Hydroelectric Plants: Destroying the Lifeblood of the Mapuche

“I remember I used to play here as a kid. I played on the beach and we used to grow crops here.” Juana Manquecura Aillapan, an elder Mapuche woman dressed in traditional clothes, points to the shores of the lake. The beach is long gone. Reeds mark the shore, where small waves touch the swampy land. The sky-blue lake with lush green hills in the background and a deafening silence like a dense fog mask a latent conflict that reaches back more than half a century.

Juana Manquecura Aillapa leads Chile Today through her arid lands, bordering the lake.

Sixty years ago, Pullinque Lake, one hour from Pucón, was just a small lagoon, part of the Wueneywue river that connects Lake Calafquén with Lake Panguipulli. In 1951, state-owned energy company Endesa S.A. built a hydroelectric plant.

Within a few decades, the lagoon nearly doubled in size and the Mapuche families who had lived for generations on the shores of the lagoon saw their ancestral land engulfed by rising waters. On the other side of the dam, a canal was constructed, causing the surrounding lands to dry up.

Now, sixty years later, the nearby Mapuche communities are mobilized and more determined than ever to regain the rights over their land and the water, the lifeblood of their existence. Because for the Mapuche in the area, the loss of land caused by the plant over the last decades goes beyond economic value. It is a cultural conflict.

The hydroelectric plant in Pullinque

“We Lost Cultural Heritage”

Héctor Daniel Lincocheo is spokesman of an organization (lof) of Mapuche families from nearby communities that have been affected by the damage the hydroelectric plant has generated. “We want to recuperate the Wueneywue river. Or at least a percentage of it.”

Héctor Daniel Lincocheo

Lincocheo, sitting in front of a Mapuche flag in a garden full of traditional plants in the town of Coñaripe, explains that the fight for the recovery of the river is not just about getting access to the fish in the river or the water for agricultural purposes. For the surrounding Mapuche communities, it is about recovering the spirit of the river.

“If we talk about the Mapuche religion, every lake, every river, every forest has a ngen. These aspects form an important spiritual part of who we are as a people. And we have lost these spiritual aspects, because of the plant.”

When the plant changed the course of the water, ecosystems changed. This has been an economic and a cultural disaster for Mapuche people, as fish have disappeared, traditional medicine sources have become scarce, and entire landscapes have changed—some becoming arid while others overly wet.

Pullinque Lake

According to Lincocheo, when the water rose, cultural spaces disappeared. “One cultural space we have lost is the Kushewueke, a space in the lake where we went to pray and do ceremonies. But we also lost our language. With the plant, over 1,000 workers and their families arrived. Churches were built, Spanish schools were created, police came. They settled near the canal they constructed, on our lands, without paying a peso. It was an invasion of people who did not contribute to the Mapuche culture. We lost cultural heritage.”

Growing Mapuche Resistance

When Italian energy company Enel bought the plant in 2000, meaning the state sold ancestral Mapuche lands to a foreign company, the Mapuche communities organized to negotiate with Enel compensations for the damage the people suffered for decades.

In 2014, the Italian company offered compensation based on their annual profits and the damage caused by the water that rose after the construction of the plant. Mapuche families rejected the offer of CLP$4 million for 1 hectare of land to each affected family and an annual salary of CLP$400,000 , which they considered a lack of respect in terms of the losses the families suffered for decades.

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In 2017, the company and the communities reopened dialogues, but again, without result, as according to Lincocheo the company only offered part of the profit and no compensation for the damage suffered. It resulted in an occupation by Mapuche on January 20, 2017, which was ended by police.

Now, the Mapuche are seeking other ways to get their rights to the river back. “We want that the river gets its native forests back. Its traditional medicine. We want to avoid pollution that we see at this moment. It is not only about the past. It is about our future,” Lincocheo says. He is working with anthropologists, biologists, and lawyers to gather evidence to take the case to an international court.

Héctor Daniel Lincocheo

Pullinque Doesn’t Stand Alone

The situation around the Pullinque plant illustrates a situation Mapuche throughout the south of Chile are confronted with: hydroelectric plants and the damage they cause to the environment.

The canal that leads to the plant in Pullinque Lake.

In Neltume Lake, part of the Panguipulli municipality an hour away from Pullinque Lake, Mapuche communities halted a planned project of energy company Endesa. According to plans, Endesa wanted to construct a hydroelectric plant at the shores of the lake that would have been connected by a high-voltage line to the plant in Pullinque.

Alberto Curamil, a Mapuche leader from the Araucanía region, received the 2019 Goldman Prize for his work in stopping the construction of two hydroelectric plants that would have impacted the Cautín River and its surrounding ecosystems. After Curamil’s successful resistance, he got arrested in 2017 for robbery, a detention claimed to be politically motivated.

Despite Curamil’s success, numerous hydroelectric plants are operating in the south, on Mapuche territory, with dozens more underway to tackle the drought that has hit Chile. These are million-dollar projects, permitted by the state, financed with foreign investment, often without consulting the original peoples and causing damage to flora and fauna. The battle of the Mapuche might seem as bringing sand to the beach, but for the Mapuche, it is about getting the rights to that beach back.

In Part II, a profile of Juana Manquecura Aillapan and her battle against the invasion of her ancestral lands.

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