SANTIAGO – In the end, indigenous leader Nicolasa Quintreman was buried apart from the plot of land where she had lived nearly her entire life.
Her decadelong battle against the construction of a 155-meter-tall dam on the Bio Bio River in south-central Chile was lost years ago, frustrating her wish to be buried according to Mapuche tradition in the cemetery where her ancestors rested. Last Tuesday, her body was found floating in the Lago Ralco reservoir, the reservoir she tried so hard to stop Chile’s main hydroelectricity provider from creating.
The cemetery holding her community’s remains had been inundated by the reservoir a decade earlier, displacing 92 Mapuche families whose ancestors had lived for centuries along the river in the Andean foothills. The Endesa electricity company flooded the area months ahead of the dam’s inauguration in 2004 without waiting for negotiations on moving the cemetery to be resolved.
Hundreds of people attended her funeral Friday in Alto Bio Bio, a new community created for the displaced Indians, and the many eulogies to her made clear that despite the disappointments, Quintreman and her sister, Berta, who is still alive, built a profound legacy.
After the two tiny women and their neighbors peacefully occupied narrow mountain roads and bridges to block the dam’s 225-ton turbine and other equipment from reaching the construction site, Chile’s Congress strengthened the nation’s environmental protections, requiring energy companies to provide more serious impact studies and offer more benefits to indigenous communities whose lands are affected.
It was an outsized impact for a tiny old woman who was nearly blind and very fragile. With their simple dignity, mixing rudimentary Spanish with the Mapuche’s Mapudungun language, the sisters refused to move for more than a decade after the $570 million project was proposed.
“She left a very profound mark, this legacy that has since been followed by so many people, it will remain there, imperishable. . . . Relations between indigenous people and the state are now seen differently,” said Domingo Namuncura, who led Chile’s indigenous people’s agency at the time and now leads the Party for Democracy, which is part of President-elect Michelle Bachelet’s center-left New Majority coalition.
Nicolasa Quintreman struggled to understand why Endesa considered her to be poor, and her community worth sacrificing.
“She took my hand, led me behind her shack and showed me a series of plants and gardens, tomatoes and other things, her chickens, her animals,” Namuncura recalled. “She said: ‘Look at all I have, I have these waters, these forests, I have the sun, the light of the day, the firewood, my food. I don’t need more. I consider myself rich because I have this wealth that nature provides me.’ ”
Police using tear gas and rubber bullets and raiding homes suppressed the peaceful protests begun by the Quintreman sisters and many of their neighbors, who had hardly any backers at first.
Their example has since become an international cause, supported by a well-organized network of community organizers and indigenous leaders with ties to politicians and scientists and lawyers who together have used Chile’s environmental law to block more than 20 energy projects, from polluting coal-fired generators to additional dams such as the planned HidroAysen project, which will transform Chile’s Patagonia region.
Chile depends almost entirely on hydroelectricity, making the last wild rivers running through isolated and mountainous indigenous lands highly sought after. If completed, HidroAysen will provide 2,750 megawatts to the nation’s power grid, which experts say must double its energy delivery to match the growing demand of the world’s leading copper provider.
Endesa was a Chilean and Spanish company when the dam near the Quintreman land was built. It was backed by President Eduardo Frei Montalva, despite the repeated objections of a council charged with advocating for the country’s indigenous people. Bit by bit, the community gave in and accepted other land on higher ground in exchange for money and promises such as new housing and utilities and educational scholarships.
Many of those promises were never kept, according to a former government official who was close to the negotiations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing that speaking out could affect his current job. Houses were not built, scholarships didn’t come and many villagers didn’t get title to their new properties, he said. The company said these shortcomings were the government’s problem.
Endesa did not respond to requests for comment about Quintreman’s death, and made no public statements about her legacy last week.
Social Development Minister Bruno Barada said, “We deeply lament the death of Nicolasa, we share our grief with her family and with the community of Alto Bio Bio in general, joining the innumerable demonstrations of sorrow, expressing as the government our infinite demonstrations of solidarity.”
Nicolasa traded her 4 hectares for 77 hectares and about $380,000. Her new home was just uphill from a cliff that dropped 7 meters to the reservoir’s surface.
For at least the first five years thereafter, her home lacked electricity, and her sister’s new property lacked water.
“Those who called themselves my friends . . . left me alone,” she said, explaining why she ultimately conceded.
The project now provides 690 megawatts to Chile’s grid.
Prosecutor Carlos Diaz, investigating her death, said “she apparently slipped and fell into the lake,” since police said her body showed no signs of foul play. He said the results of her autopsy will be complete in the coming days.