Susannah joined the Swoop team a couple of months ago after travelling to Patagonia in February. After cycling the Careterra Austral she explains what the rejection of the controversial ‘HidroAysen’ project means for Patagonia.
Along one of the final stretches of the Careterra Austral, between the last major ‘town’ of Cochrane and the turning to Tortel – the village miraculously built on wooden stilts by pioneering settlers in the 1950s – sharp-eyed travellers will see a hand-carved sign by a small track which reads ‘Refugio Rio Nadis’.
This little Eden, 10 km on from the road and comprising of an entirely self-sufficient farm and bunk-roomed hut with a cosy stove and interrupted views of glaciers, is so hidden that even the tourist kiosk in Cochrane hasn’t heard of it. Those who make it there – and the guest book is full of entries from visitors from all over the world – rightly describe it as a true refuge from the modern world.
But until the official rejection of the controversial ‘HidroAysen’ project by the Chilean government earlier this week , there was a real danger that refuge and its farm would one day be under 70 feet of water. The modern world was coming to Refugio Nadis invited or not.
The announcement on Tuesday, that Chile’s minister’s of agriculture, energy, mining, economy and health voted unanimously to reject the project, deciding to “side with complaints presented by the community,” will have been greeted with relief by some, skepticism by others.
Chile has an acknowledged energy crisis which requires a solution, and the project had the potential to bring jobs and infrastructure to the area. Hydro-electric is a cleaner solution to the problem than importing fossil fuels from Argentina.
But the cost to the landscape, and the resultant impact on local the tourism industry which is the lifeblood of many a family-run business here, would be substantial. In its entirety the project would have consisted of up to five dams, including one which would have tamed the mighty and majestic Rio Baker – famed also as the location of some of the best fishing in Patagonia – and the installation of over 1,500 miles of transmission lines.
As the main – indeed the only ‘roadway’ (much of the route is still gloriously unpaved) – the Careterra Austral and its landmarks would take the greatest hit. One of the most striking features of the Carretera is the absence of any sign of man for mile after mile, but to support the lines a brigade of pylons would have to march from the south of Chilean Patagonia to the north. The leafy temperate rainforest in Pumalin National Park, the small town of Puhuhuapi with its pioneer-built Bavarian houses, the fishermen’s lodges south of Coyhaique – all would be affected, with even the Careterra itself diverted away from a stunning stretch along major waterways. In its entirety the lines would reach to the far south, to such pristine wildernesses as Torres del Paine National Park.
Campaign objectors make the point that there are alternatives that would meet Chile’s energy needs: ample wind and solar, dynamic geothermal, as well as powerful tides. The Patagonia sin Represas‘ (Patagonia without Dams) website puts forward the idea that small, high-altitude hydro facilities could also do much to help meet demand without such a strong impact on the region.
The news on Tuesday was tempered with rumours that the project owners would likely appeal the decision. Whatever the ultimate outcome in Patagonia the landscape is changing fast.
My own trip took the form of a bike journey down the full length of the Careterra. At this speed there was plenty of time to take in the stunning scenery, but also to notice the miles of newly paved road (a guilty pleasure as it made riding easier, but a sure sign of change) and to count the ‘Patagonia sin Represas’ signs behind the diggers. Go now, while you still can.
We wrote a piece back in 2011 about the Hidroaysen project controversy that explains the issue in depth.