THIS PAST FRIDAY, 40,000 PEOPLE marched through the streets of Santiago to contest the planned construction of a hydroelectric complex in the Patagonian wilderness.
This was the first time the public had raised such a commotion over a question of the environment. Even more unusual was the outpouring of criticism for a project planned some 2000 km south of the capital city.
The events provide growing evidence that Chileans, now more than ever, are making their voices heard, via social networks and through flash protests organized by social media. That potent mobilizing force filled the streets with anger.
All of the key voices, from government, activism and business, have taken their turn stating their position on the issue. But in recent days, another contender has stepped into the fray, which, until now, has carefully avoided any public debate on the $5 billion project.
This new party to the debate is the Catholic Church. In a surprising move that made headlines and became the lead story on the television news, the Episcopal Conference of Chile presented a public declaration laying out several criticisms of the proposed dam project.
The bishops said:
"As bishops we also desire to contribute our thoughts regarding this urgent and relevant question. It is our intention to stimulate serious, open and informed dialog that avoids confrontational posturing and that draws out a healthy discernment for citizen action and compromise on a question that demands a response from each of us."
The statement went on to add that:
"altogether, we agree with the global conscience that we live on a planet whose limited resources face tremendous demand and waste. Furthermore, it's essential that we reflect on the kind of development we want for Chile. Progress must be sustainable, or it's not progress."
The Church places the accent on the question of business ethics that surrounds a project so massive:
"A decision based solely on economic interests is ethically unacceptable because it makes a mockery of our social process. On the other hand, a humanizing response to our energy challenges requires a dialog that takes into account the opinions everyone, especially those most affected by the project."
Chile's 31 bishops have identified an issue that goes beyond economic or political barriers. This question affects the entirety of human development itself, along with immediate issues of environmental degradation. In fact, the statement concludes:
"As a Church, we accept responsibility for Creation, and for the public care and defense of its gifts of earth, water, and air. We will assist in protecting human beings against our self-destructive impulses, and in constructing, in the end, a human ecology."
The construction of three dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Patagonia has already received formal approval. The only remaining hurdle is the cabling, which will lay 2000 km of energy infrastructure across forests, parks, nature reserves and wetlands.