“Because we dared follow our heart we changed part of history” - Mark Dubois
“When I’m not afraid to die I’m free to do anything” - Mark Dubois
My early years in San Martín de los Andes were uniquely special, to say the least. It was a time of discoveries, of experiences I had never imagined. Of course, I knew the beauty of Patagonia’s native forests, its valleys, rivers, lakes, glaciers, mountains, wildlife and above all, its trout. As a fly-fisherman I had been in San Martin and other areas of Patagonia many times before, but actually living there exceeded my wildest expectations. I was well aware of that, and it pleased me enormously. I had become a fly-fishing guide and was enjoying every single second of my new life. I was delighted with my decision of making Patagonia my home as I envisioned living in paradise for many years to come, fly-fishing the pristine Patagonian Rivers. Nothing could ruin the future that lay ahead.
There were very few people living in San Martín in the late ‘70s, probably about 6,000, so most of us knew each other and life was pleasant. However, on a cold winter morning in 1979 something unexpected happened when I walked into the Tourism Office (run by the provincial government). I knew the people there and was a frequent visitor. That morning, something I’d never seen before caught my eye. Some booklets and leaflets with unusual maps and drawings were on display. As I looked through one I gradually understood what it was about, dam projects on our rivers. The booklets actually showed the dams they were planning to build on the cherished rivers in our area! I took them home to analyze them in depth.
I wanted to know who had published them, who was responsible but couldn’t get any answers. There was absolutely no information about the authors. Determined to find out, I asked around until I learnt about a company, owned by the federal government, called Hidronor. It had been created with a sole purpose: the construction of a dam near the city of Neuquén, on the Lower Limay River, called El Chocón Dam. That was back in 1967, when I was a teenager. It was a huge dam, presented to the Argentine people as a grand achievement, an extraordinary feat of engineering that would generate electricity for cities throughout the entire country for generations to come, as well as irrigating 2.5 million acres. Virtually everybody accepted it, nobody ever thought of questioning its impact.
That was where it all began. Although I didn’t know then, experience has taught me a company like Hidronor would not be dismantled after having built a dam like El Chocón. Quite the opposite, it was very much alive. After the completion of the first dam, scouting rivers for the construction of future ones was their strategy. Ironically, just like we fishing guides do, scout rivers to fish!
As I continued researching the projects, much to my concern, it became quite clear they involved all the rivers – big or small – where we fished and guided. Whenever I talked to people who should have known about it, all I got were vague answers. “Oh, yeah, but it’s just theoretical, you know. It’s only about the feasibility of building dams in the area. It’s not an actual project,” or words to that effect.
Despite my insistence I couldn’t get a straight answer and I began to think there was something secretive, a hidden agenda. I persevered and became even more concerned when, in 1979, the construction of another dam began. Alicura Dam was finally inaugurated in 1985 and I really felt the impact. It flooded all the upper Limay and lower Traful Rivers, both of which I had fished and guided on. About 60 miles from the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, it turned the upper Limay, a great stretch of river, into a reservoir.
Although I was not fighting dams at the time, I was really intent on learning all there was to know about them. That is how I discovered an ongoing project called ALICOPA, involving the construction of 3 dams. ALICOPA is an acronym for Alicura, Collon Cura and Piedra del Aguila. I have already mentioned Alicura, on the Upper Limay River, Piedra del Aguila is on the Middle Limay near a small town of the same name and the third dam on the Collon Cura River. This one was particularly disturbing as it would flood many of the rivers we were fishing.
Not surprisingly, the planned location of the dam was in a gorge. Needless to say, gorges and canyons are ideal sites for dams, and a “gauging station” had already been set up. It consisted of an outpost of sorts with a water gauge and a storage shed for tools and instruments. The realization that the 3-dam project was well on its way came as a shock. Alicura Dam was finished and the construction of Piedra del Aguila Dam (on the high steppe half way between San Martin de los Andes and Neuquén City) was nearing completion. I was really scared and all I could think of was: “How in hell can we stop the Collon Cura Dam from being built?”
It was then 1986 and, in a growing state of alarm, I decided to reach out to the people who would be most affected: neighbors, ranch and farm owners, fishermen, settlers whose land would be flooded and even clients from different countries (mostly Americans). I also met with the mayor of San Martín de los Andes and other government officials. Reactions ranged from support to minimizing the problem or simply indifference but mostly people disliked the idea of a dam on the Collon Cura River.
