This evening I went to a protest in Plaza Italia against a Hydroelectric Project that is to be built in southern Chile (specifically in a region of Patagonia named Aysén). The project was passed almost unanimously by the Chilean government (10 votes in favor and one abstaining.)
Quick facts about HidroAysén:
- The project includes 5 separate damns that would be constructed on two different rivers
- The damns are estimated to flood almost 6000 hectacres of natural forest
- The damns are being built because Chile is anticipating an energy crisis in the next decade
- The energy generated by the damns will go to mining efforts…
- There was strong public sentiment against HidroAysén yet the goverment made a decision in favor of it anyway
I´m actually doing a presentation on HidroAysén for one of my classes which was the main reason I went to the protest in the first place. I truly expected there to be 30 people, maybe 45 at the most at this protest. It wasn´t something my host family, my hockey friends, my boyfriend and his friends, or anybody but my environmental studies professor had mentioned my entire time here. In fact, when I brought it up a few times it was dismissed as no big deal.
I was shocked when I arrived. I got there a little late because of a tremendous amount of traffic (I had taken the bus from the other side of the city) and had been afraid that it was going to be over already. Well I immediately realized why my bus had been in such horrible traffic for so long. The roads were blocked off and there was a mass of people up ahead. This seemed like more or less what I was looking for.
I made my way over there intending to snap a few pictures, cross the street and get on a bus home. (In Santiago once you board the bus you have two hours of free transfer from bus to bus. I was aiming to get away without paying the extra $1.50 or so.) As I`m walking I notice a funny smell, but for some reason my first thought was that the gathered groups I was passing were doing some sort of weird drug.
That sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but in the context of the night I was hurrying over to this event that I was afraid I had missed, I wasn´t paying much attention to the people I was passing. And then all of a sudden before I realize what´s happening I start having trouble breathing. I´m using my scarf as a barrier but it´s doing nothing. For an extremely brief second, I thought I was going to die. That sounds even more ridiculous, but give me a break. I was alone, it was dark, now the street I had been walking up is packed, I don´t know which way is which, or how to leave, and I have no idea why I can´t breathe!
At first it was just the breathing, which gradually got worse and worse, but then all of a sudden my eyes start burning, much less gradually. (In my research since this occured, I believe that my contact lenses might be the reason for this. For a short time they provided a thin layer of protection, but once the gas got under the lenses it got trapped which is apparently why you´re never supposed to wear contacts in a tear gas environment.)
Part of me wishes that I had continued on to the bigger group of people I had seen in the distance chanting (around me it was just chaos) but what I actually did was fight my way through the crowds and once I broke out just flat out ran to the next metro stop down. On that note, my hopes of taking the bus home had been flattened when I realized that all of the buses going towards my house were lined up on the closed off road filling with tear gas, with people in them.
I was extremely distraught about my brief experience with tear gas. I think part of the reason it was so awful was because I had absolutely no idea it was going to be used that night. And in fact, when I got home I put the news on right away because I was so sure something had gone terribly wrong at the protest. When my host mom came home I told her what had happened, and her response was essentially “Well yea, that´s why you`re supposed to bring lemons to a protest.” (Lemons help with the tear gas.) Thank you host mom for mentioning that earlier during lunch when I told you I was going to the protest. I received similar responses from every other Chilean I mentioned the protest to.
Apparently general rule of thumb is if the protest is at night, or without a permit, there will be tear gas. On that note, I´m still confused about whether they had a permit for the protest Monday. I´ve heard conflicting stories. The most plausible to me is that they initially had the permit but the morning of it was revoked and they had the protest anyway.
Impressively, as I watched the protests on the news that night, there are people that kept on protesting despite the tear gas and fire hoses well into the night. Way to be Chileans, way to be. I´m surprised, yet extremely encouraged to know that this project did not go as unnoticed as I initially conceived.
For an account of the events from someone who saw more of the action check out Eileen`s Blog. She`s an expat who`s been living in Santiago for some time now, and I love her blog.
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