Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hydropower Conflicts in Southern Chile

Chile is now relying on hydropower to support its amazing economic growth.  It is a country without oil, gas or coal reserves of its own.  Liquified natural gas (LNG) and coal imports are being increased, and there is some talk of expanding non-conventional renewable resources, but hydro represents at least 35% of the current energy mix and is likely to grow.  Somehow Chile needs to generate an additional 8000 MW of new power  by 2020 -- that's a 6% - 7% increase per year in electricity generation. The problem is, hydro has a variety of harsh impacts, especially when electricity has to be shipped 1,000 miles along an "electricity highway" that cuts through some of the most ecologically important areas in the world,  as well as the homelands of hundreds of thousands of indigenous (Mapuche) people.

I just spent several weeks with colleagues in northern and southern Chile (i.e. Patagonia) as part of an ongoing partnership between MISTI (MIT Science and Technology Initiative) and Universidad Austral de Chile (UACh).  In conjunction with the Consensus Building Institute we organized a Devising Seminar to explore the possibility of expanding opportunities for local and indigenous communities to participate in decisions about hydropower development that affects them.  A Devising Seminar is an informal event (usually a half day to a day) that brings together representatives (not in any official sense) of government, industry and civil society to hear each other out and think strategically about a difficult public policy question.  In our case, the question was, "How can communities, indigenous groups and environmental interests be given more of an opportunity to raise concerns and participate in hydro power decisions in a timely fashion?" The Devising Seminar, in Santiago, was facilitated (in Spanish) by skilled public dispute mediators. Before the event, confidential interviews were completed with carefully selected individuals. These were incorporated into a Background Document in which no one was quoted directly, but the scope and content of major disagreements was spelled out.  During the dialogue, points were raised in a respectful but passionate way. By the end of the discussion, the participants were surprised, I think, to discover more common ground than expected.  Everyone will benefit from early and constructive consultation with those likely to be effected by further hydropower development.  How such consultation ought to be structured, though, (i.e., should the laws regulating the scope and timing of Environmental Impact Assessment be changed?) will require further conversation.

Laws in Chile do not guarantee stakeholders much of a voice prior to final decisions being made about energy projects.  And, the country's Environmental Impact Assessment laws allow only 30 days for concerned citizens to review thousands of pages of technical material before decisions are finalized. While international law requires that indigenous people be consulted prior to decisions being made that might adversely affect them, Chile has been unclear about when and how this is supposed to happen. And, some indigenous leaders have made it clear that they expect to be on a more equal footing with the national officials when they meet to talk about such matters.

In some instances, the courts in Chile have stepped in, questioning the adequacy of regulatory reviews, even halting ongoing dam-building projects. But,  massive projects to which the government is committed will probably just be delayed temporarily.

Some way must be found, not just in Chile, to create a public space (I don't mean this in a literal sense) where energy policy-making and problem-solving can take place in a truly collaborative way.  There are certain projects that should probably not go ahead at all (in the locations proposed or in the manner  suggested). Affected groups should be able to point this out, early on, without having to argue that nothing of the sort should proceed anywhere.  Nor should they have to come up with technical solutions to all a country's problems in order to be taken seriously.  On the other hand, industry and government must be able to act after they have done everything they can to minimize and mitigate the adverse impacts of projects that are clearly in the public interest. Compensation might be required. In Canada, indigenous peoples are equity partners in certain energy projects. This gives them much more control over what happens as well as a share in the profits.  The ground rules for joint problem-solving need to be spelled out legislatively and administratively. Once they are, capacity building help (including money) must to be provided to communities of all kinds so they are ready to present their own view effectively.

I'm optimistic that Chile will make progress in the near future.  Public opposition to hydro development is growing. There is a chance this will spill over into growing opposition to all forms of energy development.  Energy companies are aware of this. They know they need to engage stakeholders in a timely way. Some experiments along these lines may be in the works.  A few successful efforts (even if they are not required by law) could pave the way for new legislation that would be probably be supported by all sides.  I'm hoping that my colleagues at UACh can assist energy companies and state and national agencies that want to pilot test new forms of collaborative problem-solving over energy development of all kinds.  I'm confident, from what I recently heard, that there are Mapuche and environmental leaders ready to partner if an offer to collaborate is made in good faith.