The Impact of Hydroelectricity in Chilean Patagonia

La Ultima Mirada by Sarah Pabst is a project about a paradise in danger; a region whose people and landscapes may disappear forever if the race for energy continues at an unrelenting pace.

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, La Ultima Mirada. Carmen Luisa Quintreman, from Mapuche, doesn't know her age. Her sisters Nicolasa and Berta fought against the construction of the Pengue Dam in the Alto Bío Bío, but couldn't stop it.

Patagonia offers a unique landscape - one of immense glaciers surrounding a quasi-virgin mix of transparent water and black rocks. Though one of the largest natural reserves in the world, the far south is threatened by the plan of an international energy consortium to build five dams on the region’s main rivers - the Baker and the Pascuas. The consequences of such an intrusive project are unclear, but similar ones have proved disastrous in other parts of Chile, especially in the Alto Bío Bío.

Located in the centre of the country, near the border with Argentina, Alto Bío Bío features a daedalus of lush mountains whose valleys were home to the Mapuche - an indigenous community with a long history of persecution in the country. 

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, La Ultima Mirada. Maria feeds Tomás, her grandson. Tomás' mother died a year ago - there wasn't enough medical attention in Patagonia to save her.

Unlike the Gauchos, who fought against the construction of the dams in their native Patagonia and have so far been able to suspend the project, Mapuche have seen their ancestral territory flooded after the local rivers were repressed. Those of them who openly resisted the construction were found dead. Relocated far up on the mountain, where buses can’t even drive during 3 harsh months of winter, Mapuche have since been cut off from their traditions, as well as from education and health infrastructures.

A couple of years ago, photographer Sarah Pabst documented both the Alto Bío Bío and Patagonia to broaden the perspective on each situation. “I wanted to show the effect of construction on the Mapuche and a landscape that maybe would change forever, as well as its biodiversity, even if you don’t see it with your eyes”, Pabst explains.

© Sarah Pabst, from the series, La Ultima Mirada. The Pengue Dam in the Alto Bío Bío region. Mapuche communities have been displaced far up in the mountain in order to build it.

The resulting series, La Ultima Mirada (i.e. The Last Glance), combines landscape photographs and portraits of people whose daily life she shared, squeezed around a fire on chilly autumn nights. The impact of a dam is both social and environmental, and she wanted to convey that often invisible reality. “One of the photos really represents the whole series, in which one can see the hydroelectrical dam blocking the valley”, she says.

The image is almost monochromatically filled with the shades of green of the mountain range, apart from its centre. There, a bright straight line contrasting with the smooth curves of the surroundings captures the gaze. This is the bright blue-grey presence of the dam. “It illustrates what was before and what intervenes and cuts everything - both nature and culture”, she adds.

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Sarah Pabst is a German-born documentary photographer and painter living in Buenos Aires.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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