The Chilean daily La Tercera on Friday revealed that Chile’s National Intelligence Agency (ANI) has increased its monitoring of environmental NGO campaigns since the start of this year. The report specified that campaigns against the controversial Aysen dam project, the transnational Pascua Lama mining project, and Celulosa Arauco’s (CELCO) waste duct are receiving the most attention.
According to La Tercera, the ANI has been gathering information on how environmental NGOs function, who their principal members are, who provides them with funding, and how they respond to environmental issues nationwide. At least three ANI employees, including a former official from Chile’s National Environmental Commission (CONAMA), are known to be working full time on these issues.
Prominent environmentalists expressed no surprise, saying the news confirmed their belief that they had been placed under increased surveillance.
The Director of the Latin American Observatory on Environmental Conflicts Lucio Cuenca said he received several phone calls from ANI employees in 2005, looking for information about campaigns against Pasca Lama. Cuenca said he did not provide any information, but warned that officials continue to be very interested in the anti-Pasca Lama movement.
“They are keeping a close eye on our activities. But, we refuse to cooperate with them,” he said. “It is extremely worrying that, even though we are in a democracy, environmental movements are considered as a threat to the State.”
Juan Pablo Orrego, coordinator of the NGO Ecosistemas and one of the leaders of the campaign against the Aysen dam project, had a similar response.
“There are people who are not comfortable with our work,” he said. “I suppose that this has to do with the fact that we could be creating problems for the government or obstacles for big businesses.”
“Several of our computers have been stolen, but these crimes appear to be totally selective,” said Orrego. “Additionally, we have received phone calls saying that we should be careful about what we do. We are being investigated, but I have no idea why.”
Meanwhile, current CONAMA Director Ana Lya Uriarte defended ANI’s work.
“All of our country’s institutions—including environmental organizations—form part of the analysis for national security. I think that it is natural — and also quite obvious — that there exist intelligence reports about organizations in this area,” she said.
The on-going citizen education campaigns against the Aysen dam project, Pascua Lama mining project, and CELCO’s waste duct are arguably the three best known environmental initiatives in Chile.
The dam proposal, known as HidroAysén, calls for five massive hydroelectric dams to be built in far southern Chile’s Region XI, an area also known as Aysén. The dams are slated for the region’s two most powerful rivers: the Baker and the Pascua. Together the five generating facilities would produce an estimated 2,750 MW of electricity – roughly equivalent to 20 percent of the country’s current overall generating capacity.
The dam project has attracted significant opposition from local residents and environmental groups who say the dams will be socially and ecologically devastating for the pristine region. A planned transmission line from Region XI to central Chile has been a particular lighting rod for criticism, with opponents insisting it will be a major blight on the country’s landscape (ST, Dec. 6).
The Pascua Lama gold mine is set to be built in the Andes Mountains in an area straddling the border between northern Chile's Region III and Argentina. This bi-national location has led to several disputes between the two countries, including prolonged discussions on how to divide tax revenues earned from the project (ST, Sept. 12).
Environmental activists have lambasted the construction since it was first proposed, claiming the mine will destroy nearby glaciers and pollute downstream water supplies with waste runoff (VT, June 10). Barrick’s deplorable track record for environmental abuse is well-known: U.S. Vice-President Al Gore insisted upon removing Barrick Gold as a sponsor of his May visit to Chile (ST, May 11).
Finally, CELCO has been at the center of environmental controversy since 1996 when it first proposed to build a waste disposal duct from its Valdivia plant through the tiny Region XIV fishing community of Mehuín. Resistance in the town was initially strong enough to make CELCO back out of the sea duct project, opting instead to dump its waste water into the nearby Cruces River. But in 2004 the newly inaugurated Valdivia plant leaked untreated waste water into the river, killing off the black-necked swan population and setting off a firestorm of local and international protests. (ST, Dec. 3)
CELCO announced in October it had reached an agreement with Mehuín’s fishermen’s unions - paying members US$8.9 million in exchange for their acquiescence in the company’s waste duct plan. Initial reports indicated that 99 of Mehuín’s nearly 250 unionized fishermen had signed the agreement.
But, community leader Eliab Viguera recently told the Santiago Times that the opposition to the Mehuín duct is stronger and more widespread than ever before.
“It is no longer an issue of just Mehuín,” he said. “The movement has gained strength in communities throughout the Valdivia area (ST, Dec. 6).