I adamantly urged them to “go and see for yourself, take a hard look at the huge reservoir at El Chocón Dam from the ‘60s or at Alicura Dam! That’s exactly what’s going to happen here; it’ll flood the entire Collon Cura and lower Malleo and Chimehuin Rivers, half the Aluminé River and more! And that’s not all, they have more projects. Every single river will suffer. It’s a ticking time bomb! Collon Cura Dam is an imminent threat; it is part of an ongoing dam complex. Go and see the work in Piedra del Aguila.”
Considering that these projects were designed and carried out by the federal government, I decided to contact local politicians. This requires an explanation about the characteristics of the Province of Neuquén. It is one of the few provinces governed not by a nationwide party, but by an independent provincial one. This entails a frequent claim that they are “their own party” and “look after their people’s interests” and “whatever benefits their province.” That is the rhetoric they used and what was happening in our community. They did not always side with the federal government when their interests differed from those of federal policies.
Even though I wasn’t as aware of this back then as I am now, it was a good move. For instance, when I approached the chief biologist at the Center of Applied Ecology, CEAN (for its name in Spanish: Centro de Ecología Aplicada del Neuquén) Alejandro del Valle, he understood the threat and offered his support. Another staunch supporter was Mr Roberto Sacconi who had set up a fly-reel company called STH (which later became known in the US) in nearby Junín de los Andes. We started lobbying and as others joined in, the campaign to stop the dam was finally on its way.
However, we didn’t quite know what arguments to use, who or what to target. It was an extremely difficult equation! The only thing we could do was raise hell and that is exactly what we did. On the opening day of the fishing seasons we blocked roads, burnt tires and put up signs with skulls and crossbones saying HIDRONOR = DANGER. We also stopped traffic, told everyone about our plight and handed out flyers before they went on their way. People actually liked it. It was a noble cause, especially among fly-fishers. We felt we were fighting the good fight, striving to make our cause popular, and succeeding, at least locally.
In the hope of continuing to raise awareness and foster commitment, I was later interviewed on our local radio station and TV channel and gave talks in different venues. I also organized several screenings of a movie Jorge Donovan had brought about the dams on the Columbia River ingeniously called “Dammed Forever”. And slowly but surely our struggle became known not only in my community but in nearby Junín de los Andes and Bariloche.
At the time I knew nothing about government corruption and other issues I later learnt at the San Francisco symposium. Neither did I know that large scale dams are not the only choice, that environmentally friendly options do exist, but from the start I couldn’t help feeling there was something morally wrong about dams.
Whenever I spoke to politicians or engineers who were in favor of building them they would resort to abstract concepts such as “Well, you know, there are very few people in Patagonia and this is for the greater good, the common good.” So I asked myself what this actually meant. Shouldn’t the common good include preserving the environment for future generations? How could destroying our rivers and valleys, our most productive areas, our lives, be beneficial? And what about the unique Patagonian natural woodlands and their wildlife? There would be expropriations, people would be ousted from their homes. The more I thought about it the more convinced I became it was immoral regardless the number of people it hurt.
Besides, who would determine what the greater good was? Politicians? Bureaucrats? The entity which was granted the exclusive permit to build the dams? And yes, this could “benefit” the city of Buenos Aires, 1000 miles away, but why should it be at our expense? We simply could not allow our beloved Patagonian landscape to be turned into a string of reservoirs! We could not allow our lives to be ruined!
So the word was out, not only about Collon Cura Dam but the plan for 4 more upstream, where the Collon Cura River changes its name to Aluminé: Talelum, El Chenque, La Media Luna and El Gato. To make matters worse, they wanted to divert water from the Caleufu River into the Limay Chico (a fork in the Upper Limay River) to feed Alicura Dam and build yet another dam on the Upper Traful River where the rapids are. Then came the Malleo and Chimehuin Rivers, two of the finest trout rivers in the world. Not only would a dam be built on each river, but a pipe through the mountain would supply water from the Malleo to the Mouth of the Chimehuin where they would build another dam yet. It could become a never ending nightmare! It had to be stopped!
