The way the Andes divide Patagonia, Argentina gets most of the land and Chile most of the water. As shown in Patagonia Rising, a new documentary, the landscape on Chile's side of the border is similar to coastal British Columbia or the Alaska panhandle: chilly, forested, mountainous and very wet.
As in many other Latin American countries, the water doesn't belong to the people: The government utility that once controlled it has been privatized and is now owned mostly by European investors. Their goal is to dam the cascading rivers to generate electricity for the country's north. Patagonia Rising makes a clear, if not particularly impassioned, case against this plan, which is well along the course to approval.
Five dams would rise on the Baker and Pascua Rivers, a $7 billion project in an area that currently lacks roads and utilities. The residents are mostly farmers who still travel by horse and ox cart; the only ones who have electricity get it from solar panels. There's no Internet or cellphone service, although some people did recently get ham radios.
Director-editor-cameraman Brian Lilla's film offers stunning views of the region and evocative glimpses of a near-vanished agrarian lifestyle. It also turns to environmental experts — mostly North American — to explain the effects of damming large rivers. These consequences turn out to be global.
On a regional level, the five dams would displace longtime inhabitants, degrade water quality and dramatically change the landscape. They could destabilize the area's "warm glaciers," which are just slightly below freezing and thus easily liquefied, and cause ruinous floods. The dams will also undermine a small but lucrative ecotourism trade.
Plus, they would generate electricity far from the market for it: The high-voltage transmission lines would have to run through a 1,200-mile clear-cut corridor to Santiago.
Patrick McCully, the Irish-American executive director of California-based International Rivers, looks beyond the immediate area. "Big dams destroy rivers," he says, and are among the leading causes of extinction of freshwater creatures. They also deprive oceans of nutrients, leading to dead zones, loss of sea life and a lessened ability to moderate the planet's climate.
Large dams are an archaic means of generating power, adds Stephen Hall, co-author of a National Resources Defense Council report on energy. He notes that Chile is well-positioned to produce electricity by wind, geothermal and solar energy; its northern desert is one of the globe's most promising solar sites. In addition, he argues, as much as half of the juice generated by the seven dams could be replaced simply by modernizing Chile's electrical use and grid.
The filmmaker also interviews proponents of the dam, including a corporate spokesman, people on the street in Santiago and Patagonian residents who expect to benefit from the construction. But their remarks tend to be shallow or self-interested.
There are no on-screen clashes between the dam's boosters and opponents, though, and no narrative device to propel the action — so the movie never approaches the drama or energy of the rivers it seeks to save. There's plenty here to interest eco-issues followers, but little to draw a larger audience. For all its global context, Patagonia Rising remains frustratingly local.