“At the end of the world,” the photographer Brigitte Grignet writes, “lies one of the most remote and undisturbed areas of Patagonia.” This sparsely populated region in southern Chile, called Aysén, is also one of the most endangered, threatened by plans to dam two of the region’s rivers in order to send hydro power north along thousands of miles of power lines.
Reading about and seeing the images of Aysen above brings back fresh memories of the two years prior to our move to India. In October 2009 I was invited by the local community of Aysen to represent their commercial interest in wilderness conservation at a forum sponsored by Hydro Aysen. I had been working in Patagonia since early 2008 and established relationships that led to their entrusting this task to me. I did not let them down.
On the other hand, I obviously failed to have any impact whatsoever on the particular desired outcome. And while those who were leading the movement to stop the dams continue to fight, the multinational investors in the dam project, encouraged and supported by the President of Chile, prevailed. And yet this was a defining moment for me. One in a long series that began with the random incident involving my graduate student friendship and research choices mentioned here.
Niagara Falls was, during the same period when Emerson was establishing the principles of Transcendentalism, under threat of all kinds of destruction. Not least, one of the earliest notions of large scale hydroelectric power generation. There was a strong effort to dam one of the most celebrated natural wonders of the world. In our archival work we discovered that the list of nineteenth-century visitors to Niagara Falls was a very thorough who’s who of the world’s elite. Kings and queens (back when those two words meant something), famous writers, actors, etc. from around the world, if they visited North America almost always visited Niagara Falls.
Such visits were recorded in The New York Times starting in the 1860s (that research helped me understand the real meaning of the term “newspaper of record”) and continuing to the 1950s (Elvis and Marilyn were the last notables getting such coverage for their visits to the Falls). Many of them signed petitions opposing the damming efforts and other destructive schemes promoted as public interest projects. When I spoke at the event in Aysen in late 2009 I had a sinking feeling that our group of anti-dam activists, even when organized and energized by a motivated local private sector, was missing something that Niagara Falls had: widespread attention.
Local hoteliers in Niagara Falls were able to engage the global public, and thereby the governments on both sides of the Falls, against degradation of the natural wonder precisely because the Emerson, Dickens, Twain support lent to their cause. Where were the equivalents when Sin Represas needed them? Difficult to say.
I, for my part, did not do enough. I took a passive advisory role rather than an active entrepreneurial one. I can say to myself: better than nothing. But that does not cut it. I worked with locals on realistic, practical strategies and produced reports like this: