Hugging the border of Argentina, Chile’s Jeinimeni mountains tower over the expansive, arid Patagonian steppe of the Chacabuco Valley. Its snow-capped peaks reflect an auburn sheen on the clouds, contrasting against an azure sky as pumas stalk prey through the sprawling beech tree forests in a part of Chile that Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda called a “land of frozen teeth gnawed by thunder.”

For all its rugged, austere beauty, Chilean Patagonia stands in peril of disappearing under the dual threat of industrialization and resource mismanagement. Years of sheep overgrazing and exploitation by the lumber industry have turned almost 30 percent of this vast grazing land into a virtual desert — with 90 percent soil degradation.

A proposed dam project on Chile’s Baker and Pascua Rivers would create a 15,000-acre flood zone — threatening to possibly destroy scores of nature preserves — and carve thousands of miles for an electricity transmission line to power cities and the country’s massive mining industry.

“The damming of the region would be devastating to the ecosystem,” said Kris Tompkins, the founder and president of Conservacion Patagonica, an international NGO that works to preserve the region by creating protected national parks such as the planned 650,000-acre Patagonia National Park

The plan is to turn Chile into an electric guitar...Just imagine all the destruction — the new roads, airstrips, harbors and all the people that will be displaced.

- Juan Pablo Orrego, a Chilean ecologist on the Dam's transmission line

It all sets up a conundrum emblematic of the struggle that Chile and other so-called “developing nations” in Latin America face: How to deal with the double-edged sword of modernization where on one end countries strive to grow its economy, while on the other they strain to protect its natural resources.

Tompkins and her team of activists have fought for over a decade to curb the expansion of the dam, lumber and other businesses into Patagonia. While they have had major successes in neighboring Argentina, Conservacion Patagonica has faced stiff opposition from Chilean lawmakers and the international business community who view the 2,750 megawatt, $3.2 billion HidroAysén dam project as a way for the Southern Cone nation to gain energy independence.

A short, trim woman with shoulder length, chestnut-colored hair and a penchant for down coats over designer dresses, Tompkins is not your run-of-the-mill wealthy activist, hawking their cause over cocktails at a posh San Francisco gala fundraiser. The former CEO of outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, Tompkins and her husband Doug, the founder of clothing brands The North Face and Esprit, started Conservacion Patagonica in 2000 and have used their recognition and well-honed business acumen to make the organization a cause célèbre among outdoor and environmental circles around the globe.

The husband-and-wife team has strong ties to Patagonia, spending much time traveling, living and exploring the region — with Doug Tompkins notching a number of first ascents on mountain peaks throughout Chile. Both of them, however, credit their time spent in U.S. national parks as inspiration for their efforts in Latin America.

“We’re all products of the U.S. National Park system,” Kris Tompkins said. “The impact of these places on us is key. You gain something from visiting these natural places.”

American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner said that the parks were the “best idea we ever had” and that they “reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”  While other countries may have more national parks — Brazil has 68 and despite its dismal environmental record, China has a whopping 208 — the United States has been the barometer by which other nations judge their own open space ever since President Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone as the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872.

The preservation of the natural habitats by the National Park Service is one of the inspirations for Conservacion Patagonica. Relying on a team of employees and volunteers — ranging from scientists to Patagonia’s famed gauchos — Tompkins and staff have carved out a wide expanse of the Chilean landscape that they hope over the next decade will become the Patagonia National Park.

“The land is 99 percent pristine, the trees have never been cut,” Tompkins said. “That’s the extraordinary nature of it … that’s where the future of the park is.”

The vision for the park and Patagonia as a whole, however, remains in jeopardy as the debate over the future of the HidroAysén dam project is tossed around government halls in the Chilean capital, Santiago.

The plan for the project is to build two dams on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River. Proponents of the dam project, which include outgoing Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and former socialist President Ricardo Lagos, argue that the construction is necessary for Chile’s economic and energy sustainability — it would increase Chile's power capacity by 20 percent, head off looming shortages and greatly helps the country’s mining industry.

Despite Chile’s wealth of natural resources — from fishing to copper — as well as being one of Latin America’s most important economies, it is 96 percent dependent on foreign oil.

“Chile doesn’t have any oil,” said Ann Helwege, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “In the next decade or two, Chile is really going to need the energy.”

Chile, along with Brazil and neighboring Peru, has emerged as one of the economic superpowers of South America in the last decade.

