December 11, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Patagonia problem 

How 17 million working Canadians may fund the destruction of Chile’s Patagonian wilderness.


According to the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA), world energy consumption is projected to increase by fifty percent from 2005 to 2030 and as a result governments from around the globe are searching for new energy reserves of various forms within their borders. The goal is to remain as self-reliant as possible, ensuring continued growth within their economies.

Chile, home to roughly 17 million residents and one of South America's most stable and prosperous economies while boasting more free trade agreements than any other country in the world, is no different. Maintaining the highest nominal GDP per capita in Latin America and a healthy five to seven per cent annual growth rate, the Chilean economy is ever expanding.

With mining as the cornerstone to its economy (being the world's largest producer of copper and possessing vast reserves of lithium for use in batteries, aircraft manufacturer and heat-resistant glass), Chile has also been focusing on diversifying its offerings. Chile has been greatly increasing its agricultural exports and, unbeknownst to many, is soon to overtake Norway as the world's largest exporter of salmon.

Relying heavily on natural gas imports for its economic activities, Chile remains in an awkward spot as neighbouring Bolivia, rich in natural gas, refuses to export directly to Chile until Bolivian sovereign access to the sea, taken during the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1883, is returned. Until that highly unlikely scenario is realized Chile will continue to rely on Argentina to the right, which is already strapped for energy and has seen its share of financial crises in recent history. As a result Argentina can only offer Chile an unstable and inadequate supply of gas, which Chile cannot rely on.

A slender nation averaging only 175 kilometres in width while stretching 4,300 km from tip to tail, Chile is home to an immensely diverse and unique landscape with everything from the world's driest desert to its own Antarctic claims and every type of micro climate in between. The vast majority of the population inhabits the Middle Chile region, host to its capital city, Santiago. Including suburbs, Santiago makes up one third of the total Chilean population.

With the mines to the north in a mostly arid landscape offering few resources other than the minerals and metals themselves and middle Chile being the most populated area of the country supporting the majority of its agricultural exports, the Chilean government and eager Chilean and foreign corporations are looking to the relatively uninhabited southern half of the country for Chile's current and future power woes.

Home to some of the world's largest fresh water reserves and one of the planet's few remaining truly unspoiled wilderness areas, Chile's Patagonia is now facing a potentially rapid industrialization with plans for a massive scale hydroelectric project that would see both the Pascua and Baker rivers with a total of five dams. Transmission lines will be clearcut through over 2,300 km of wilderness paralleled by a new highway. Together these would pass through 14 legally protected natural areas spanning half the length of the country.

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