Back to All News

Adjournment Speech: the Rio Cuervo project in Patagonia

Tonight I will speak on two projects. They are separated by thousands of kilometres, but both highlight the problems of a one-sided view of the economy-that is, that mining and power production take precedence over all else. Time and again, we see large companies that propose dangerous projects claim they will benefit the local community, but, meanwhile, they walk all over those communities. These companies often ignore local industries as their activities damage the diversity of local economies and the local environment. Internationally, we need to develop a stronger economic diversity that does not prioritise big corporate interests at the expense of our communities.

The two issues I will cover are the proposal for an antimony mine by Anchor Resources and its owner, China Shandong Jinshunda, in Wild Cattle Creek near Dorrigo; and a hydro-electric power station in Chile's Patagonia-clearly, this is far in distance, but very relevant, as it is part-owned by the Australian company Origin Energy. Both of these projects threaten local communities, environments and economies, and should not go ahead...

A similar campaign (to the Dorrigo antimony mine) is underway on the other side of the world, in Chile, where Patagonia Sin Represas are also working for their communities to try to stop a number of damaging developments that also threaten their water resources, their communities and the diversity of their economy. The broader region of Patagonia, in the far south of South America, is not an official territory. It is actually shared by Argentina and Chile. Most Australians would probably think of it as a place of adventure, somewhat remote. It is the dream getaway for those looking for hiking adventures in a pristine environment surrounded by glaciers and lakes. The area has a thriving tourist industry of about 300,000 visitors each year.

Unfortunately, this industry and Patagonia's natural environment are under serious threat from a multitude of proposed dams from multinational companies seeking to fundamentally and permanently alter the landscape for their profit. The HidroAysen project proposes to build five dams, flooding about 6,000 hectares of land on two fast-flowing rivers that run into the Pacific, two on the river Baker and three on the river Pascua. Because of sustained community opposition, the project has already been delayed for four years and is now under review by the Chilean government. But this is only one of many projects to threaten the area.

Another, the Rio Cuervo project, is somewhat closer to home. That is because this project is part owned by the Australian company Origin Energy, which recently bought the hydro-electricity development company Energia Austral, inheriting a share in the project, along with Glencore Xstrata, which controversially pushed through the Anvil Hill coalmine in the Hunter region. That became such an embarrassment for them that they chose to change its name to Moolarben.

The Rio Cuervo project will flood 13,166 hectares, building three dams—the first on the Cuervo River, with two more on the Blanco and Condor rivers. The reservoir will destroy the Yulton and Meullin lakes as well as several other lagoons and their unique ecological characteristics. The Yulton lake is clear water, possibly the largest in Chile that has not had species introduced. There are over 40 conservation species in the project area. One is the huillin, a southern river otter that is already listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered because of accelerating habitat destruction and degradation. The IUCN states that the particular populations in Chile's fjords and islands are likely to reduce by 50 per cent over the next 30 years. Origin Energy needs to explain to its shareholders and the people of Chile and Australia whether it has considered the impact that the Rio Cuervo project might have on this.

Despite popular ideas about hydro-electricity, it is not sustainable. It diverts water from natural streams, changing its flows and affecting all of the ecosystems that live off them. As the water from this project is taken from the Cuervo River to be used in turbines, by the time it is returned to the river 14 kilometres downstream it will lose about 98 per cent of its water flow, impacting the adjoining Aysen Fjord. This is likely to impact on the local fishing industry, another major industry in the region which is under threat, and clearly could result in job losses. The power from the plant will require 1,700 kilometres of transmission lines from the Aysen region to Santiago, the capital of Chile. One thousand kilometres of this will be above ground, requiring a corridor that will be cut through the region and permanently damage the local environment.

One of the things about these beautiful mountainous regions is that they are often near fault lines. The area of Puerto Aysen is no exception. It is an active fault line which was at the epicentre of a major 6.1 magnitude earthquake in 2007. There is potential, then, for the movement of large quantities of water to impact on this, as well as for seismic activity to impact on any power stations built in the region.

As with many such projects in Australia, it is an understatement to say that the community in Chile is deeply concerned about this issue. There have been protests of up to 40,000 people, and they have not been confined to the region of Aysen. People all over Chile are actively opposing these projects. There have been street protests and many other actions and interactions with the government, sending a clear message of opposition.

It is true that Chile has an oil shortage and is reliant on imports. As we have also seen in Australia, the companies play on this, creating their own public relations campaign, showing television ads where the lights suddenly go out. The reality is, though, that the damaging proposals currently being presented are not as necessary as the companies make out. There are alternatives.

Hydraulic experts in the region have noted that a run-off river hydropower design could produce around 85 per cent of the power of the proposed project without the dramatic impacts that would result from the Rio Ceurvo project. If only the companies were willing to invest in an ever so slightly smaller project they could provide worldwide environmental leadership. Instead, there is a familiar story: Origin and Glencore Xstrata are sidelining community processes for their own profits.

In terms of democratic process, this project has some serious questions to answer. In May 2012, Chile's Supreme Court revoked the approval of the project because they did not submit all of the required documentation, forcing the company to reapply for their approval. In addition, the allocation of water rights to the company goes against the official national policy, which suggests that water should not be used for productive activities. Water in Chile is privatised, which in essence means Origin and Glencore Xstrata are getting special treatment at a huge cost to the public.

The dam projects and the power station go distinctly against the agreed development strategy that has been negotiated between business, community and government. This strategy states that the key activities in the area should be fisheries, tourism and agriculture. The company did not even address the impacts its project would have on these alternative industries. The citizens of Aysen participated in this development strategy process in good faith only to have multinational companies, including this Australian company, ignore their wishes.

The communities in the region are small. Many live in remote places. The Rio Cuervo project threatens to riddle their land with new roads, powerlines, large infrastructure, and a temporary but very large influx of mostly male workers who will have to be brought in from outside the region. In this regard, the Rio Cuervo project is a terrible mark on the reputation of Australia—depicting us all, once again, in a colonial light.

I remember when Origin Energy first began offering power to Australian homes. They actually had a good reputation as one of the few companies then who would offer proper renewable energy. How they appear to have changed since then, both here and in their business model, which seems to just replicate the multinational push to squeeze communities for their resources to maximise profits at any cost. I am sure that the people of Australia will be empathetic to the plight of those in Chile facing this major fight against corporate giants.

The Greens will be monitoring the situation in Aysen. Together with the fantastic group Patagonia Sin Represas—Patagonia Without Dams—we will continue to make the Australian public aware of the issue. Many Australians would be concerned to see such a pristine and beautiful region under threat from an Australian company. Not only will Origin Energy damage its international reputation if it continues to be involved in this project but its reputation here is also under question. Origin should pull out now. The Rio Cuervo project should not go ahead.

I would like to quote Patricio Segura Ortiz of Patagonia Sin Represas, who asks:

When you look at a mountain full of forests do you see furniture and plywood or do you see a national park? Is a river the vein of our natural resources or is it nothing more than a producer of megawatts?

The executives of Origin, Glencore Xstrata and Anchor Resources have many questions to answer. For all their power, communities from Australia to South America and beyond have put these companies on notice. There are ways to maintain our environmental integrity. It contributes to the economy already. What we need is smart solutions and a diversity of industries to support our economy. Most importantly, we need to sustain ourselves. We need health, we need water, we need clean air and we need biodiversity. And we need a government that will stand up to mining companies and assist citizens to have their concerns listened to and acted on.


Back to All News