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Chile rejects US$8 billion dam project in Patagonia

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile's government rejected an US$8 billion proposal to dam Patagonian rivers to meet the country's growing energy demands, handing a victory to environmentalists who praised Tuesday's ruling as a landmark moment.

A ministerial commission rejected the HidroAysen plan, which would have tamed two of the world's wildest rivers and built more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of power lines to supply energy to central Chile.

After a three-hour meeting, Chile's ministers of agriculture, energy, mining, economy and health voted unanimously to reject the project. The committee “decided to side with complaints presented by the community,” Environment Minister Pablo Badenier told reporters. “As of now, the hydroelectric project has been rejected.”

The project would have built five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Aysen, a mostly roadless region of southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.

Patricio Rodrigo, executive secretary of the Patagonia Defense Council, called the decision “the greatest triumph of the environmental movement in Chile.”

It “marks a turning point, where an empowered public demands to be heard and to participate in the decisions that affect their environment and their lives,” Rodrigo said.

Chile is strapped for energy, but most Chileans opposed HidroAysen, and protests against it at times turned violent.

“This is truly amazing news,” said Margarita Baigorria Cruces, a local resident of Aysen who led a petition campaign against the project for activist group Avaaz.

“We were dreaming and hoping this would happen. We won't be condemned to drink gold: water is our treasure and this historical victory was meant to be sooner or later. The last thing you lose is hope.”

HidroAysen executives had promised that the Aysen region would get cheaper energy, jobs, scholarships and millions in infrastructure, including seaports and airports.

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