Set in South America’s breathtaking Andes landscape, the visually sweeping new documentary Patagonia Rising bills itself as a frontier story of water and power. But both its frontier and its story nevertheless belong to anyone on the planet that needs water to live.
We are countless compared to the infinitesimal contingency who live to profit off of water. For the purposes of Patagonia Rising, screening now in New York and beyond, that includes the privatization capitalists of HidroAysen, which is planning to build five hydroelectric power plants (marketspeak for dams) to choke off Chile’s glacially fed Baker and Pascua rivers, two of the planet’s purest. Signed by President Sebastien Pinera, the first billionaire to be sworn into the Chilean presidency, but stalled thanks to vigorous protests, HidroAysen would effectively hand over almost all of Chile’s energy market to a duopoly run by Spain’s Endesa and Italy’s Enel. And they’re not exactly hiding their distaste for environmental impact of five dams cornering the prize jewel of Patagonia’s freshwater business.
“This exploits the best use of water,” a HidroAysen executive argues in Patagonia Rising. “That’s sustainability.”
“One of the most twisted things I learned while making Patagonia Rising is that the companies behind the building of dams in developing countries are mostly from Europe and China,” Oakland, Calif.-based director Brian Lilla told AlterNet. “Ninety percent of Chile’s water rights were sold off by Pinochet and are now controlled by Spanish and Italian energy conglomerates.”
Naomi Klein’s indispensable The Shock Doctrine broke down that rapacious process, wherein so-called First World politicians, economists and other disaster capitalists plundered the resources and sovereignty of the Third World, using puppets like Pinochet as hammers and shovels for development and the disappeared alike. Patagonia Rising takes sobering stock of the Chilean aftermath, whose continuing political and economic instability has been exponentially problematized by global warming. A catastrophic equalizer, it will tear down whatever facades remain between disaster capitalists in America, China and Europe from the just-fine-thanks corners of the world yet to submit, paraphrasing HidroAysen’s executive, to the dream of sustainable exploitation.
“Studies by the University of Chile and other experts have found that HidroAysén is not necessary to meet Chile’s future energy needs,” explains International Rivers regional campaign Patagonia Sin Represas. “Investment in more efficient use of electricity, together with renewable sources such as solar, geothermal and wind, would ensure a sustainable energy future.”
And it’s not just Chile that would benefit from tearing down its dams before they are built. The destructive environmental, economic and human impact of dams — from ecosphere, species and cultural extinction to seismic instability, mass relocations and cost-benefit imbalances — is precisely why domestic dams are being destroyed as you read this from Washington to Maine. In Pakistan, citizens who were uprooted in the ’70s to make way for the Bhakra dam are still awaiting rehabilitation, while the nation builds more in Lahore.
Turkey can expect similar headaches after its proposed dams flood thousands of years of cultural history and spoil the comparatively untouched Tigris. International Rivers is further worried about fast-track megadams in South Africa, and Patagonia’s neighbor Brazil, which is quickly becoming an emergent superpower in a new century of unsustainable consumption riddled with global warming’s last-gasp resource wars.
“The focus on large, centralized projects has benefited energy-intensive industries, but bypassed more than a billion poor people,” International Rivers media director Peter Bosshard explained ahead of a recent report calling on the World Bank’s new president Jim Yong Kim, who takes office in July, to dramatically alter its approach to infrastructure development. “The benefits of centralized mega-projects have not trickled down.”
I spoke with Patagonia Rising director Brian Lilla about that choked-off trickle in Chile and abroad, and why dams are “slow suicide” for those who cave in to the global water wars.
What did you think about dams before you made this film, and how do you feel about them now?
Brian Lilla: Before I made this film I had a vague understanding that big dams have a negative impact on rivers. In college, I spent a lot of time kayaking rivers and eventually read the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Reading that book was like peeking behind the curtain in The Wizard Of Oz. I started to realize what was behind all these massive reservoirs in the Western United States, which began my process of unraveling how dams kill rivers. By the time I finished directing Patagonia Rising, I had a much clearer understanding of how dams affect the entire hydrologic process all the way into the ocean. It’s ironic that 15 years ago I shot my first piece of film while skateboarding the 30-foot overflow tube inside the Monticello Dam in Napa County. When I needed footage of dams for Patagonia Rising, I went back to that same spot with a very different intention.
