Robert Kennedy Jr on Hidroaysén: “The economic benefits were just for a few millionaires”
Robert Kennedy Jr on Hidroaysén: “The economic benefits were just for a few millionaires” – Interview in Chile’s La Tercera newspaper
Author: Rodrigo Martínez (translated by Futaleufu Riverkeeper)
The American lawyer, defender of environmental causes, and one of the key characters in the battle against HidroAysén celebrated the decision by Enel and Colbún to end the project. He talks about how he met with many political leaders while campaigning, including President Bachelet, and how he hopes the beauty of Patagonia’s landscape will be monetized in a sustainable manner.
Robert Kennedy Jr., heir to the most powerful clan that has existed in United States politics, was one of the most fervent opponents of Hidroaysén. A lawyer by profession and defender of rivers, he arrived in Chile for the first time in the 70s to explore the rapids of the Biobio River. Since then he has returned frequently.
His last visit was two years ago, while the next will be in March. Kennedy will travel to the Futaleufú region, where Futaleufú Riverkeeper has been established, an organization that uses legal defense to protect a transnational waterway on the border between Chile and Argentina.
In this interview he discusses the end of Hidroaysén and reasons for celebrating, the tourism potential of Patagonia, Trump, and his latest environmental battles.
You are one of the people who always opposed the construction of the Hidroaysén project. How did you receive the news that the company will be liquidated and will return the water rights to the State?
I’m so happy with this, because it’s not just about water, it’s about democracy in Chile. A country cannot really be a democracy if it does not control its own resources. If a nation does not control its natural resources, then it is a colonial economy. And during the Pinochet era, Chile gave away its public assets to private companies including telephone companies, but most importantly its land, its water and its rivers. The control over those waterways was taken away from the local people in Chile and handed over to businessmen who exploit them for profit. This is a giant victory for democracy in Chile.
The second point I would make is that when you have private companies that seek to extract profits from natural resources, they will try to liquidate the resource in exchange for money, whether it makes economic sense for the country or not. And in this case it was not a situation that made economic sense. Chile has incredible sources of energy. If you look at what these companies wanted to do, it was to build dams in Patagonia and bring electricity to the north to supply the mining sector in the Atacama Desert. Maybe 80 years ago it would have made sense, but today it does not. And today, Chile has many better alternatives, including solar power. The Atacama Desert has the best source of solar power on Earth. It has 360 sunny days a year, with a high altitude, and you can produce power there. Hidroaysén made no sense for the country. The only people it made sense for were the people from Endesa and Colbún.
Why were you part of the bloc that opposed Hidroaysén?
Because I love Chile. I have been to Chile since the 70s and I have been working on rivers all my life. Chile has the best rivers in the world. It is a global tragedy to have these rivers destroyed. If Donald Trump put dams in the Grand Canyon, it would be a tragedy not only for the United States, but an international tragedy and a crime against humanity. The fact is these extraordinary rivers in Chile are an international treasure, making it a tragedy when private companies exploit them. I travel every year to go whitewater kayaking in Chile.
Why do you think Hidroaysén made the decision to end the project? Was it due to the boom of renewable energies or due to greater empowerment of social organizations and environmental movements?
I think both. I believe that the bases, the economic foundations of the project collapsed and there began to be political resistance. Democracy in Chile is showing its muscles.
You were a relevant figure in the opposition to the project. How was your experience in this “battle”? Do you feel victorious?
I feel very, very happy. And I feel very happy for all the people in Chile who have been fighting for this for more than a decade. It is a victory for the people of Chile and for the international environmental movement. I’m proud to have been of some use in it.
Links with Patagonia
How did you get involved in the opposition movement to HidroAysén and why did you become the protagonist of the rejection of it?
I was among the group that was fighting against the dams on the Biobío, where we were serving the Pehuenche communities and the environmental community. My last trip to the Biobío was the longest one. We brought journalists but it was too late. And when the Biobío was destroyed, we started looking for other rivers in Patagonia.
When HidroAysén was rejected by the Committee of Ministers in 2014, many of the project’s supporters in the Aysén Region criticized foreigners who opposed the power plants and highlighted the economic impacts for the region. What would you say to those people?
It was prosperity based on pollution. The type of economic benefits they were talking about were long-term economic earnings that would only benefit a few millionaires while impoverishing the region. The Patagonia region is valued as one of the most wonderful places in the world. The tourism industry is thriving. HidroAysén would have subjected the tourism sector- which is sustainable- to the building of dams and roads and infrastructure that would have industrialized Patagonia, and for which there is no strong economic rationale. HidroAysen would have enriched a small number of people while impoverishing the region. And it would have only brought a few short-term jobs, because in the long run dams do not create jobs. Once a dam is built, very few people are required to operate it. It is not a generator of long-term employment. Hydropower can be very profitable, but those profits go to the shareholders of the companies. They don’t stay in the region.
What solution should those people have who believe they live in abandonment and poverty?
What you have to do is develop industries that, like tourism, are sustainable. That area has incredible benefits and assets. Together, national parks in the United States generate millions and millions of earnings a year. There are ways to have a sustainable economy: tourism, fishing and other economic activities that are aligned with their natural resources. Patagonia is an extraordinary region. It is one of the most beautiful regions in the world. There are ways to monetize that beauty in a sustainable way that creates strong and permanent jobs.
In your opinion, is any kind of energy development possible in the Aysén region?
Certainly there is energy development that could happen that is sustainable, that doesn’t destroy the region. If you talk about exporting energy out of that region, I can’t say whether there are resources such as tidal power or wind. But exporting energy does not usually generate much money for the region. It generates revenues for the people who invest, for those who own the companies that own the resources and build the projects, but usually the income doesn’t remain with the people who live in the region. They can provide some temporary jobs but they are not economically sustainable for communities in the long run.
During the campaign against the project, did you ever meet with executives of the energy companies? For example, did you have meetings with members of the Matte family or with the then Spanish owners of Endesa, or with Francesco Starace from Enel?
No, I did not. I met with many political leaders in Chile including President Michelle Bachelet. But the leader who invited me to join in the beginning was Senator Antonio Horvarth, who was a very strong ally and was trying to stop the dams.
His new battles
What projects are you currently working on?
I have several lawsuits but the biggest one is probably one against Monsanto for its Roundup herbicide.
In an interview in 2014 you said: “The battle to conserve Chile’s rivers is far from over.” Do you still stand by this claim?
I believe you never win environmental battles. One can have victories, but my experience with rivers is that someone else will appear with a new idea. You never win a permanent victory, they are always temporary. And this victory is reason for celebrating.
What are your concerns about Chile now?
I don’t know if there are issues in the salmon industry. I assume there are issues related to global warming that Chile must face.
With President Trump, the United States has retreated in protection of the environment, having not joined the international convention on climate change. How do you weigh in on this fact and how do you defend your greener position in your country?
Anyone who cares about the environment has to see this president as the worst president we have ever had. And not just on the environment, but also for other issues like the role of the United States throughout the world.