The Energy Crunch and Popular Demand – Chile’s Quest for Balance

First posted on Futurechallenges.org

 

What went wrong that in only fourteen months the democratically elected president Sebastian Piñera is now facing such widespread public protest?

In the autumn of 2011 I saw people rioting on the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago and other major cities of the country. In the following days, environmental groups and politicians also joined the movement, paralyzing daily life across Chile. The reason for such protests was the proposed hydroelectric megaproject ‘HidroAysén’ for building five hydroelectric plants with an annual energy production capacity of 18,430 GWh.

The site of the megaproject is the main bone of contention between the people and the government as it is located in Aysén region in the south of the country. Conservationists fear that the construction of this project will destroy the ecology of Aysén, one of Chile’s most unspoilt regions.

President Piñera is the first president from a right wing party to be democratically elected since 1958. The latest poll shows that his popularity rating has dropped to 44%,  yet his government’s position is clearly pro HidroAysén, regardless of what public opinion says. So what should be the main concern of the democratically elected government: ecology or the economy?

Chile imports a large part of its energy needs. According to a 2007 estimate, 311,200 barrels of oil, 1628 GWh of electricity, and about 30% of the natural gas consumed in the country were imported. Supporters of the HidroAysén project claim that there will be many benefits for the country’s economy – like cheaper energy, infrastructural development for the less developed south, and new employment. As Daniel Fernandez, vice president of HidroAysén told the ‘El Mercurio’ newspaper, “the only safe, clean, renewable, and abundant energy source that we have is water”.

The current situation makes me think of my childhood days when my father worked in the town of Colbún as part of a project to bring electricity to a remote community, and it also makes me think that the arguments of the green lobby are no less persuasive than those of the government. Environmentalists claim that the megaproject and its access roads will negatively impact on six national parks, eleven national reserves, twenty-six conservation priority sites, sixteen wetland areas and thirty-two privately owned protected conservation areas. Although the latest polls show that more than 70% of Chileans are against the project, Piñera and his government are firmer than ever in their convictions. I think that in a democratic country like Chile, the government cannot ignore the popular voice on this issue for long. It should earn the confidence of civil society because if it does not do so, civil society will question just how capable democratic government really is in dealing with green issues.

Having said this, it is also important not to forget the other side to a democratic system. In Chile, some people have already started to question this system, by demanding a more direct participatory form of democracy, one which could better address the demands of citizens. This might sound good, but it can be a very dangerous proposition. Consider, for example,  how an excessive number of consultations, referenda and citizen initiatives have led California to the verge of bankruptcy. 70% of fiscal expenditure in California has been set directly by citizens who, in turn, have blocked every attempt to increase taxes. Such chaos in California has resulted from a process to strengthen democracy that was originally created with the very best intentions.

Here we need to understand that the duty of a government is, without any doubt, to address the aspirations of the masses. However, in a representative democracy people elect leaders to govern and take decisions which, they believe, are best for the country as a whole.

At the time of writing the HidroAysén megaproject has been suspended by the courts after  many legal appeals put forward by various individuals and organizations. We are still to see how President Piñera will deal with the current situation.

Will popular demand make the government reconsider its decision?

Whatever the outcome may be, the ability of a democratically elected government to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection is now being tested and we have yet to see how capable it is in dealing with such situations.

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