Easier said than done! The truth of the matter was, in spite of all the public attention and increasing support for our cause, I still didn’t have any information that would provide a solid argument against the construction of the dams. Until, in March 1988, we caught a break when I was guiding a client called Danny Weinstein on the Malleo River. One day I received a letter from somebody by the name of Mark Dubois, inviting me to participate of an international symposium against “large dams” to be held in San Francisco. I had no idea who he was or how he had heard about me. So, that evening over dinner, I decided to mention the letter to Danny.
Imagine my surprise when he replied: “That must be Mark Dubois. I know him.” “Yeah,” I said, “that’s exactly who it is.” “He’s a great guy,” Danny continued, “everybody knows and respects him. He’s a rafter. Once, he actually chained himself to a rock to stop a dam from being filled. He got a lot of attention and made a name for himself as a river warrior.” I listened in amazement as he went on to say: “By the way, I live in San Francisco. You should definitely come. You’re welcome to stay at home.” So I wrote to Mark Dubois accepting the invitation. It was the first international symposium organized by International Rivers Network to be held in June, 1988.
Danny’s fly-fishing trip came to an end but we stayed in touch. Time flew by and as planned, in June, I jumped on a plane brimming with expectations. It was quite a trek: from San Martin de los Andes to Buenos Aires, then on to Miami and yet another stopover until I finally landed in San Francisco.
Once I had picked up my bag, I was ready to make my way to Danny’s. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I was met by Mark Dubois and an entourage of people from different countries. As soon as the introductions were over Mark told me we would be sleeping in tents and floating Kings River the following day. And there I was, jet-lagged, wearing a blazer and tie, not exactly in the mood for a night in a tent! But I was young back then, and how could I possibly have refused?
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I was given a wet suit and off we went to Kings River where the rafts lay in wait. We all rowed through the rapids and, as was to be expected, some flew overboard and had to be pulled back into the boats. Of course, we were all equipped with life-vests, and nobody was in any real danger. It was actually a lot of fun! I realized Mark had had a great idea in making all of us get a first-hand experience of the river, a real feel of it and what it would mean if it were lost forever.
I finally arrived at Danny’s. He and Suey, his wife, were wonderful hosts. After showing me to the guest room, Danny told me they would be traveling in a couple of days but “you can stay as long as you like. Before leaving, please bring the mail in, leave the door locked; make sure you don’t forget any of your belongings because you won’t be able to get back in. Meanwhile, my house is yours.” And that was that.
I went back and forth from Danny’s to the symposium every day. I don’t remember exactly how long it lasted, perhaps 3 or 4 days. It was a massive event, probably one of the most crowded I’ve ever been to. There were people from China, Norway, India, the United States, Canada as well as European, African, Asian and South and Central American countries. I met a lot of interesting people and was delighted to speak to Patricia Adams who, with Lawrence Solomon, had written a book called “In the Name of Progress” which was a real eye opener.
On the first day, participants were asked to introduce themselves, say where they came from and why they were attending the symposium. When my turn came I did so and explained, in as much detail as I could, what I had learnt about the government’s plans and ended my speech saying: “Well, I’m here, we’re here, because we’re looking for help. We don’t know how to stop this.”
I was glad to feel the support of so many people, including Mark Dubois and Patricia Adams. She encouraged me to keep giving speeches, studying and fighting. On the other hand, I was shocked to hear what was going on in other countries and made notes of the speeches I listened to.
The symposium was also an opportunity to become acquainted with bibliography on the topic. I returned to Patagonia with a duffel bag full of publications related to dams. Among them were the two key books which played an essential part in my fight against dams: “The Social Environmental Effects of Large Dams” by Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard and, the aforementioned “In Name of Progress – The Underside of Foreign Aid” by Patricia Adams and Lawrence Solomon. They still have a special place in my library.
I came to understand what I had never suspected or imagined: the connection between the World Bank and other foreign agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development, the Canadian International Development Agency, Britain’s Overseas Development Administration; commercial banks like Chase Manhattan and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce; export promotion bodies like the Export-Import Bank in the US, the Export Development Corporation in Canada and so on and the governments of the countries where dams would be built, the politicians, corporations or entities with the technology and knowhow that built the dams.
