Don’t let them steal the Atuel River in Argentina

Social and indigenous organisations are condemning the construction of a dam in Mendoza, that could leave them without water. They fear a repeat of what happened with the Atuel River, which was illegally appropriated by Mendoza more than half a century ago. Español

Darío Aranda
21 February 2020, 12.01am

Advertised as "the project of the century", the construction of the Portezuelo del Viento dam (in Mendoza) has been criticized by broad sectors of the Pampas society because of the impact it will have on the Colorado River (shared by five provinces). They fear that history will repeat itself, similar to when the Atuel River, which was dammed by Mendoza, led to drought, displacement and poverty in the western part of the Pampas. They warn of a possible social, economic and environmental disaster. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling remains incomplete.

In July 2019, President Mauricio Macri signed decree 519/2019, whereby the national government takes full responsibility for the US$1.023 billion construction of the Portezuelo del Viento dam on the Rio Grande in the province of Malargüe. This was in agreement with - the then governor - Alfredo Cornejo, who defined it as "the project of the century".

This is a huge undertaking, with a concrete wall of 180 meters, thousands of hectares of land will be flooded (the entire town of Villa Las Loicas will be flooded) and the layout of the national highway 145 and the provincial highway 226 will have to be changed. It will be necessary to relocate Villa Las Loicas and all the areas that will be flooded by the reservoir. The government claims that this will provide energy to 130 thousand people. Other critics warn that the energy produced by the dam could be used for multinational mining companies (who have dozens of projects in Mendoza).

The Rio Grande, which is where the work will take place, is the main tributary to the Colorado river, which also runs through the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro, La Pampa and Buenos Aires. Because it is interprovincial, it is under the administration of the Interjurisdictional Committee of the Colorado River (Coirco), which is made up of the five provinces.

In La Pampa, the majority of the people reject it. They fear history will repeat itself with regards to the Atuel river, which originated in Mendoza and then flowed through. In 1917 they began to change the natural flow of the river, the main channel of the Atuel was lost. In the 30's, the cutting of the Butaló tributary began and, in the 40's, the national government built the El Nihuil dam in Mendoza, which dammed the river and interrupted the flow of the La Barda stream, which was the last to reach La Pampa. The prosperous provincial west was doomed: the towns of Santa Isabel, Victorica, Algarrobo del Aguila, La Humada, Limay Mahuida, Puelches, Gobernador Duval and 25 de Mayo are evidence of the plundering of this region. More than 300,000 hectares were affected. All Pampas residents know about the "theft of the river", as outlined by the situation of the Atuel.

Mendoza denied for decades the interprovinciality of the Atuel. In December 2017 the Supreme Court ordered that an agreement be reached between the provinces and the Nation. More than two years after that ruling by the highest court, La Pampa continues without its required water flow.

Héctor Gómez, president of the Chadileuvú Foundation (Fuchad), clarified that he is not opposed to the construction of Portezuelo, but not in the way it is being carried out, without a shared regulation approach to the river. He questioned whether Mendoza's main objective is to transfer water from the Rio Grande to the Atuel. "It is going to produce very serious damage," said Gómez. He explained that the Colorado River has half the volume of water that it had decades ago, which already causes problems of scarcity and increased levels of salinity. "In a river in crisis, the construction of a dam should not be considered. It is the worst time for this type of project. It's going to make the river's water crisis very serious," said the president of the Chadileuvú Foundation, which has been fighting for the province's rivers for more than 35 years. They also know that without the Colorado River, it will be a social, economic, and environmental disaster. On February 7 and 8 they will meet in Santa Rosa to coordinate actions with organizations from Río Negro, Neuquén, San Juan, Mendoza, Neuquén and Buenos Aires.

Las represas suelen tener buena imagen. Suelen publicitarse como “energías limpias” pero acumulan denuncias en todo el mundo por ser parte del modelo extractivo, con desalojo de poblaciones, violación de derechos y consecuencias sociales, ambientales y sanitarias.

On the weekend of January 18 and 19, the "First Intercultural Meeting in Defense of Water" was held in the town of Catriel (Río Negro), with dozens of social organizations, NGOs, and Mapuche and Ranch communities. They issued a joint statement titled " In Defense of the Rivers of the Pampas". "The various governments of Mendoza, obedient to the richest sectors, owners of vineyards and land, are managing the waters that pass through their territory in a pathetic way. They ignore or deny the authority of the river basin committees and reject the rulings of the courts," claim the indigenous organizations and communities.

The demands are fourfold: no contamination of the rivers, no to Portezuelo as managed by Mendoza, no to the appropriation of the rivers, yes to the Atuel and Salado rivers for everyone. This has been signed by the ranch communities of La Pampa Nahuel Auca, Pangüitruz Gner, Yanquetruz, Willy Antü, Rali-Có, Ñancufil Calderón, Ñuke Mapu, Baigorrita and Ñancu Antü and by the indigenous communities in Mendoza, Kuyen Paine, Epü Gner Calli, Santos Morales, Ñancuñan, and Talquesca.

The indigenous position was expressed in June 2017, when they reached the Supreme Court of Justice in a case concerning the Atuel River. Carlos Campú, LonkoChe (cacique governor Rankülche) said: "We had water and it was disappearing. Why do they have to cut off the river? Many of our brothers had to leave, they didn't have enough water for twenty goats. Instead of a river with water, they turned it into a garbage dump.

In the Mendoza protests last December, which led to the repeal of Governor Rodolfo Suárez's mining law, the appropriation of the rivers was also discussed. In the statement issued last December 30th, the Mendoza Assemblies for Pure Water (Ampap) were clear: "Regarding the hydrographic basins, we also demand the restoration of the flow of the Mendoza River for the Huanacache lagoons, and that fair agreements be reached with the brothers of La Pampa".

Dams and consequences

Dams usually have a good image. They are usually advertised as "clean energy" and even form part of tourist attractions (both their concrete walls and the reservoirs they create), but they attract complaints from all over the world for being part of the extractive model, with evictions of populations, violation of rights and social, environmental and health consequences. In Argentina, the greatest instances of resistance are found in Entre Ríos and Misiones (which stopped hydroelectric plants in the 1990s). Misiones still rejects the Garabí project (between Brazil and Argentina), and in Santa Cruz there is an increasing number of complaints against the Condor Cliff and La Barrancosa dams, for violating indigenous and environmental rights.


This article was originally published in Pagina12. Read it here

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