on me. But if there was ever a case that justified its use, it is the proposal to dam the Baker, surely a crime against nature on an epic scale.

Coming Thursday in The Edge: How giant corporations acquired power over Chile’s water and energy sectors and ran roughshod over local opposition and environmental concerns.


1: In a swirl of glacial colors, the Río Manso meets the Río Ibáñez. The rights to develop the Ibáñez are also owned by Endesa. Return to story.

2: This channel connects Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca, with Lago Bertrand, the source of the Baker. Return.

3: The Baker surges through a canyon close to the site of the proposed Baker 1 dam. Return.

4: The Río Chacabuco (entering the Baker from the right) runs through land owned by American millionaires Doug and Kris Tompkins, who hope to turn it into a national park. Return.

5: The valley of the Río Baker has long, desolate stretches framed by distant snowpeaks. Return.

6: Four miles of cedar walkways link the scattered houses of Caleta Tortel and climb into the surrounding hills. Return.

7: In Caleta Tortel, local boatmen offer trips to the Steffen Glacier, named for one of the earliest explorers of southern Patagonia. Return.

Photos by George Black.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
Chile's booming, energy-hungry economy threatens one of the wildest, most beautiful places on earth. A global parable.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in our Fall 2006 issue.

I'm drenched beyond imagining. Sloshing and squelching along the trail, through a steady drip of rain, it's hard for me to fathom how any place on the planet could be this wet. The coastal rainforest of Chilean Patagonia, cut through by sheer-sided fjords and furious rivers and rimmed with snowcapped volcanoes, glaciers, and vast freshwater ice fields, gets 240 inches -- 20 feet! -- of rain a year. It's easy to understand why the Chilean poet Mario Miranda Soussi celebrated the region as La Patagonia de la Tierra y el Agua infinita, despedazada en un torrente de amor, navegando un solo río henchido de milagro: Patagonia of infinite land and water, torn apart by a torrent of love, navigating a single river swollen by miracles.

The Pumalín nature sanctuary, 700,000 acres of dense, primordial green, belongs to a wealthy American named Douglas Tompkins. The biodiversity of the place is staggering. Half the plants here grow nowhere else on the planet. Soaring above the forest canopy are Pumalín's prized alerce trees, known as "the redwoods of the Andes." The Linnaean name for the alerce is Fitzroya cupressoides; Charles Darwin named the tree for Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle, when he visited Chile in the 1830s. The alerce can grow as high as 200 feet. Smitten by its light weight, straight grain, and resistance to rot, loggers loved it almost to death. The alerces in Pumalín are some of the last survivors, and the near destruction of the tree is a kind of Chilean morality tale, for this is a country whose economy is based, to an extreme degree, on the extraction of raw materials and the destruction of natural resources.

My guide is Gerardo, who is married to the director of Doug Tompkins's Pumalín Foundation in the town of Puerto Montt, an hour away by small plane, six hours by the ramshackle ferry that makes the journey each day, though only in the (relatively) dry summer months. Gerardo has been guiding here for 10 years, and the highlight of our time together so far has been the sudden sighting of a reclusive pudú, a miniature deer that stands as high as a terrier, with the face of a bat. It's the first he's ever seen.

The deep silence of the forest is broken only by the sound of rain on leaves and the occasional cry of the purple and brown chucao, whose descending call is uncannily like the laughter of a loon -- only truncated after the first four notes. Gerardo stops abruptly and crushes a leathery, serrated leaf between finger and thumb -- tepa, he says, or Chilean laurel. The leaf gives off a concentrated fragrance that suggests oranges and cinnamon and cloves. It's not to be confused with the tepú growing next to it, whose intensely copper-red wood is so packed with energy, Gerardo tells me, that you can't use it in wood stoves; it will explode. Presumably someone made this discovery the hard way.

We're close to our destination now, the trail turning into a ship's ladder of tree roots, water streaming over our hands and feet, rain penetrating every crevice of our clothing, until at last we're standing on a rocky overlook, face-to-face with a thunderous double waterfall, giant tree ferns clinging to the rock face in a perpetual curtain of mist. And the truth is that there are plenty of people in Chile, powerful people, who would stand on this rock, contemplate the torrent, and think, God, what a waste of energy.


The country's largest energy utility, Endesa, recently announced plans to build four giant dams in Chilean Patagonia, a pair on each of the region's two biggest rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. A heterodox coalition of local residents, environmentalists, energy experts, business leaders, and wealthy landowners (including both Chileans and foreigners such as Doug Tompkins) has already taken shape to oppose the dams, and a great deal rides on the outcome. In a sense, you can think of this fight as a Latin American version of the conflict over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In both cases, two completely different things are at stake -- on one hand the survival of a unique wild ecosystem, on the other the underlying premises of national energy policy.

And the fight to save the rivers of Patagonia is not just a local matter, for what happens in Chile tends to have repercussions throughout the developing world. Chile's particular misfortune is to have served repeatedly as a laboratory for social experiments of one kind or another. From 1970 to 1973, under President Salvador Allende, it was a cold war battleground, a litmus test of Washington's tolerance of a democratically elected socialist government. For the next 17 years it endured the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and his brutal military and secret police. While millions of Chileans experienced the Pinochet era as a nightmarish dystopia, others hailed it as a miracle, a showcase for free-market absolutism that economists around the world soon hurried to emulate. Since 1990, when Pinochet departed the scene, Chile has steadily clawed its way back to democracy, and once again it has played the role of global exemplar -- but this time for its peaceful transition from military to civilian rule. In many respects, Chile's most recent presidential election is the culmination of that process. The new president, who took office in March, is Michelle Bachelet -- socialist, feminist, single mother, former political prisoner, torture survivor, and self-proclaimed environmentalist.

Yet there is an enormous paradox at the heart of Chile's return to democracy, for no civilian government since Pinochet's demise (Bachelet's being the fourth) has dared to tinker much with the radical free-market ideology fostered by the military. The watchword of the Chilean "miracle" has been headlong growth, currently running at about 6 percent a year. Arriving in the capital, Santiago, for the first time in almost 20 years, it was impossible not to be struck by the dizzying array of prestige projects: a gleaming new airport, a sweeping autopista that whisks you past the slums to the city center, a spotless and efficient subway system.

These megaprojects are the high-profile symbols of Chile's success, their message being that unfettered economic growth and the return to democracy are joined at the hip. But there is a drastic, if as yet invisible, cost. Energy demand is growing even faster than the gross domestic product, and the government says that Chile will need to double its energy production every eight years if its miracle is to be sustained. According to Endesa -- once state-owned, then privatized in 1987 under Pinochet, and now part of a larger Spanish corporation -- the silver bullet is hydropower. But Endesa's opponents say the dams on the Baker and the Pascua are only the first step; if the logic of Chile's current growth model goes unchallenged, then the major rivers of Patagonia will fall like so many dominoes, destroying one of the last truly wild places on the planet. And that, says Doug Tompkins, never a man to mince words, is total insanity.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
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