What I did on my summer vacation

Lago Ralco, a power reservoir on the upper Bio Bio River in the IX Region-Araucanía, Chile.

Lago Ralco, a power reservoir on the upper Bio Bio River in the IX Region-Araucanía, Chile.

This is one of those dam projects that give hydroelectricity a bad name. The Lago Ralco reservoir flooded thousands of acres of land in an indigenous Mapuche area. To explain, this is an area where only Mapuches can own land, but Endesa, an Italian-owned electric company, was able to come in and flood that land.

The low-lying pastures, homes, schools, gardens, cemeteries, roads, soccer fields — lives, really — were forced out, up onto the steep mountain slopes. The roads are now higher and steeper, making them less reliable in winter. The pastures are gone. Locals have survived by salvaging trees killed by the flooding and selling their valuable hardwoods. But the stock of trees diminishes every year. The death and destruction is especially visible now as the reservoir is at its lowest level since being filled, at least 10 meters and maybe 20 meters below the grey, dead high-water mark.

This project was controversial from when it was proposed in 1990 until it was completed in 2004. There are plenty of indigenous people who say that the electric company hasn’t fulfilled its promises. One of those promises was tourism development, and I can vouch that this article is correct — there is no tourist development on the lake. In fact, getting there and away was one of the more difficult bits of logistics I’ve managed in years of bumming around the Americas. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen well-built, public roads with so little traffic. A four-times-a-week bus reaches one end of the lake, but other than that, you either drive, walk, bike or take a horse. We literally walked all afternoon from the lake to the next town and saw three vehicles in motion.

Some portion of the electrical potential I’m using to write this comes from that dam. Thanks, dam.

You probably didn’t notice I was gone, as I’ve been posting so little. Back to work we go.

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