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Ralco HEP and Bio Bio Watershed hydro plans, Chile


In 1993 Endesa Chile S.A. proposed to the Government of Chile a project for the construction of a hydroelectric power station along the Biobio River basin. Endesa envisaged the flooding of thousands of hectares of land and the consequent displacement of six centuries old indigenous Mapuche-Pehuenches communities, supposedly protected by the 1993 Protection and Development of Indigenous People Law n19,253. The beginning of the indigenous communities’ mobilizations as soon as in 1995 was headed by the woman Pehunche leader Nicolasa Quintremán Calpán, and her sister. 

In July 1997, the International Federation for Human Rights sent a Commission to Chile to investigate the consequences of the construction of Ralco HEP. The report wrote: “tendría serias implicaciones humanas, étnico-culturales y ecológicas, y graves consecuencias jurídicas históricas. Porque obligaría el abandono, por las comunidades mapuche-pehuenche del Alto Bío Bío, de su hábitat ancestral, y la represa inundaría sus tierras y lugares sagrados, legalmente inenajenables e inembargables, en una región considerada, además, un ecosistema notable que se vería profundamente afectado”. This statement strengthened the communities' struggle around the project, which managed to stop the project construction in several occasions between 1997 and 1999. Endesa and the Eduardo Frei government had to face one of the first major socio-environmental conflicts in Chile. 

Despite strong opposition by the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) and several environmental organisations, the project was approved in 1999 and eventually inaugurated in 2004. Since then, there have been on-going protests and repeated lawsuits against the dam construction. Community cemeteries have been flooded. The agreement before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2003, which ensures to the affected communities access to the land and to water, was never respected. The Ralco-Endesa project was finally completed despite a ten-year dispute involving indigenous communities, the Chilean Government and private interests. This struggle came to symbolize the problems associated with a lack of appropriate mechanisms for the protection of natural resources and ethnic minorities, theoretically protected by the National legislation. 

The dam had several serious impacts and provoke important damages. In May 2001 the dam wall broke due to important rainfall. The downstream reservoir Pangue avoided a catastrophe for the communities living downstream.

In 2003, Nicolasa and her community obtained an agreement with the Government of Lagos and with the participation of Endesa, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The government promised to give land, water and touristic project for the livelihood of the Pehuenche people, freed political Mapuche prisoners, and made the 169 Convention of ILO adopted in the Congress.

However, the Pahuenche communities have remained with no water, no suitable land, no services, no schools for years to come. They even lost their cemeteries, including the ancestral Quepuca Ralco. In July 2006 heavy rains inundated the riverine lands, leaving at least 8 people dead. This was especially due to the construction of a 155 high meter wall to redirect the flow of the river in an area of important water level fluctuation. The Pehuenche people were finally relocated by Endesa and the government in a highly unsuited area, known as El Barco, where husbandry and agriculture were not possible, which left the communities even more poor and vulnerable.

Impacts have not been mitigated then, and local communities have not gained any benefit from the project. In 2013,  Ñana Nicolasa was found dead on in the lake Ralco under still uncertain circumstances.

Today, Chile’s current Minister of Energy is finalizing a Watershed Mapping Study to prioritize hydro development in conflict watersheds. If implemented as policy, the study would facilitate construction of several large dams in the Bio Bio Watershed, as well as dams in at least six other major watersheds. In the Bio Bio watershed, two existing dams built by Endesa have already created conflicts in the region. The companies which own the additional water rights and would benefit from the policy are Brazilian firm Atiaia, and Energía Frontera SPA, which is owned by Energía Llaima. If the Minister of Energy is allowed to implement the study as national policy, it will make it easier for companies to gain approval for building dams in the Bio Bio watershed, particularly along the Bio Bio River.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Ralco HEP and Bio Bio Watershed hydro plans, Chile
State or province:Provincias de Bio Bio y de Concepción, Región del Bio Bio, y Provincia de Malleco, Región de la Araucanía
Location of conflict:Comunas de Concepción, Alto Bio Bio, Rucalhue, Quilaco, Lonquimay, Ralco, Los Angeles, Coronel
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Land acquisition conflicts
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Chile's famous Bio Bio River, already severely impacted by two large dams, as well as its tributaries are at risk of being diverted if this study is implemented as policy, in addition to rivers in at least six other major watersheds in Chile. While the final results of the study have yet to be released, several projects ranging from 2 MW up to 200 MW have been proposed.

