MAC: Mines and Communities

Anti-Coal Plant Activists Get Death Threats, Chile

Published by MAC on 2009-08-25
Source: Daniela Estrada, IPS (2009-08-06)

SANTIAGO - Five social activists and community leaders opposed to the construction of coal-fired thermoelectric plants near fishing villages in northern Chile filed a complaint with the prosecution service denouncing that they had received anonymous death threats warning them to stop their struggle. "We are concerned," Rosa Rojas, head of the La Higuera Environmental Defence Movement (MODEMA), told IPS.

Along with associations of small-scale fishers, the group has been fighting for the past two years against the installation of three coal plants in the district of La Higuera in the northern Chilean region of Coquimbo.

The Barrancones plant, which would generate 600 MW, is a project of the Franco-Belgian utility Suez, and the 300-MW Cruz Grande plant is planned by the Chilean Compañía Minera del Pacífico mining company.

The third project - the 800-MW Farellones plant, to be built by the state-owned mining company CODELCO – was withdrawn in November from the environmental impact assessment process, a decision that was celebrated as a partial triumph by the activists.

Since Cruz Grande has requested several extensions of the deadline for responding to the observations set forth by public agencies, the efforts of the people of La Higuera are focused today on blocking the 1.1-billion dollar Barrancones plant, which is in the final stages of the environmental impact assessment process.

Opponents of the plants, who include fisherpeople, farmers, the owners of tourism companies and biologists, argue that the coal dust from the power plants will cause irremediable damage to marine biodiversity, human health and tourism.

The company denies that the plant would pose any such risks.

The plant would be located 21 km from the village of Punta de Choros on the Pacific coast, which draws thousands of tourists a year because a nearby island is home to the world’s largest colony of Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti), an endangered species. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are also frequently seen in the area.

Besides Rojas, the activists who received the death threats are Gabriel Molina, president of the Los Choros fishers association; Clara Pérez of Línea Verde, a local environmental group; Carlos Vergara, head of the fisherpeoples union in Caleta de Hornos; and farmer Jan Van Dyck, secretary of MODEMA.

On Jul. 24, all five received threatening text messages on their cell-phones within about five minutes of each other. The messages were repeated over the following three days, even after they filed a complaint with the prosecution service. "Don't mess with Barrancones", "We're following all of you" or "Death to all those who are against the thermoelectric plants" were some of the messages received, said Rojas.

Although members of the police and the navy have been alerted to the security risk the activists are facing, they have not been assigned individual bodyguards.

Who do the activists suspect? "We can't say anything. The only thing we do know is that Suez Energy has negotiated with a lot of fishermen and is offering money to different groups, which logically generates social divisions that we have been denouncing for a long time," said Rojas. "They are offering money, manipulating people, so of course at some point situations like this could arise. We can't accuse anyone, but I do believe that Suez has been carrying out divisive actions within society in La Higuera that can create many conflicts," she added.

When asked by IPS about the legal complaint filed by the activists, Suez Energy declined to comment.

The only statement that the company made was through a letter to the editor published by the local daily El Día, in which Damián Talavera, manager of the Barrancones project, wrote "we regret seeing ourselves unjustly linked to certain threats, and we certainly repudiate that anonymous third persons with obscure intentions would try to sow doubts or anxiety" about the company.

"We express our solidarity with those who are or could feel affected by said threats. It is the responsibility of the prosecution service and the courts to clarify this issue and punish any action aimed at threatening others," the executive wrote.

Gabriel Molina, president of the Los Choros fishers association, told IPS that "we do not suspect anyone in particular; we just hope that the justice system will investigate."

Los Choros is a village of 60 families who depend on fishing, dolphin and whale watching tourism, olive production and goat breeding. "These things (the threats) simply cannot happen in a free, democratic country in the 21st century," said Molina, who called on the authorities to protect the district of La Higuera which, he said, produces 60 percent of the region's fish and shellfish and seven percent of the country's total.

The threats have not intimidated the activists, who have requested meetings with government officials and legislators to inform them of the dangers posed to the area by the coal-fired plants.

Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, the burning of which is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

Concerned about the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the plans for coal to represent a growing share of Chile's energy mix, the government is drafting rules for regulating the emissions of thermoelectric plants. The proposed draft law is expected to be completed by year-end.

Before Chile began to import natural gas from Argentina in the mid-1990s, coal represented 25 percent of the national energy mix – a proportion that has dropped to 17 percent.

But when oil prices began to soar and energy shortages were caused by cuts in natural gas supplies from Argentina starting in 2004, the country began to turn again to coal.

Taking into consideration the coal plants set to come onstream in the next few years, the government estimates that by 2015, this source of energy will return to the proportions of the early 1990s.

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