I was approached by some attendees from Norway who, upon hearing me say the name of the company building the dams in Patagonia was Hidronor, wondered if “nor” stood for Norway. I explained it had nothing to do with their country, it actually stood for “norte” which is north in Spanish. Their concern really impressed me.
There were countless examples from all over the world like the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze and their disastrous consequences. There was a seemingly endless stream of cases, explaining how the projects started and were carried out, where the money came from and where it ended up, what could have or should have been done or avoided. The common denominator being their notorious social and environmental impact.
It became clear that the reason for building dams differed radically from what I had been told. Most of it, if not all, involved corruption. The truth is that once an entity like Hidronor in our case, or the Army Corps of Engineers in the United States is formed, it becomes a malignant tumor of sorts which just has to keep growing. The only way they can stay alive is by continuing to do what they were created for.
I was stunned by the level of corruption. A government is a monopoly consequently, when it runs an entity that builds dams obviously presidents, ministers, governors, bureaucrats and politicians resort to loans from the World Bank or other agencies. They then grant a “concession”, “permit” or “license” for the construction of dams to a company with “government pull” which will use government force to do whatever it takes to build a large dam. The real cost is irrelevant since, by its very nature, it has to be funded through taxation: large dams are no more than government whims, not market based equations or decisions. To say nothing of both short and long term consequences, the sediment and the silt, the diseases and the insurmountable problems they generate.
When the International Rivers symposium was over, Mark asked me to give a speech at Berkeley University which I gladly agreed to do. It was a smaller audience but very tuned into the subject. They showed their commitment by writing to the governor and political authorities of both the federal government and of the Province of Neuquén where the dams would be built.
Having gained a deeper insight into the ploys governments used to brainwash people into believing dams were beneficial, I then focused on their consequences. And the consequences and implications were endless and brutal, for there was another aspect to the dam-building issue, one that the industry was less keen to display. It included massive ecological destruction, social misery and increasing ill health and impoverishment for those very people who were said to benefit most:
- Little of the food grown through irrigating schemes ever reaches the needy; in the long run, those irrigation schemes turn vast areas of fertile land into salt-encrusted deserts; the industry preserved by dams further undermines food supplies due to pollution and the destruction of agricultural land.
- Millions of people are uprooted from their homes to make way for the reservoirs of large dams; their social lives shattered and their cultures destroyed; their health jeopardized by the water-borne diseases introduced by those reservoirs and their associated irrigation works.
- Dams are suspected of triggering earthquakes; they fail to control floods and increase the severity of flood damage; and in many instances, they reduce the quality of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people.
- The real beneficiaries of large-scale dams and water development schemes are invariably large multinational companies with “government pull” (using the government’s force to impose their will), the ruling elites of the Third World, and the politicians who commission the projects.
Let’s attempt a taxonomy of the consequences and implications of dams.
A- The problems of resettlement: 1- A record of failure. 2- Government insensitivity. 3- Lack of compensation and inferior land. 4- Social and cultural destruction. 5- Resistance to resettlement. 6- Ethnic differences ignored. 7- Inappropriate housing. 8- Housing and the integrity of traditional culture. 9- The road to the slum.
B- Closing a Dam: Loss of land and wildlife upstream, loss of silt and fertility downstream: 1- Loss of forests and wildlife to flooding. 2- The reduction of fertility downstream due to impoundment. 3- Loss of silt and coastal erosion.
C- Water losses: 1- Losses to evaporation. 2- Losses to transpiration: the problem of aquatic weeds. 3- Losses due to seepage and overuse of water.
D- The effects of perennial irrigation on pest populations: 1- Dams and disease. 2- Malaria. 3- Schistosomiasis. 4- Filariasis and Onchocerciasis. 5- Diseases as an indirect result of water projects. 6- Pesticide pollution and the destruction of fisheries.
E- Dam Failures and Earthquakes: 1- The failure of a strategy. 2- Deforestation, erosion and floods. 3- The problems of building on the flood plains. 4- Structural controls that fail to work. 5- The trade-off between flood control, hydropower and irrigation.
F- The problem with salinization: 1- Irrigation and salinization, the intimate connection. 2- Waterlogging. 3- The problems of no drainage.
