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Requiem for the Biobio
Penny Cabot joins the Pehuenche people of southern Chile to protest at
the fate of one of the last great free-flowing rivers of the world.

It is 10 October 1996 and, in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks of the Andes of south-central Chile, a large and unusual gathering is taking place.

By invitation of the Pehuenche – ancestral occupants of the Alto Biobio region – a group of indigenous leaders from the US and Canada, and special delegates from Nepal and Brazil, have come together with over 2,000 indigenous representatives and environmental activists from all over Chile. They want to draw attention to plans for the second of six dams proposed for the magnificent Biobio river.

An 11-member delegation, accompanied by Pehuenche leaders, has made the long journey up the mountain road to the Alto Biobio to participate in a Nguillatun, a traditional three-day Pehuenche ceremony. The ceremonial grounds where they gather will be flooded if the new Ralco dam goes ahead.

Large buses follow the delegation’s vans, barely managing to navigate the rugged road. They carry Aymara and Atacameños from the north, Huilliches from Chiloé Island in the south, and students and activists. They travel up the Biobio valley, leaving tiny hamlets and the devastation of the first dam – Pangue – far behind, up through the native forests, sacred canelo trees bearing creamy-white flowers lining the sides of the road. Every so often a small shrine lies nestled in the mossy roots and rocks beneath a tree.

At the tail of the huge, newly-filled Pangue reservoir the vans stop at a small, pre-fabricated house belonging to the family of Guillermo Salamanca and Irma Curriao. The travellers sit around the cookstove in the dim light, sipping from a communal mug of maté tea. They hear how this family was physically assaulted by their landlord, anxious to evict them from their home which borders the new reservoir. The land is now valuable for building. Irma and her husband refused to move. Along with a dozen other families they have taken their case to court. Spring winds carry cherry blossom through the air – the trees were planted by the ancestors of this same family generations ago – for what is surely the last time. The Curriao’s story is not uncommon.

Further on, high on a bluff surrounded by the forests of the Biobio watershed, Juan Pablo Orrego, director of GABB (Grupo de Accion por el Biobio) draws an imaginary line through the air. It shows where the l50-metre-high water line of the reservoir will run, outlining a creature with legs like a spider, creeping up every small tributary, inundating the entire area and forcing the people who live here to leave.

The Biobio River lost its battle to be free-flowing in 1992 when ENDESA – Chile’s largest utility company, privatized in the last days of General Pinochet’s dictatorship – started construction of the $465 million Pangue Dam. Some $70 million came from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector lending arm of the World Bank, and loans from other European lending institutions. The IFC invested in Pangue as a ‘stand-alone’ project, despite indications that it would be first in a series of six dams and was designed to work in conjunction with Ralco upstream.

At that time Chile was just emerging into a new, post-Pinochet democracy and had no environmental legislation, nor laws protecting indigenous peoples. Now, as the proposals for the Ralco dam proceed, Chile has both. Their strength is being tested for the first time. In May last year ENDESA submitted studies to the Government environmental agency, CONAMA, which concluded that the Ralco project was not viable. But the Government did not see fit to abide by its own agency’s conclusions and pressured CONAMA into allowing a second report to be submitted.

GABB went to Washington DC to file a complaint with the World Bank on behalf of the Pehuenche. As a direct result – and for the first time in its history – the World Bank agreed to investigate the IFC’s role. Two new studies for the World Bank are believed to draw negative conclusions, but have not been made public.

The campaign to stop the Ralco dam gained momentum from last October’s gathering. Many traditional leaders at the Nguillatun spoke with deep feeling about building alliances between indigenous groups and working together on common causes, nationally and internationally. Members of the delegation agreed to work with the Pehuenche on an international campaign to denounce the actions of the Chilean Government and to take the issue to the UN. A group of Pehuenche will travel to Europe. They will also take their case to any international lending institution that considers investing in the Ralco project.

The most compelling reason not to build the Ralco dam is that the Pehuenche are opposed to it. They have a legal and moral right to stay in this diverse and fragile ecosystem, as they have for generations.

Penny Cabot lives in Seattle. For further information contact:
Grupo de Accion por el Biobio, Ernesto Pinto Lagarrigue 112, Recoleta, Santiago, Chile, tel: 56 2 737 1420;
International Rivers Network (IRN), 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703, USA, tel: 510 848 1155.
You can e-mail a message to President Eduardo Frei via the World Wide Web: http://www.presidencia.cl or fax him at 58 2 777 6414.

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