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'Patagonia Rising' Looks Into the Costs of Hydroelectric Dams

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Monday, Jun 11, 2012
The families who have lived for generations off the land in Patagonia, Chile, are now facing drastic changes, thanks to plans to build five hydroelectric dams, two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River.

“That was our objective, there was no other.” Bernardo and Lautaro Arratia are chopping trees, in the Patagonia region of Chile. This is what they want to do, they demonstrate with their focused labor, what their father did, what they’ve grown up doing. Now, however, they’re looking at the end of the future they never doubted, as corporate forces descend on the region with plans to build five hydroelectric dams, two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River.


These plans look awfully grim in Brian Lilla’s Patagonia Rising, currently screening at New York’s Cinema Village. While the dams provide electricity, they do so in a way that Stephen Hall sees as old-fashioned (other forms of renewable energy are more efficient and forward-looking) and they exact particular costs. Mitzi Urubia, coordinator for the campaign, Patagonia Without Dams, points out that the question of who has possession of the water—Chile or Argentina—is not entirely clear. Moreover, according to Patrick McCully, executive director of International Rivers, the companies in charge are less than truthful about the deleterious effects of large dams, which have been demonstrated by previous large dams, more than 40,000 worldwide: they displace populations (between 40 and 80 million people, mostly in India and China thus far), cause flooding and contaminated waters, wreak havoc with fishing and other livelihoods, spread diseases.
  
Because the dams are conceived and built by international corporations (in this case, the majority of investors are Italian), nations in need of cash tend to privilege such constructions over people in their own planning, and neglect to “inform the neighbors or families who are potentially affected by a relocation.” 


The film includes animation and music that distract more than they instruct, as well as interviews with dam supporters, such as Hernán Salazar, the general manager of HidroAysén, which is behind the five dams project. He’s introduced by an exterior shot of his Santiago office building, the camera peering up at a tall and glassy and forbidding, an image pretty much precisely opposite of those featuring the Arratias or the Romeros, another family in Patagonia. Where they live literally close to the earth, and especially the wet, green earth of the region, those seeking to profit from its exploitation remain remote. Even as Salazar explains, sort of, the company’s intention to make a “positive contribution to the country for coming years,” the film cuts to protestors on the street as well as the families whose lives will be changed so drastically, silenced in the process. 


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