Last Run Down the Bio-Bio


Last Run Down the Bio-Bio

by Jon Bowermaster
November, 1992

It is a quiet, damp morning in southern Chile. The sun is still hidden by the hills that surround the fast-running Bio-Bio River, but the cool is welcome—by noon the temperature will exceed 90 degrees. In a field alongside the river are camped forty-nine Chileans and Americans—lawyers, journalists, businessmen, advocates—engaged in something that is part travel, part environmental activism; it goes by the name of "adventure advocacy." We had journeyed to this spot 5OO miles south of Santiago to see for ourselves the spectacular river and valley that will be lost if six proposed dams are built along the Bio-Bio.


The best known of the visitors is at my side, the whir and hiss of his fishing rod breaking the still of the early morning. Bobby Kennedy—restless, tall, whippet-thin RFK Jr.—has fought for the preservation of some of the world's great rivers, most notably the Hudson in New York and the Great Whale in northern Quebec. Now he is here with two other environmental lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to try to save the Bio-Bio.

One of Chile's longest and steepest rivers—238 miles of free-flowing torrent—it cuts deep gorges through the granite and lava hills, creating not only tall waterfalls and quiet pools but, for much of its length, some of the most exciting white-water rapids in the world. We are aware, as we fish, that we are surrounded by nature at its most spectacular: snowcapped peaks, lush virgin forests, crystalline lakes, and steaming hot springs.

f built, the proposed dams would divert the river, create a string of reservoirs, and greatly reduce the flow and water quality of the lower Bio-Bio. "There is no question the river should be preserved," says Kennedy as he casts for trout in a pool near the surging river. “If you look at Chile's projected energy demand, there are a lot of ways Chile can produce adequate energy supplies without sacrificing this valley.”

Brave words. The scheme to produce electricity came to fruition during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The nation's power company, ENDESA, which until 1988 was a state-owned company, conducted the technical studies and financial projections; it is carrying on with the project even though it is now a private company, without Pinochet to front for it. The first phase of the $3 billion project, construction of the $500 million Pangue Dam, is ready to start—if the International Finance Corporation, an affiliate of the World Bank, approves a multimillion-dollar loan. For many in Chile, the battle to save the Bio-Bio may well seem quixotic, not to mention belated. . but for Kennedy and the rest of us on this raft trip, the chances of prevailing look good. The NRDC has successfully engaged in many similar disputes around the globe and, together with local environmentalists, has pinpointed several glaring flaws in ENDESA's plan:

• Because of energy conservation efforts in Chile, along with a reduction in the rate of population increase, the energy produced by damming the Bio-Bio simply may not be necessary.

• Studies on the environmental impact of the project are inadequate, especially considering that the dams are to be built in an earthquake zone and at the foot of a pair of still-active volcanoes. At least fourteen rare species of animal and plant life may be pushed to extinction if the dams are built.

• Damming the Bio-Bio could have unforeseen effects on the important Pacific Ocean fisheries near Concepción, at the river's mouth.

• Perhaps most important, little provision has been made for the 5,000 Pehuenche Indians who still live in the upper Bio-Bio region. ENDESA's dams would flood their ancestral lands and cost them the farms and forests that are their economic and spiritual base.

In fact, says Kennedy, the main thing going for the ENDESA project is not common sense but momentum: "Chile is coming out of a trying era, the Pinochet era. As a result, even people in the government who would naturally be sympathetic to our position, including those looking for alternatives to damming the Bio-Bio, feel a strong stake in seeing at least one dam go through, if only to demonstrate the stability of the democratic government.

"Our concern is that up to this point there has been very little public debate. That's why we are here—we are trying to spark a public debate. We want to encourage Chileans to take a hard, public look before a decision is made to destroy a resource and a culture of great value not only to Chile but to the whole world." The first step in triggering the debate is to become acquainted with the Bio-Bio firsthand. "You gotta see it before you can save it," laughs Kennedy.

To open a debate in Chile, one first has to get the media's attention. So far, local environmentalists have not had much success, largely because the country's big newspapers are owned by businessmen who agree with the government's stated position that producing more electricity is essential to Chile's continued economic growth.

But part of the reason for this trip is to generate some press coverage, and in this regard the celebrity of the Kennedys in South America cannot be overstated. Kennedy, 38, has been joined by two of his brothers: Michael, 34, president of a Boston-based energy company, and Max, 26, a fledgling prosecutor in Philadelphia. The family name carries weight. Both their father and uncle traveled extensively in South America, and the Chilean press and government are taking the boys' appearance on the Bio-Bio very seriously.

