The untamed rivers of Chilean Patagonia are a mecca for white-water fans and nature lovers. But several proposed dams may rein in the rapids

Ruth Cohen Photography
| Credit: Ruth Cohen Photography

To the gauchos, farmers, and other residents of Chilean Patagonia, the region's wild rivers are an integral part of the landscape, descending steeply from the Andes past hardwood forests and glacial lakes to the crystal-clear fjords of the Pacific coast. To those who flock here to kayak, raft, or go fly-fishing, the rivers are heaven on earth.

But to a number of multinational companies, Patagonia's rivers mean two things: money and power. Several corporations have quietly expressed interest in building dams to tap the incredible hydroelectric potential of these waterways. In response, an alliance of gauchos, farmers, tour operators, and environmentalists has vowed to defend Chilean Patagonia against the forces of industrialization—and to use tourism as its primary weapon.

Three years ago, when I first visited Chilean Patagonia—which makes up the lower third of Chile, from Puerto Montt to Tierra del Fuego—the locals were still talking about the damming of the B’o-B’o River, in the country's midsection. In 1991, Endesa, the former state electric utility, which had recently been privatized, broke ground for the Pangue Dam, the first of several proposed hydroelectric projects on the B’o-B’o. Pangue, begun without public disclosure, paved the way for Endesa to build a second, much larger dam on the river, known as Ralco. Though not yet completed, Ralco has already destroyed the B’o-B’o's reputation as a white-water paradise and displaced hundreds of residents, many of them Pehuenche Indians.

Adventure travelers who now consider the Bío-Bío a lost cause are heading to Patagonia, particularly the Futaleufú River, which drops precipitously out of the Andes and produces what has been called the best white water on earth. The river's impressive volume and current, however, also make it an obvious target for a dam. The Chilean water bureau recently revealed that Endesa has acquired the rights to build two dams on the Fu, as it's known. Although Endesa—majority-owned by a Spanish consortium—denies that it has designs on the Fu, locals believe otherwise.

"TOURISM IS THE ONLY WAY FOR CHILEAN PATAGONIA TO SURVIVE IN the long run," a gaucho named Toribio Baeza told me last spring as he groomed a horse on his ranch above the frontier town of Futaleufú. I'd returned to the region to see how the residents were fostering the development of tourism. Baeza switched from ranching to promoting riding tours eight years ago, when competition from Argentine livestock heated up and he noticed more and more tourists entering the valley. Now he is introducing foreigners to the gaucho life—something he never thought would interest a gringo. "First I tried to take them somewhere far away, so I could earn more money," he said with a laugh. "But most people are interested in life on the campo."

We were at a viewpoint overlooking the primordial beauty of the Futaleufú Valley—giant trees and ferns jutting off moss-covered rock walls, a meandering emerald-green river, clouds gift-wrapping the whole scene. Baeza told a story about the time he led an American college student here. "She looked around and started yelling, waving her arms, flipping out about how gorgeous it was," he said. "I thought she'd gone crazy on me, but that was just her way of expressing herself. These people come here to connect with something I'm already used to."

Tourism to Chilean Patagonia has been growing at a 10 percent clip over the past decade, according to codeff, Chile's largest environmental organization, and is fast becoming a viable alternative to logging, mining, hydroelectricity, and other extractive industries. Revenue from tourism is also more likely to stay in the region than money from other sources. "A dam would bring more money to the area while it's being built, but when it's done, the place will die," Baeza said. "Tourism, on the other hand, will always be here. The river isn't going to dry up. If the dam is built, that will change."

On my way back to Futaleufú, I visited Luis Toro Mundaca, a Chilean who four years ago converted his riverside property into an upscale campground with fresh food, hot showers, and a large hot tub. In rafting season, he rarely has a vacancy. Now he's building luxury cabins, banking on the notion that "baby boomers are getting older and they want creature comforts."

Landowners such as Mundaca plan to make it very expensive for Endesa, or any other industrial concern, to appropriate the land they will require for industrial endeavors. Chilean property laws entitle landowners to fair market value for any real estate they're forced to give up—the more developed the land, the more it will cost to buy it for a dam reservoir. "I will not sell," Mundaca said passionately as we looked down at the rapids named after his family. "Even if they offer me a mountain of gold."