G- Management and Maintenance – Perennial Problems: 1- A low priority concern. 2- Bureaucratic ignorance. 3- Lack of accountability. 4- The problems between food and cash crops. 5- Cash crops and the degradation of agricultural land. 6- Cash crops and rising food prices.
- The loss of land and water to industry and urbanization.
- Dams pollution and the reduction of food supplies.
- Sedimentation (the way of all dams).
- Fudging the books: Cost-Benefit studies: THE PATTERN OF FALSIFICATION.
- Overestimating benefits, underestimating costs.
- Climate change.
I could see the causes and the consequences but what about the alternatives? What could replace large dams? What should we do instead of building them?
Here are some of the better alternative electricity generating sources:
A- Biomass gasifiers, which burn waste products from agricultural production (such as rice or corn husks) to produce electricity
B- Small-scale micro- (<100kw) and pico-hydro (<5 kw), which require no dam and run on the river’s natural flow.
C- Solar and wind generation.
D- Co-generation, a combination of electricity, heating and cooling from waste heat, usually sited to consumer needs. Surplus can be shared/sold to nearby customers using low voltage systems.
F- Natural gas, fuel.
G- Wind power, solar power, fuel cells and micro turbines.
The symposium was over and I was longing to be home to share everything I had learnt and witnessed in San Francisco. I not only came armed with books but with surprising facts. I remember my astonishment at hearing that if everybody replaced their light bulbs for energy-saving ones (which were a novelty back then) the power saved would exceed the power produced by a large dam.
Owing to a curious turn of events I lost touch with Mark Dubois who consequently, had no idea what happened after my return to Patagonia. Let me tell you what Mark learnt 27 years later!
As soon as I could, I met with the people from both San Martín and Junín de los Andes who had taken part in the campaign to stop the dams to tell them everything I had learnt. As word continued to spread I was approached by the RTN (Radio and Television of Neuquén) which produced films and general interest programs and were planning to interview several people about the threat posed by dams. It was the only TV channel in the province at the time, so I jumped at the chance, eager to make the information I had brought from the symposium public. I was surprised to be presented as a researcher on the subject.
The other interviewees were Alejandro del Valle and Roberto Sacconi, both of whom I mentioned before, as well as Andino Grahn and Elías Sapag. Upon my return we had held countless meetings where we analyzed the information and discussed strategies. Alejandro was still working for the government as chief biologist and very knowledgeable about trout, salmon and fisheries (he would then study diseases such as Whirling and Didymo). Roberto Sacconi, turned out to be a truly convincing speaker. Andino Grahn, a well-respected rancher in the area was also interviewed. And last but by no means had least, Senator Elías Sapag whom I had also met with, voiced his opposition to the construction of dams strongly using phrases like: “they shall not pass” and “we will stop them”. He happened to be the governor’s brother so he was a real asset to our cause.
I also traveled to Buenos Aires where I attended meetings with politicians of different parties including the National Secretary of Tourism, Enrique Olivera. They all stated they would support me and “see what they could do”. As was to be expected, they did nothing. After all, politicians only care about the number of votes they can get, and Patagonia is sparsely populated.
Coincidentally, dams were not the only problem our community was facing at the time. San Martín de los Andes is located on the north-eastern coast of Lake Lácar, one of the few which drains across Chile into the Pacific Ocean. All the wastewater went straight into the lake and it was becoming contaminated. A scientist called Francisco Rossi was hired to study the problem. He was a renowned, highly respected expert as well as an honest, forthcoming person.
I met “Chacho”, as Dr Rossi was affectionately called, at a meeting we had both been invited to. He was a great conversationalist and knew all about the symposium in San Francisco, Mark Dubois, Patricia Adams, and even about the books I had brought. I was astonished!
When he listened to a recording of my speeches at the symposium and Berkley University he grew very excited and said: “This is incredible, you’ve brought all this knowledge and now we have to pass it on and teach the people, tell them everything they need to know.” He thought I was privileged to have participated in one of the most important forums in the world regarding dams and rivers. He understood exactly how I felt, shared my views and offered to support and help me out. It meant so much to me as he was held in high esteem by both politicians and the people.