Making adventure advocacy work takes more than publicity, of course; influential people must see and experience the wilderness in a way that will move them to preserve it. Whether Chilean or American, they must carry home the message that the Bio-Bio is worth saving. The trip must be fun and safe, with no glitches or gaffes. For that reason, all the logistics are being handled by Earth River Expeditions, a New York-based commercial rafting outfit, whose owner, Eric Hertz, also happens to be devoted to preserving the world's great rivers.

We present quite a sight. Four of our boats are big nineteen-footers loaded with aluminum boxes and coolers crammed with food, safety gear, and miscellaneous items; the fifth is an eighteen-foot paddle boat. By comparison, the sixth resembles a lost orphan; this fourteen-footer is manned by the "extremists"—we would paddle the hardest, get the wettest, and were most at risk of being tossed out in any one of the dozens of Class IV and V rapids ahead. (Rapids are rated I through VI, with VI defined as unrunnable. Class V rapids are defined by the American Whitewater Affiliation as "extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids. Scouting is mandatory.... Rescue is difficult, even for experts.... Practiced rescue skills are essential for survival.") Assigned to this boat are the three Kennedys, 27-year-old Michael Mailer (Norman Mailer's son and a veteran of several previous Kennedy river trips), Earth River's Eric Hertz, and me. The seventh spot is filled by a rotating crew of thrill seekers.

Our first morning is spent familiarizing ourselves with the river and practicing turns, highsides (throwing weight to one side of the craft to keep the boat from flipping over), and rescues. The Kennedys, who have run rivers around the world, have their own way of doing things and joke with our captain about his methods. “Are you sure that's the best way to call for a left turn?” wonders Max, the feistiest of the trio. Hertz, a veteran of more than 100 rivers around the world, merely nods.

Immediately after lunch that day, we run several of the river's toughest rapids: the Nirreco Canyon's Milky Way, Lava South, and Lost Yak. In the midst of the latter, after bouncing off a house-size rock, our little paddle boat is swamped by turbulent brown water and nearly sinks. Only Hertz's quick thinking and constant admonishing get us to shore. "Nice call," admits Max. Jacob Scherr, international program director for the NRDC, joins our small boat late one afternoon. He explains that, because of its past successes in aiding nascent environmental groups in several countries, his group is asked constantly to join battles, and it must choose carefully.

"For example, I'm sure there will be an effort by ENDESA to label us just 'a bunch of foreign tourists,' " he says. "It would like people to believe the issue has been decided, that there is no room for discussion, that the first dam is a fait accompli. That is not the case. In fact, our feeling is that the battle over the Bio-Bio has just begun."

Scherr insists the reason the NRDC decided to join this fight is that "it is winnable." In the United States, the group's primary tactic is to use the courts to stymie harmful projects. Here in Chile, it helps the almost two-year-old Grupo Accion por el Bio-Bio (GABB) deal with the media, government, and legal system. Once back in Washington, the NRDC's lawyers will try to discourage the World Bank from approving the loan ENDESA has requested.

No less important is the response and involvement of the Pehuenche, whose families have occupied this valley for five centuries. They represent a remnant of the Mapuche Indian society that once inhabited much of southern Chile and Argentina, successfully staving off invasions by the Incas and then the Spaniards. Today many of the Mapuche have moved to Chile's cities; the 5,000 Pehuenche in the upper Bio-Bio region are practically the only Mapuche still living in the traditional manner. Until recently, they had never been consulted as to the fate of their valley, and they feel beleaguered and confused by the debate.

Bobby Kennedy speaks fluent Spanish and gets great satisfaction in veering off the river and visiting with the locals. At an elementary school, he delights the children by bringing in a snake he found outside. He visits with the mayor of one small community; then he and Michael accept a ride in the back of a pickup truck to pay their respects to other community leaders. An elderly matriarch, speaking in her home, complains to him that some of these leaders are “taking us down a road we don't approve of, walking hand in hand with ENDESA.” (See "Forever Wild," page 168.)

A unique wilderness is at risk here. The Bio-Bio valley is one of the last homes of the araucaria trees, which grow along the tops of the high valley ridges and are among the planet's oldest living plant species; some live as long as 1,500 years. They grow to more than 150 feet tall, and their trunks may reach a diameter of six feet. They bear large, spherical cones, each of which produces as many as 200 edible nuts, called ngilliú in Mapuche and piñones in Spanish. The Pehuenche spend months collecting the nuts, an arduous process and the principal activity of the year. Each family gathers as many as ten horseloads of nuts, more than 2,200 pounds. The nuts are a source of nourishment and are eaten raw, toasted, or boiled. They are ground up to produce flour and bread, and made into chavid, a sacred drink. They are also traded in nearby Santa Barbara for staples such as rice, onions, and tomatoes.

