Ralco HEP and Bio Bio Watershed hydro plans, Chile

The Biobio region is sadly known for heavy impacts on health of local Pehuenche people and to their territory. A new study for hydro in the basin could increase conflicts in these "sacrifice watershed"


In 1993 Endesa Chile S.A. proposed to the Government of Chile a project for the construction of a hydroelectric power station along the Biobio River basin. Endesa envisaged the flooding of thousands of hectares of land and the consequent displacement of six centuries old indigenous Mapuche-Pehuenches communities, supposedly protected by the 1993 Protection and Development of Indigenous People Law n19,253. The beginning of the indigenous communities’ mobilizations as soon as in 1995 was headed by the woman Pehunche leader Nicolasa Quintremán Calpán. Despite strong opposition by the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) and several environmental organisations, the project was approved in 1999 and eventually inaugurated in 2004. Since then, there have been on-going protests and repeated lawsuits against the dam construction. Community cemeteries have been flooded. The agreement before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2003, which ensures to the affected communities access to the land and to water, was never respected. The Ralco-Endesa project was finally completed despite a ten-year dispute involving indigenous communities, the Chilean Government and private interests. This struggle came to symbolize the problems associated with a lack of appropriate mechanisms for the protection of natural resources and ethnic minorities, theoretically protected by the National legislation. Today, Chile’s current Minister of Energy is finalizing a Watershed Mapping Study to prioritize hydro development in conflict watersheds. If implemented as policy, the study would facilitate construction of several large dams in the Bio Bio Watershed, as well as dams in at least six other major watersheds. In the Bio Bio watershed, two existing dams built by Endesa have already created conflicts in the region. The companies which own the additional water rights and would benefit from the policy are Brazilian firm Atiaia, and Energía Frontera SPA, which is owned by Energía Llaima. If the Minister of Energy is allowed to implement the study as national policy, it will make it easier for companies to gain approval for building dams in the Bio Bio watershed, particularly along the Bio Bio River.

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Basic Data
NameRalco HEP and Bio Bio Watershed hydro plans, Chile
ProvinceProvincias de Bio Bio y de Concepción, Región del Bio Bio, y Provincia de Malleco, Región de la Araucanía
SiteComunas de Concepción, Alto Bio Bio, Rucalhue, Quilaco, Lonquimay, Ralco, Los Angeles, Coronel
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Water Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Water access rights and entitlements
Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Specific CommoditiesElectricity
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsChile's famous Bio Bio River, already severely impacted by two large dams, as well as its tributaries are at risk of being diverted if this study is implemented as policy, in addition to rivers in at least six other major watersheds in Chile. While the final results of the study have yet to be released, several projects ranging from 2 MW up to 200 MW have been proposed.

Ralco Project envisaged the creation of a 370 m long and 155 m high water containment system along the upper Biobio River, covering an area of 3,467 hectares, with a capacity of 1,220 million m3 of water.

The power station had a capacity of 570 MW, which was later raised to 690 MW, with a level of investment of 582,000,000 US$
Project Area (in hectares)2,426,200
Level of Investment (in USD)Unknown
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population1,480,000
Start Date1996
Company Names or State EnterprisesEndesa (Endesa) from Italy
ENEL Group (Enel) from Italy
Atiaia Energia from Brazil - Would benefit from the study if it became policy
Relevant government actorsMinister of Energy; Minister of Environment; Minister of Indigenous Affairs
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersAguas Libres; Kayak Stewards Alliance; Bestias del Sur Salvaje; Ecosistemas; MVMT Comunicaciones
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingInternational ejos
Recreational users
Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Local government/political parties
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local scientists/professionals
Informal workers
Local Tourism Businesses
Forms of MobilizationArtistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Potential: Deaths, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..) , Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCorruption
Development of AlternativesProposals for Chile to move towards 100% renewable energies with no new hydro, submitted by the Mesa Ciudadana del Cambio Climatico (Chile), a coalition of over 20 NGOs; Proposals for Chile to establish Wild & Scenic Rivers Designation and permanently protect key waterways in at-risk watersheds, being developed by International Rivers (global) and several local Chilean NGOs and attorneys.
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.The Watershed Mapping Study is being finalized and will be presented in September 2016. While the methodologies used in the study has created some conflict in the seven watersheds being prioritized for hydro development, the full outcome of the study will only be seen if it is allowed to become national energy policy.
Sources and Materials

Law No. 1122 of 29.10.1981. El Código de Aguas

Law 20017. Created a royalty or tax applicable to owners of non-consumptive and continuous water rights who fail to utilize the waters. Specifically, the tax applies when owners fail to build infrastructure works to capture and restitute the waters. Law 20,017 provides that if the taxes are not paid, the courts may order the public auction of the respective water rights.

Article 28 of Law 19300. Related with "Community Participation in the Environmental Impact Assessment Process" page. 13

Law 19300 or the Environmental Framework Law, provides the basis for the organisation of environmental laws in Chile. It establishes the regulatory framework for environmental activity in Chile such as the environmental impact assessment system (EIAS), liability for environmental damage, air and water quality and emission standards, and pollution prevention and decontamination plans, among others.


Ralco represa o pobreza?. Namuncura, Domingo Sergio. LOM 1999

Conflictos Ambientales en Chile. San Martn Saavedra, Pablo OLCA. 1997

El gobierno de Lagos, los pueblos indigenas y el nuevo trato. Yaez, N.; Aylwin, J. (edit.). LOM. 2007

Contra la corriente. Privatizacion, mercados de agua y el Estado en Chile. BAUER, CARL J. LOM. 2002

Chile Sustentable - Conflictos por el Agua, 2010
[click to view]


The Bio-Bio River Case, Chile
[click to view]

Nicolasa Quintremán y el territorio sagrado del Bío Bío, El Pais, 20/02/2014
[click to view]

Se inauguró la central hidroeléctrica Ralco en el Alto Bío Bío, Aylwin O., J., Enlace Mapuche Internacional
[click to view]

En memoria de Nicolasa Quintreman o el dolor Pehuenche frente a la explotación invasora, Hermosilla, K., VeoVerde, 26/12/2013
[click to view]

Other Documents

Dams on the Bio bio Photo by local activist and kayaker Paulo Urrutia shows the Bio Bio River as it is currently dammed.
[click to view]

Ralco dam & hydroelectric plant Ralco dam & hydroelectric plant, Veoverde
[click to view]

Other CommentsThis is a local, regional, national and global conflict. Several watersheds in Chile are threatened by the same Watershed Mapping Study. These are rivers that deserve protected status, and it is expected that conflicts in Chile surrounding water rights will continue indefinitely until the country establishes new wild & scenic rivers legislation. Please review the map for information on the other watersheds at risk should the study become energy policy.
Meta Information
ContributorDirector, Futaleufu Riverkeeper, info@futaleufuriverkeeper.org
Last update19/11/2016
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