Another key figure in our struggle to stop the dams was the mayor of San Martin de los Andes, Raúl Miguel, known to all as Rauli. As is often the case in small communities, he was simply a regular neighbor who owned an auto parts and repair shop and a family run hotel and had been elected mayor for four years. Since we had been friends for quite some time, he was open and receptive to my explanations regarding the danger the dam projects posed to our town and the region.
During one of our meetings, he came up with a brilliant idea. “Why don’t we call the people at Hidronor and have them give a presentation?” he suggested. The strategy was to lure them by telling them how excited we were about their project which we believed would bring progress and well-being to the community, how their work for the common good had to be known and so on. Chacho Rossi, who was also at the meeting, was quick to realize it was a great plan. “Yes, let’s call them and once they’ve told us all about the dam project it’ll be your turn to speak, Jorge.” Although I tried to persuade him to speak too, he refused insisting it should be my big day as I had been to San Francisco and had both the knowledge and passion to make a strong case against the dams. He did promise to sit next to me and help me out if need be.
The mayor contacted the people at Hidronor, invited them to present their fabulous projects and candidly added that two esteemed neighbors (Dr Rossi and I) who were interested in the subject would be joining them and probably making a closing comment. They took the bait and the bobber, they had no idea what lay in store for them.
Announcements were made on public media, including television, inviting government officials, members of the town council and the people of San Martín and neighboring Junín de los Andes. Local media would cover the event.
The big day finally came and soon the hall was packed to the rafters. Although I was used to speaking in public and was sure I could rebut whatever argument they put forth, I couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous. After all, this was the place I considered my home and the stakes were high.
Everything went as we had foreseen. The Hidronor representatives expounded on their projects, especially the ALICOPA Complex, emphasizing the outstanding benefits at a local and national level. Soon, the moment had come, it was my turn to speak. I began by explaining why what had been said was a fallacy, a false concept, and why dams, far from being good were extremely harmful. I went from philosophy to undeniable facts. I disclosed the real reasons for their construction, where the money came from, where it went, who was chosen to build them, and especially why Hidronor had to continue devising projects in order to survive as an entity whatever the cost. I added that sadly this was an existing pattern worldwide, and provided examples from other countries. Needless to say, I was very thorough in my account of the nefarious consequences in our region. The map would be forever altered; our beloved rivers and valleys would disappear as would their wildlife, besides the grave effect on people’s lives.
My heartfelt speech was interrupted several times by rounds of applause which obviously made the people of Hidronor really uncomfortable. It was clear they could do nothing to counteract my rebuttal of their arguments and, urged on by such a positive response from the attendees, including our future mayor Luz Sapag, members of the town council and other government officials, I concluded by mentioning the existence of eco-friendly sources of power and energy. As Chacho Rossi had predicted, it was my big day.
Despite the successful outcome of the presentation, it was no time to rest on our laurels. A commission was quickly set up constituted by the people who had actively participated from the start as well as some important additions to our cause.
Winning the support of the municipalities of San Martín and Junín de los Andes and other towns in the region whose rivers would be affected by the dams had strengthened our position. The time had come to move on to a higher level. We contacted Pedro Salvatori, the governor of the province, and scheduled a meeting.
A seasoned politician, he was quick to understand he would benefit from helping a popular cause. As I mentioned before, he belonged to a provincial party, not a federal one, and was known to have opposed federal policies in defense of our province. Considering that the rivers we were intent on saving fell under provincial jurisdiction, the governor had political power to determine what could or could not be done. We were delighted to learn he would pass a decree forbidding Hidronor from carrying out any projects on our rivers without the consent and authorization of the Province of Neuquén.
The decree was passed. All works on the dams stopped. Yet we were not sure whether there would be a reaction. Unbelievable as it may seem, time went by and nothing happened. In fact, Hidronor was eventually dismantled. And that was that!
It had been 8 or 9 years since I had seen the flyers in the tourism office which had led me to study and research the threat of dams, travel from Patagonia to San Francisco and back, organize meetings, give speeches and so much more. During these years I met and befriended many outstanding people whose invaluable help and commitment saved our cherished rivers. We became river warriors!
This is why you can still come down to fish the great Patagonian Rivers. This is why you can browse Google Earth and the magnificent Chimehuin, Malleo, Collon Cura, Aluminé, Caleufu and Traful Rivers are still here to be enjoyed by all river lovers.
- Jorge Trucco