Jose Antolín, chief of the Quepuca-Ralco community of the Pehuenche, says, "If we sell the land or lose the land, we lose the araucaria. If we lose the trees, we lose our tradition. That's why so many of us are against the dams. But the community is divided." He admits that maybe half of his community wants the jobs ENDESA is promising: The company says it will hire 1,800 workers for the first dam; Antolín reckons fewer than ninety will be Pehuenche, and he can see that those jobs won't last. The Indians hired will most likely swing pickaxes and shovels—jobs that will be around for a few years at best—and within five years will be out of a job, and out of a homeland.

Evidence of ENDESA's successful inroads into the native communities can be seen along the road that parallels the river. Just one year ago, the Pehuenche were dressed in woolens and light cotton clothing of their own making. Today they're in denim and American-made work clothes. I ask the chief if he doesn't think the dams will bring progress to the valley, as ENDESA promises. "Believe me," he says, "there will be no benefit for us. We can only lose."

Every day, as we work our way down the plunging Bio-Bio, we see signs of ENDESA's activity. Sometimes it is a power cable stretched across the river, some times one of the company's many depth-measuring gauges that appear at intervals along the riverbanks. Near a spot called Casa de Pedro, a side-yard hill displays evidence of "progress": a tumble of boulders and gravel Lying where the utility's road-building crew dumped it. And farther down the river, at the site of the first dam, we come upon a place where a forest has been cleared and a deep channel cut for the dam wall. The natives call the. spot “the wound.”

ENDESA is in the process of building the foundation for a 1,650-foot-long tunnel around the dam site, to divert the entire river while the dam is built. The planned Pangue Dam will be 370 feet tall, extending from the river to the rim of the inner canyon, sited just above the last Class VI rapid. The lake created will stretch back upriver, covering 1,451 acres.

Quite by accident, I had recently met the owner of the land that would eventually be flooded by the first dam. Enrique Ricard, a Santiago businessman, holds 11,000 acres of the valley along twenty miles of the river. If the dams are built, he will lose his harvests of avellano nuts but gain a lot of prime lakeside property. As he sees it, "Chile needs the electricity to grow." He told me how proud he is of his country's strong economy—the best in South America. While admitting he loves the valley, he recognizes "two faces of beauty in the valley: the river and the mountains. I am willing to sacrifice one for the economic future of Chile."

It is hard for all of us to imagine the dammed valley; all we can see now is its majesty. Perhaps the noblest view came one day as we rounded a bend in the river and saw the smoking Callaqui volcano framed by the Bio-Bio's high canyon walls. We are generally a noisy crew, but this vista silenced us. For much of that day, it had been easy to forget that this was endangered land we were traversing. But it took only that one view to remind us why we were there. If the dams are built, that section of the river will be completely dewatered, that view lost forever.

Later, we float through a tight gorge, the sun setting over green hills, towering trees reflecting off the Bio-Bio. A flock of torrent ducks, roused by our approach, race alongside, inches above the water. Overhead, chucaos, thrushlike birds considered the soothsayers of the Mapuche, chant in singsong. Juan Pablo Orrego, general coordinator of GABB, the Chilean group leading the fight against the dams, looks up in reverence at the tall granite walls, the thick, temperate forests, the waterfalls. “And ENDESA says there is nothing here, that nothing will be lost,” he says wistfully, stroking his beard.

Two months later, many in the group reconvene in Washington, D.C. Several Chileans—Orrego and José Antolín among them—have come to meet with groups ranging from Amnesty International to the World Bank. There is cause for celebration. Ours turned out to be perhaps the most notorious trip down the Bio-Bio ever. It had caused the ENDESA project to be scrutinized before a wide public in Chile. Before the NRDC trip, the need for more electricity was unquestioned, and the dams were considered unstoppable. After our descent, the issues were debated in the media and by Chilean government officials. Better yet, the debate opens a crack in the previously invulnerable ENDESA presentation. Glenn Prickett, international program associate for the NRDC, said that if the International Finance Corporation decides not to fund the dams—its long-postponed review of ENDESA's plans is now finally under way—"it would allow the Chilean government to change its position on the project. It would no longer just be environmental pressure, but the World Bank saying the project is not ready to go yet. That would give people in government the perfect excuse to discourage the dams."

Bobby Kennedy was no less elated, if more circumspect. "Before we went to Chile, the dam was considered a fait accompli. Since we've returned, Jose Aylwin, the president's son, has come to New York and visited me. He described the feeling down there as one of exhilaration, because the issue has finally been elevated to the level of national controversy. That's what we were after."

Whether the Bio-Bio will be preserved is still a question mark. But at least two good things have happened: The battle has finally been joined, and in adventure advocacy a new approach to environmental activism—one applicable to conservation causes far from Chile—has been proved.

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