Mundaca's comments inspired me to journey north to Santiago, the Chilean capital, to meet with Rodolfo Nieto, a spokesman for the parent company of Endesa, Enersis. During an interview in the lavish Hotel Plaza San Francisco, Nieto explained that Chile relies on hydroelectric power for half its energy needs—the rest comes from natural gas imported from Argentina—and will require more. "We don't want to rely on another country for power," he said. "The only means Chile has of producing power is water." Nieto claimed that Endesa has no current plans for the Futaleufú (Chilean companies are not required to discuss plans publicly until they have submitted an environmental assessment to the government). But he noted that the only rivers in the country not prone to drought are all in Patagonia, and stated that "more dams must be built."

"Endesa's need to increase energy supply is based more on Endesa's economic expansion than Chile's true demand for energy," countered Daniel González, a prominent Chilean environmentalist who heads Futafriends, an organization established to protect the river from industrial development. He confirmed that Endesa had indeed acquired the water rights to build two dams on the Futaleufú, one of which would be large enough to produce more than 900 megawatts per year, nearly enough to power a city the size of Seattle. He pointed out, however, that Patagonia is sparsely settled—its population density is less than Alaska's—and that Chile's energy needs are not as desperate as Nieto insists. According to González, Endesa's real goal is to export power to Argentina and other countries.

González pointed me toward three other rivers located farther south, in the province of Aisén, that face a more immediate threat than does the Fu. Noranda, a Canadian mining and metals concern, is planning to build a giant aluminum plant outside Coihaique, the province's principal city. I hopped a LanChile flight to Aisén, Chile's version of Montana's Big Sky country, with wide, U-shaped valleys, craggy mountains, and trout-choked rivers that draw fly fishermen from around the world. With only 80,000 people and very little industry to serve, the region's current electrical needs amount to just 17 megawatts per year. But a power-intensive operation like an aluminum smelter can require more than 700 megawatts. According to Dale Coffin, a Noranda spokesman, this project is still in the preliminary stages; he did concede, however, that three rivers—the Cuervo, the Condor, and the Blanco—will need to be dammed to provide enough power for it.

Coffin says the smelter will boost the local economy. But critics, including Claudio Meier, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Concepción, maintain that Noranda's decision to build in Aisén was prompted by Chile's lax environmental track record. "The only reason Noranda wants to build there is because it can still make a profit, compared with the alternative of having to build a truly clean plant in the Northern Hemisphere," Meier told me. "This is an environmental rape of one of the last unpolluted and wild regions on earth." (Pablo Daud, an official with Chile's environmental authority, insists that Chilean environmental standards are very high. "Our system submits more projects for review than any other in the world," he said.)

"MY CLIENTS TELL ME THIS IS THE MOST beautiful place they've ever seen," said Claudio Joost, a 23-year-old fly-fishing guide who works for the Paloma, one of Aisén's top lodges. Joost's grandfather taught him how to fish with a can, line, and hook when he was nine years old. Now he is studying ecotourism at an environmental institute in Santiago. "I came to work at the lodge because I wanted to learn how to fly-fish," he said. "Now I get to show tourists how to do it."

Joost and I met up with Cado Avemali, director of Coihaique-based outfitter Salvaje Corazón, which leads deluxe paddling and fishing expeditions all over Aisén, and we drove into the mountains to visit a few of the threatened rivers. "How many places can you drink right out of a river or lake?" Avemali asked at a vantage point high above the Río Blanco. "Most places like this are either difficult to get to or located in politically unstable countries. Chilean Patagonia is unique in that it is very safe and relatively accessible."

Avemali rolled out a map he had downloaded from NASA's Web site, a satellite image of the world at night. With the callused finger of an outdoorsman, he pointed to the world's industrialized areas: the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Western Europe, Japan, all brightly lit up. He then indicated a tiny speck of light in a dark corner of South America, Coihaique. The rest of Aisén was virtually black—undeveloped. Avemali was excited by it.

"Chilean Patagonia could be marketed as the first 'world park,'" he said. "Instead of extracting resources from it, they could charge a visitor's fee. What would you pay to visit a place that has yet to be bulldozed by global industry?"