Are we fucking with the program by rerouting nature in the names of consumption and energy, given that we’re not really keen on sustainability or conservation in either one?
BL: There’s no arguing that large-scale hydro-electric dams provide cheap electricity and water storage. But when it comes to the pursuit of development for energy and consumption, humans are completely short-sighted. A century after the first big dams were built in the United States, we have realized the long-term effects of cutting off nutrient flows, loss of habitat and killing fish migration routes. These are just a few of the reasons we stopped building dams 30 years ago. We’ve fucked up so many rivers and natural water systems that United States is now decommissioning dams and shifting towards habitat restoration.
It took me a long time to realize rivers are the arteries from which humans and thousands of other species are dependent. Dams are a slow suicide going unnoticed. If we want to sustain our place on the planet, we need to reconsider our relationship to water and how we treat it. I don’t consider this an environmentalist point of view; I’m just a human who is scared shitless of the future. And Patagonia Rising was an opportunity to shed light on the fact that we have a major problem on a global scale. But if developing countries like Chile decide not to build dams in Patagonia, we are steps closer toward shaping a sustainable future.
What is Patagonia’s particular role in the planet’s freshwater puzzle? And how do you think climate change will make that worse?
BL: Patagonia’s ice caps are the third largest freshwater reserve on the planet, and play a critical role in driving biodiversity and contributing to healthy oceans. Its rivers are free-flowing, but their biggest threat has been climate change. Patagonia’s glaciers are temperate, and rapidly melting ice is triggering massive flooding. People are losing lives and moving to higher ground. Some of the river valleys we descended while filming are complete death traps, with unexpected glacial lake outburst floods. The scenery was epic, but I was glad to get out of there alive.
Is the multinational race to develop what’s left of undeveloped South America just going to make things worse for all of us?
BL: On the northern end of the continent you’ve got the Amazon River, which is also under threat of dam development. One of the most twisted things I learned while making this film is that the companies behind the building of dams in developing countries are mostly from Europe and China. Ninety percent of Chile’s water rights were sold off by Pinochet and are now controlled by Spanish and Italian energy conglomerates. The other piece of the Patagonia dam puzzle is that the needed transmission lines would be built by a Canadian company. HidroAysen hired the American public relations firm Burson Marsteller to greenwash the entire project, the same scumbags that go to work for the tobacco industry. All these multinationals have one objective at the expense of Chile’s water and people: profit.
With 7 billion people on Earth, and only increases in population and consumption priced into the dystopian mix, remnants of a more earthly past like Chile’s rural gauchos, whose anti-dam efforts you explore in Patagonia Rising, seem destined for ancient history. But they’re helping stall the project.
BL: While filming in Chile, I met some very informed and intelligent people working within the government, academic and NGO sector. All the information is there for Chile to make the right decision. Unfortunately there are also a lot Chilean people with power who stand to financially benefit from the building of the dams. As an American filmmaker, I had to be very careful not to interject an American point of view on the debate in Chile. The last thing Chileans want is a bunch of Americans telling them what they should or shouldn’t do. The last time they we did, they ended up with a 20-year dictatorship.
How will the dam controversy in Patagonia impact South America overall? It’s an emergent superpower.
BL: There is a lot at stake. Building the dams in Patagonia would open a Pandora’s box of development. A ton of infrastructure — roads, airports, ports, more — would need to be put in place in order to build the dams. Once those systems are in place, extractive development would soon follow. Besides environmental hits, the cultural landscape of the gauchos and other Patagonia families would slingshot itself towards boom-town explosion. And there are a lot of people in Patagonia that cherish their cultural history and future. They won’t go down with out a fight.
How about yourself? How has this struggle impacted you personally?
BL: Three months after I shot an interview with the general manager of HidroAysen I was sent a letter from the company’s legal department that stated, “If Patagonia Rising somehow negatively impacts the decision to build the dams, Brian Lilla will be held personally liable.” I read this as a compliment. I took a lot of personal and professional punches to get this film done. In the end, I’d much rather regret something I have done than something I haven’t done.
This interview appeared in AlterNet