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
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 damsflooding
more than 70 kilometers of river valley. It would force 500 Pehuenche people
to abandon their ancestral landleaving 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,
aquatic life unique to that area.
ENDESA is not only posing a threat to the Pehuenches native land;
its 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 cant read and others thought they had no choice
but to go, he said. Condadi representatives say ENDESAs 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 Chiles 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 capitals 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 Freis 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
Pehuenches20 percent of the survivors of this ancient cultureas
well as threaten at least 50 species of mammal and aquatic life unique
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: firstname.lastname@example.org,Website: http://irn.org
A similar struggle is taking place in the cloud
forests of the Colombian Andes. The Uwa, 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 Uwa consider oil to be the blood of Mother Earth.
Said a spokesperson for the Uwa: 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 Uwa 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 Uwa was misleading: the entire Samore Block
falls within the Uwas migratory path. Although the territory
isnt legally theirs, the Uwa 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 Uwa 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 Uwa about it.
For more information: Project Underground. 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley,
CA 94703. Tel: 510-705-8981, Fax: 510-705-8983 Email: projectunderground
@moles.org Website: http://www. moles.org
or The Rainforest Action Network, 221 Pine Street Suite 500, San Fransisco,
CA 94104. Tel: 415-398-4404, Fax: 415-398-2732, Website: http://www.ran.org
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