But the growth has come at a price as energy costs have skyrocketed with Chile’s growing population — 6 million in Santiago alone — and the expansion of the mining industry. Dams have been touted as a cheap, efficient way to solve this issue.

“Hydropower is the cleanest source of power, competitive and reliable, that Chile can develop for the benefit of its economic growth,” according to HidroAysén. “We reaffirm our conviction and will continue to develop this project in the framework of feasibility, the same way we will continue to work with communities to make Chilean energy renewable, clean, secure, competitive and sustainable.”

No one in Chile is arguing against clean energy — which type to favor has caused the divide.

With HidroAysén touting the unlimited and readily available nature of hydroelectric power, opponents of the project have struggled to have the alternatives heard.

There have been suggestions of harnessing wind power from the barren region of Chile’s northern Atacama Desert. The topic of solar power has also been discussed as has geothermal, wave energy and the use of hydrogen fuel cells — the so-called “smart grid” — but so far none has gained wide popularity or had the political clout that dam projects have amassed.

“Chile is one of the richest countries in the world for alternative energy,” said Juan Pablo Orrego, a Chilean ecologist and international coordinator for the Patagonia Defense Council.  “We have an infinite source of solar power up north in Atacama. We have thousands of megawatts in geothermal.”

Those sources just need to be tapped.

“But we have nothing in terms of reliable alternative energy. The question is why,” he added.

The answer, some experts argue, is that these forms of power are still in a relatively nascent stage and require years of work before they can light up an entire nation of more than 17 million.

“These types of power are worth keepin an eye on over the next 50 years," Helwege said. "Chile could put up these dams but they'll need a no-regret policy and in 40 years they're going to have a lot of regrets."

This is the argument put forth by activists like Orrego and Tompkins, but also by the majority of Chileans. Recent polling data suggests that over 70 percent of Chileans are opposed to the dam.

“[The dam] should have been approved four or five years ago,” said Hernán Mladinic, the executive director of Conservacion Patagonica’s park project. “But thanks to the growing opposition across the country, we’ve been able to delay it for now.”

HyrdoAysén’s first plant wouldn't be ready until 2022 — four years later than the company previously hoped — because of a “delay” in reviewing the project by a Chilean ministerial group. The uncertainty currently surrounding the dam project also means that the project’s transmission line also won’t be submitted for environmental approval until at least next year.

While the construction of the dams would be a major blow to the country’s environmental movement, the transmission line — which would create a proposed 1,200 mile clear-cut swath from Patagonia through Santiago to the mining regions in the country’s north — has become one of the project’s most contentious points.

“The plan is to turn Chile into an electric guitar,” Orrego said of the power lines running south to north. “Just imagine all the destruction — the new roads, airstrips, harbors and all the people that will be displaced.”

Orrego believes that if Chileans can delay the project long enough, perhaps a new administration that is sympathetic to their cause will be ushered into office.

Many candidates, including the front running, extremely popular former President Michelle Bachelet, have voiced their disapproval of the dam project.

Bachelet, who left office in 2008 with a record 84 percent approval rating, said earlier this summer that the project is not viable.

“Our conviction is that the HydroAysén project will not be built,” Orrego said. “We believe that if we just keep delaying it for a couple years it will just go boom and fall apart.”

While Chile may not own its water rights — they were given away to foreign companies in Spain and Italy during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — the country’s lawmakers do have final say on what do with the land.

Along with the ubiquitous discontent among Chilean activists, the Patagonia National Park project has been one of the key factors in keeping the dam project at bay.

Much like in the U.S., where national parks draw thousands of visitors every year, the Chilean Patagonia National Park is meant to be an eco-tourist destination — working as a both a preserve and a cash source. While Chile in recent years has become a destination for skiers and wine enthusiasts, the new park would give a much needed boost to the country’s outdoor adventure market, which suffered a loss when dams flooded parts of the country’s Bio Bio river region.

“What the Tompkins are doing is great,” Orrego said. “Its one of the best ways to protect this wild place.”

For her part, Tompkins demurely deflects any credit for what she has done. She cites the hard work of her Chilean counterparts and the countrywide movement to stop the dams for the progress made so far.

“We’re incredibly impressed by the environmental movement in Chile,” she said. “One of the lessons learned in Chile is that a relatively young and small environmental movement can stop really huge projects.”

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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