SANTIAGO, Chile _ A white gas mask hanging from her neck, Paula Ba__ados strode side by side with 30,000 other marche...
SANTIAGO, Chile _ A white gas mask hanging from her neck, Paula Ba__ados strode side by side with 30,000 other marchers through this capital one recent Friday, a determined look on her face.
Protesting last month in Santiago, Chile. Government approval of a plan for a dam in a pristine part of the country has brought thousands to the streets.
_The government is saying we will be left without energy, but it_s a lie,_ she said. _They are just trying to scare us. But we won_t be scared away, because we know we_re right._
By the time Ms. Ba__ados reached Chile_s presidential palace, some demonstrators had begun hurling stones and pieces of wood at the armored police vehicles. As sirens blared, the police responded by firing water cannons on the crowd, driving protesters back.
Other protests took place in several more Chilean cities. In what has become a surprising national movement, organizers have mounted large protests for several weeks since a government environmental commission in May approved the $3.2 billion HidroAys__n dam complex in a pristine region of Patagonia, known for breathtaking glaciers and lakes, that draws thousands of tourists a year.
The protest movement, which has resulted in 28 police officers_ being injured and more than $100,000 in damage to public property, has rattled the government of President Sebasti__n Pi__era. His approval rating fell to 36 percent in May from 41 percent in April, in part because of the outcry over HidroAys__n, according to Adimark, a Santiago-based research group.
While the government supports expanding hydroelectric power production, more than 60 percent of Chileans are against HidroAys__n, polls show. After the commission_s decision, now the fight turns to the 1,912-kilometer (about 1,200-mile) transmission line yet to be approved. Many Chileans consider Patagonia a national treasure, and the battle to stop the project has inspired people to join the anti-dam cause to an extent that other environmental protest movements in South America have not.
HidroAys__n is an especially tense subject in Chile because the country, more than its neighbors, is struggling to secure energy supplies to keep up with its economic growth. Chile will need to double its electricity capacity generation over the next 10 to 15 years, according to government officials and private energy analysts.
Chile has little oil or natural gas of its own. Importing gas became unreliable after Argentina began reneging on its commitments to ship gas to its neighbor starting in 2004. After the earthquake in Japan this year, Chile_s mining and energy minister, Laurence Golborne, said it would be _very difficult_ now to build a nuclear plant, given fears that the quake raised about Chile_s own earthquake-prone geology.
Government officials say more energy is needed to raise the economic level of poorer Chileans, and to lower electricity prices, which in southern Chile average about twice those in Brazil.
More energy also will be needed to expand Chile_s mining sector _ the engine of Chile_s economy, said James Brick, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy.
Brazil has embraced hydroelectric power, which produces about 80 percent of the country_s electricity. Chile produces about 40 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power. But HidroAys__n, a planned complex of five dams on two rivers, would produce 18,430 gigawatts a year, which was about 35 percent of Chile_s total consumption in 2008. It would also flood a large part of a region dominated by national parks and reserves, say people opposed to the dams.
_This project is the tip of the spear to convert our Patagonia into a true service patio for energy generation,_ said Luis Rend__n, coordinator of Acci__n Ecol__gica, an environmental group.
Those opposing the dams say the government should focus on improving energy efficiency and boosting capacity for nonconventional renewable fuels like wind, solar and geothermal power.
_Compared to Brazil or Argentina, Chile is doing very little to incentivize renewables,_ said Roberto Rom__n, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Chile. _In 5 to 10 years, solar options will be cheaper than HidroAys__n._
Foreign nongovernmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and International Rivers have helped fund the protest movement. Douglas Tompkins, an American who has acquired more than one million acres of land in Chile, much of it in Patagonia, has helped develop the movement_s publicity campaign.
_Chile has no energy policy,_ Mr. Tompkins said. _Retrofitting homes is where energy policy has to begin._
Government officials say energy efficiency, and electricity generation from wind and energy, while important, will not be enough to stem a shortfall beyond 15 years. Without a nuclear-energy option, hydroelectric plants will be critical to slowing an expected increase in coal-fired production, said Mr. Golborne, the energy minister.
While _there is no energy supply problem facing our government,_ Mr. Pi__era said recently, _if we don_t make decisions today we are condemning our country to a blackout near the end of this decade._
But those who oppose the dam say Mr. Pi__era is showing signs of the kind of corporate-government economic concentration that has defined past Chilean governments. An Italian-Spanish-Chilean consortium owns HidroAys__n, and the majority stakeholder, Endesa Chile, owns most of the water rights to both rivers the dam would affect.
Last year HidroAys__n sponsored advertising that alarmed many Chileans, including one television commercial in which the lights go out while doctors are performing an operation. (In recent weeks the consortium has put out advertising seeking to better explain the project.)
Daniel Fern__ndez, HidroAys__n_s chief executive officer, criticized dam opponents_ _information distortion_ tactics, including statements by the writer Luis Sep__lveda that the transmission line would carve a path of _23,000 soccer stadiums, one after the other_ through Patagonia. Mr. Fern__ndez said the line would carve a much narrower footprint.
Mr. Fern__ndez said the project would flood about 14,600 acres, making it the _most efficient dam project in the world._ A dam project in Argentina, Condor Cliff, he noted, would flood more than seven times that _ about 111,000 acres of Patagonian sheep-herding land _ and has not caused a public outcry there.
The notion of any disfigurement of the Ays__n area has nevertheless fueled the protests, which have become a forum for Chileans to express a general _uneasiness_ with the government, said Alberto Mayol, a sociology professor at the University of Chile. On Thursday, there was another large march in Santiago, with crowd estimates of between 70,000 and 100,000, this one to protest the state of public education.
The battle against the dam will be a long road. HidroAys__n does not expect to propose the transmission line until December, or to have final approval until about 2013. The first dam could be operating by 2019, the last by 2025, Mr. Fern__ndez said.
About 4,000 people attended the most recent march to protest the dam last Friday. A mix of young and old waved Chilean and Socialist flags. Children riding their parents_ shoulders chanted, _Patagonia without dams._
There was no violence or property damage, as there had been at earlier protests. _Welcome to a new Patagonia protest,_ shouted organizers perched atop a flatbed truck, their message carried over several large speakers. The truck led the march with an organizer barking orders into a microphone for when to stop and start, and when to chant.
_For us Chileans, natural resources are the most precious thing we have,_ said V__ctor Cesped, a 21-year-old architecture student at the University of Chile who was taking part in his fourth protest. _The Patagonia is a source of pride, something very dear to our hearts._