Ralco Project envisaged the creation of a 370 m long and 155 m high water containment system along the upper Biobio River, covering an area of 3,467 hectares, with a capacity of 1,220 million m3 of water.

The power station had a capacity of 570 MW, which was later raised to 690 MW, with a level of investment of 582,000,000 US$

Project area:2,426,200
Level of Investment for the conflictive project700,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1,480,000
Start of the conflict:1996
Company names or state enterprises:Endesa (Endesa) from Italy
ENEL Group (Enel) from Italy
Atiaia Energia from Brazil - Would benefit from the study if it became policy
Relevant government actors:Minister of Energy; Minister of Environment; Minister of Indigenous Affairs
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Aguas Libres; Kayak Stewards Alliance; Bestias del Sur Salvaje; Ecosistemas; MVMT Comunicaciones

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Recreational users
Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Local government/political parties
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local scientists/professionals
Informal workers
Local Tourism Businesses
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Potential: Deaths, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Proposal and development of alternatives:Proposals for Chile to move towards 100% renewable energies with no new hydro, submitted by the Mesa Ciudadana del Cambio Climatico (Chile), a coalition of over 20 NGOs; Proposals for Chile to establish Wild & Scenic Rivers Designation and permanently protect key waterways in at-risk watersheds, being developed by International Rivers (global) and several local Chilean NGOs and attorneys.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The Watershed Mapping Study is being finalized and will be presented in September 2016. While the methodologies used in the study has created some conflict in the seven watersheds being prioritized for hydro development, the full outcome of the study will only be seen if it is allowed to become national energy policy.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Law No. 1122 of 29.10.1981. El Código de Aguas

Article 28 of Law 19300. Related with "Community Participation in the Environmental Impact Assessment Process" page. 13

Law 20017. Created a royalty or tax applicable to owners of non-consumptive and continuous water rights who fail to utilize the waters. Specifically, the tax applies when owners fail to build infrastructure works to capture and restitute the waters. Law 20,017 provides that if the taxes are not paid, the courts may order the public auction of the respective water rights.

Law 19300 or the Environmental Framework Law, provides the basis for the organisation of environmental laws in Chile. It establishes the regulatory framework for environmental activity in Chile such as the environmental impact assessment system (EIAS), liability for environmental damage, air and water quality and emission standards, and pollution prevention and decontamination plans, among others.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Conflictos Ambientales en Chile. San Martn Saavedra, Pablo OLCA. 1997

Contra la corriente. Privatizacion, mercados de agua y el Estado en Chile. BAUER, CARL J. LOM. 2002

Ralco represa o pobreza?. Namuncura, Domingo Sergio. LOM 1999

El gobierno de Lagos, los pueblos indigenas y el nuevo trato. Yaez, N.; Aylwin, J. (edit.). LOM. 2007

Respondiendo a un mundo globalizado: Cambios en la estructura de autoridad de los pehuenche de Alto Biobío, Chile


Sociedad Hoy

2008 (15) pp: 55-66

Film documental Apaga y Vámonos, de Manel Mayol (2004)

Chile Sustentable - Conflictos por el Agua, 2010

Los Mapuche-Pehuenche y el proyecto hidroeléctrico de Ralco: un pueblo amenazado

Informe sobre la misión de investigación de la Federación Internacional de los Derechos Humanos (FIDH) sobre la construcción de la central hidroeléctrica de Ralco y la protección de los derechos económicos, sociales y culturales del pueblo indígena Mapuche-Pehuenche.

The Bio-Bio River Case, Chile

Nicolasa Quintremán y el territorio sagrado del Bío Bío, El Pais, 20/02/2014

En memoria de Nicolasa Quintreman o el dolor Pehuenche frente a la explotación invasora, Hermosilla, K., VeoVerde, 26/12/2013

Se inauguró la central hidroeléctrica Ralco en el Alto Bío Bío, Aylwin O., J., Enlace Mapuche Internacional

Nicolasa Quintremán y el territorio sagrado del Bío Bío


20 FEB 2014

Other comments:This is a local, regional, national and global conflict. Several watersheds in Chile are threatened by the same Watershed Mapping Study. These are rivers that deserve protected status, and it is expected that conflicts in Chile surrounding water rights will continue indefinitely until the country establishes new wild & scenic rivers legislation. Please review the map for information on the other watersheds at risk should the study become energy policy.

Meta information

Contributor:Director, Futaleufu Riverkeeper, [email protected]
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2330



Ralco dam & hydroelectric plant

Ralco dam & hydroelectric plant, Veoverde


Murales de Nicolasa