The indigenous Mapuche population is escalating its struggle against the plans for hydroelectric industry in an important tourist area. SN Power claims it has local support in Chile.
The Norwegian hydroelectric power giant SN Power has big plans for Chile. The company has already started constructing one plant and has another four projects on the drawing pad.
The planned plants have a total value of about NOK 3 billion (391 million €) and will be larger than any other investment the company has made abroad. SN Power, which is jointly owned by Statkraft and Norfund, believes it has nothing to worry about. "We perceive that the majority of the local population now welcomes the projects and considers this a possibility for jobs and local economic development, " SN Power told Norwatch.
The Chilean critics do not agree. "The resistance has never been greater," claimed anthropologist Silvia Schoenenberger in the human rights organisation Observatorio de Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenos.
The Mapuches have in the past century been marginalised in large areas of their traditional habitat in Chile. One of the main areas for their culture is today in the mountains in the eastern part of the country. There they to a great extent live on tourism. The Mapuche fear that the hydroelectric project will threaten their livelihood.
The Dictatorship Laid the Premises
She said the problem of water rights in Chile can be traced back to the time of the dictatorship. Then it became possible for individuals and companies to buy the right to rivers. As a result, many of the rivers in southern Chile are in the hands of national and international companies. These quickly end up in conflict with indigenous populations and other Chileans who have traditionally made use of the water.
According to Schoenenberger, the river water to which SN Power has bought the rights is already being used by local communities in the area. The water is important both for animal husbandry and agricultural purposes, and the population is unsure whether there is enough water for both the company and themselves.
"The importance of the water and the rivers to the Mapuche communities furthermore extends far beyond the simple use of the water", said Schoenenberger and explained that the rivers have a deeply religious meaning to the inhabitants.
"We must oppose a plant of this dimension, for it is not a matter of just one but at least three or four plants. That will have an extremely negative effect on our area, on our people and on our nature", Kohler said.
Kopstad explained the Mapuche's scepticism towards the project in
that, in previous hydroelectric developments in Chile, local wishes
and needs have to a very small extent been taken into consideration.
This is particularly true of a dam project in the nineties which
resulted in the Mapuche community having to be relocated.
Kopstad told Norwatch that the dialogue with the local population has improved during the past year and that the majority of the people now support the plans. The company will now carry out extensive analyses of the consequences for the environment and the community and has entered into a dialog with the population to explain the nature of the plans. SN Power has also engaged Mapuches and anthropologists in the dialog process with the local population, which started right after SN Power took over the water rights.
"If the studies were to indicate that the projects will have extremely great negative consequences that we can not manage, we shall have to shelve them. On the basis of what we know now, this does not seem likely", Kopstad said.
SN Power is owned by Norfund (the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries) and Statkraft, with 50% each.