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January 1999
Keeping the Blood Flowing: Indigenous Resistance in Chile and Colombia

By Vanessa Alford


The ancestral land of the Pehuenche, an indigenous tribe, is currently at risk of being destroyed. The Chilean government and ENDESA, a Spanish-owned electric utility, plan to build six hydroelectric dams on the Bio-Bio river in Chile by the year 2002. One dam, named Ralco, would be the largest and most destructive of the six dams—flooding more than 70 kilometers of river valley. It would force 500 Pehuenche people to abandon their ancestral land—leaving behind centuries of culture and tradition. The extensive flooding would inundate the surrounding forest and wildlife and leave portions of the river dry for months at a time, endangering aquatic life unique to that area.

ENDESA is not only posing a threat to the Pehuenche’s native land; it’s dividing the community over this issue as well. The company has tried to obtain agreements on an individual basis by leading families to believe that they have no alternative, or promising compensation for families who cooperate (compensation which they have yet to receive). ENDESA is essentially forcing the Pehuenche to assimilate by imposing on them what it considers a “better” way of life, one with new land, schools, housing and favorable economic development. This has caused a rift in the community. Some Pehuenche are willing to leave their land for what they see as new opportunities, while others refuse to budge. “I was born on this land and I will die on this land,” said Nicolasa Quintreman, a leader of the Pehuenche who opposes the project. Former head of the Condadi (Department of Indian Affairs), Domingo Namuncura believes the Pehuenche were manipulated by ENDESA. “Some can’t read and others thought they had no choice but to go,” he said. Condadi representatives say ENDESA’s methods are in direct violation of indigenous law, which states that indigenous land cannot be bought or sold, only traded, and relocation must be a unanimous decision among all families involved.

The controversy has turned into an international debate. Protesters, environmentalists and activists from around the globe have shown their support for the Pehuenche. On July 30, 1998, 100 Pehuenche and their supporters formed a human chain preventing trucks from going to work on the road to the dam site. As a result of this protest, ENDESA and government officials arranged a meeting on August 12 of last year, during which Planning Minister Quintana Pena ordered ENDESA to stop all further construction until the dispute could be resolved.

Chile claims the Ralco dam is an absolute necessity in order to fulfill the increasing demand for electrical power in the country. The dam would provide 10 percent of Chile’s electricity. Minister Pena said that without the dam Chile would be forced to import more natural gas from Argentina, which would require the installation of costly pipelines and plants around Santiago, adding to the capital’s already severe pollution problem.

President Eduardo Frei, heavily in favor of the dam (and, coincidentally, a hydraulic engineer), fired the head of the Condadi, Domingo Namuncura, and three members of the National Indigenous Development board on the eve of a critical vote concerning the Ralco Dam when it appeared their votes might put an end to the project. The vote concerned the legality of the contracts which ENDESA negotiated with the Pehuenche. Condadi had concluded that the contracts had been unfairly negotiated and that the land offered to the Pehuenche would not sustain their culture or lifestyle. The ousted members’ four votes, when added to those of the eight indigenous people on the council, would have ended the project.

President Frei’s actions caused uproar, and opposition to the Ralco Dam intensified. The Communist Party, the Mapuche, said that the dam would cause the “cultural ethnocide” of the Pehuenche. In all, the six dams planned for the Bio-Bio River would result in the relocation of 1,000 Pehuenches—20 percent of the survivors of this ancient culture—as well as threaten at least 50 species of mammal and aquatic life unique to that area.

The poor handling of this situation by ENDESA and the Chilean Government prompted investigations by the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association and the International Federation of Human Rights which detailed the obvious human rights abuses. Both organizations were highly critical of ENDESA and the IFC (International Finance Corporation) for failing to comply with World Bank social and environmental guidelines. Additionally, a lawsuit is pending against ENDESA by the sixth civil court in Santiago, stating that the company did not comply with established guidelines regarding an environmental impact assessment.

Despite growing opposition to the Ralco Dam, ENDESA and its supporters are not giving up. They have a lot to lose if this project is put to rest. Fortunately, the movement against the Ralco Dam seems to be gaining momentum.

For information on how you can help, contact the International Rivers Network at 847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703. Tel: 510-848-1155, Fax: 510-848-1008, Email:,Website:


A similar struggle is taking place in the cloud forests of the Colombian Andes. The U’wa, a semi-nomadic indigenous tribe some 5,000 strong, have threatened mass suicide by walking off a 1,400-foot cliff if the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum corporation proceeds to drill for oil in the portion of their land called the Samore Block. The U’wa consider oil to be the “blood of Mother Earth.” Said a spokesperson for the U’wa: “To take oil is for us worse than killing your own mother. If you kill the earth, then no one will live.” After months of struggle with the U’wa and activists around the globe, Occidental reluctantly retreated from this territory, in what initially seemed a successful campaign to defeat the company.

Occidental agreed to relocate in return for new rights to a small portion of the Samore Block under different contract terms. But what had seemed be a victory for the U’wa was misleading: the entire Samore Block falls within the U’wa’s migratory path. Although the territory isn’t “legally” theirs, the U’wa consider it to be part of their ancestral land. According to Steve Kretzman of Project Underground, an organization which has been an important ally of the U’wa in their campaign against Occidental: “Continuing a pattern for disregard for indigenous peoples, Occidental has boasted of their ‘solution’ before they bothered to ask the U’wa about it.”

For more information: Project Underground. 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703. Tel: 510-705-8981, Fax: 510-705-8983 Email: projectunderground Website: http://www. or The Rainforest Action Network, 221 Pine Street Suite 500, San Fransisco, CA 94104. Tel: 415-398-4404, Fax: 415-398-2732, Website:


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