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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, and her sister. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Ralco HEP and Bio Bio Watershed hydro plans, Chile
State or province:Provincias de Bio Bio y de Concepción, Región del Bio Bio, y Provincia de Malleco, Región de la Araucanía
Location of conflict:Comunas 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
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Land
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Chile'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.

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Project area:2,426,200
Level of Investment for the conflictive project700,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,480,000
Start of the conflict:1996
Company names or state enterprises:Endesa (Endesa) from Italy
ENEL Group (Enel) from Italy
Atiaia Energia from Brazil - Would benefit from the study if it became policy
Relevant government actors:Minister of Energy; Minister of Environment; Minister of Indigenous Affairs
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Aguas Libres; Kayak Stewards Alliance; Bestias del Sur Salvaje; Ecosistemas; MVMT Comunicaciones
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Informal workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Local Tourism Businesses
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Artistic 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-economical 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
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Proposal and development of alternatives:Proposals 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 an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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 & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Law No. 1122 of 29.10.1981. El Código de Aguas

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

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.

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.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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

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

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

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

Respondiendo a un mundo globalizado: Cambios en la estructura de autoridad de los pehuenche de Alto Biobío, Chile


Sociedad Hoy

2008 (15) pp: 55-66
[click to view]

Film documental Apaga y Vámonos, de Manel Mayol (2004)
[click to view]

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

Los Mapuche-Pehuenche y el proyecto hidroeléctrico de Ralco: un pueblo amenazado

Informe sobre la misión de investigación de la Federación Internacional de los Derechos Humanos (FIDH) sobre la construcción de la central hidroeléctrica de Ralco y la protección de los derechos económicos, sociales y culturales del pueblo indígena Mapuche-Pehuenche.
[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]

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

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

Nicolasa Quintremán y el territorio sagrado del Bío Bío


20 FEB 2014
[click to view]

Other comments:This 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
Contributor:Director, Futaleufu Riverkeeper, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2330
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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