Patagonia's River Debate

Patagonia boasts one of the world's great water reserves, with deep glacial lakes, two of the planet's largest non-polar ice fields and powerful, pristine rivers rushing from the Andes to the Pacific. It's a dream if you're a salmon, a nature lover or kayaker. Or a hydroelectric company.

In May 2011, a Chilean government commission approved a US$7-billion-dollar plan to build five dams on two of the world's wildest rivers – the Aisén region's Baker and Pascua rivers. Behind the dams was HydroAysén, a Chile-based conglomerate comprised of Spanish-Italian multinational Endesa and the Chilean company Colbún. Installing the world's longest transmission lines with towers would have required a clear-cut equivalent to the distance from Maine to Florida. A protest march in Santiago attracted an unanticipated 30,000 citizens.

Chile's peculiar water laws were behind the commercial rush. After the Pinochet regime privatized the national energy company Endesa, it was sold to foreign investors. According to the report Conflicts Over Water in Chile (edited by the Chilean nongovernment organization, Chile Sustentable), 80% of Chile's non-consumptive water rights are foreign owned.

After an eight-year battle, the Chilean government overturned the environmental permits for the projects. In 2017, HydroAysén announced that they would liquidate the project and return water rights for both the Pascua and Baker rivers to the state, a major victory for the environment.


Waterproof and nearly indestructible, the valuable alerce shingle once served as currency for the German colonists in the south. Known as lahuan in Mapuche, Fitzroya cupressoides ranks among the oldest and largest tree species in the world, with specimens reaching almost 4000 years old. This 40m-to-60m jolly evergreen giant plays a key role in temperate rainforests, though its prime value as a hardwood (and surefire shelter in a rainy climate) means it was logged to near extinction. It is no longer legal to harvest live trees, but you can see alerce shingles on Chilote houses and the real deal deep in the Lakes District and Northern Patagonian forests.