World Arts / Art & Science
Sons en causa

The Aysén: an environmental battle won

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Puerto Bertrand · S47.01.351-O072.49.715 · 19.41 · 08/11/2011 · Altitude: 215 metres · North-facing

Puerto Bertrand is a small town devoted almost exclusively to tourism. Despite the absence of tarmac (the road surface is made of gravel or ripio, as it’s called there), vehicles, mostly all-terrain ones and lorries, move fairly rapidly along the Austral Route which, in this sector, runs parallel to the Baker River, a few hundred metres to the west.

We were to the south of Puerto Bertrand, near the official source of the Baker, between the river and the road, in a forest with tall small-leaved trees. They weren’t birches, as there aren’t any in the southern hemisphere. They were ñires, Nothofagus nítida, that is, false beeches. A lot of firewood on the ground and ferns at the foot of the trees. It was logical to come and record here, because the naked roar of the source of the river didn’t attract us so much. A uniform mass. On the other hand, on this side, even at the time at which the temperature was falling, there were many birds singing and dogs barking. As expected, the distant sound levels were perceived to be much lower than in other situations. Despite the distance from the waterfalls, they were masked by the huge red noise in the background. Yes, red and not white, as some people say on occasions. White contains all the frequencies with the same likelihood and only things such as the flow of electrons in an old TV tube are like that. However, geological sounds and other natural phenomena tend to have significant readings. The passage of rivers and waterfalls are, above all, significant. Those of most birds and mosquitoes trying to steal our blood aren’t usually significant. The sound of buzzing flies approaching us is, but none of them are as widespread in the spectrum as those of the rapids and waterfalls.

General Carrera Lake

It was spring and it was still cold; as we were covered up to our ears, there wasn’t much fear of mosquitoes. In the recording we can hear distant birds and a cock crowing among other fairly weak sounds. You need to concentrate a lot to hear some of them, to ignore the sounds in the foreground and the constant passing of the river, a good deal louder than in Pasarela Neff. I wonder if, despite the great distance, the murmur we heard there a few hours ago was the sound of the rapids now gushing out of Lake Bertrand. The temperature was falling rapidly and the sun was setting. It wasn’t very good weather, but we hoped it would improve the next day. The weather is very unpredictable in Patagonia. When we arranged a visit to the location of the Baker-II Dam with Lily, an environmental activist of German origin who runs the Ñadis shelter, she didn’t take anything for granted; “look, if the weather is bad, we’ll have to stay another day”, she said.

In the Ñadis valley, perhaps a remnant of the fires in the first half of the twentieth century

The Baker River rises from the Bertran Lake drainage to the south-west of General Carrera Lake, which is much larger; in fact, in terms of surface area, it’s the second largest in South America. From here to its mouth at Caleta Tortel, the course of the river runs 175 kilometres, although Chileans consider that the total length is 370 kilometres from the farthest place from which the water comes, in other words, the mouth of the Fénix Chico River on General Carrera Lake. As the pattern is pluvo-nival, flooding usually occurs during the summer months due to the melting of glaciers in the area, including the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, which, with its even larger homonym in the south, is one of the largest reservoirs of drinking water on the planet. With an area covering 26,726 square kilometres, the Baker basin is huge. Together with the river course of the Biobío, the Baker is the one with the largest volume of water in the country and perhaps the one with the greatest hydroelectric potential. It receives water from the Neff, Chacabuco, Cochrane, Río del Salto, Colonia, Ñadis, Congesta, Vargas rivers and other smaller ones. Located very close to Caleta Tortel, the mouth forms a delta with two arms. Only the northern one is navigable.

The area surrounding the Baker River was in danger when the Chaos Orchestra travelled to record the soundscape. It was threatened by HidroAysén, a project that involved the construction and operation of two hydroelectric power plants at Baker and three at Pascua, both locations in the Aysén region. The calculated power of the whole project would be 2,750 megawatts and the average annual energy would total 18,430 gigawatt per hour. The investment would exceed 3,200 million dollars. It was the most ambitious energy project ever proposed in Chile. The government of Sebastián Piñera approved it in May 2011 but the decision was rejected by Chilean citizens, who, having learnt of the details, organised huge protests throughout the country. Neither the environmentalists nor the inhabitants of the Aysén region ever accepted the project. Following the government’s approval, the rejection by the people increased to 74%.

The Baker river after receiving water from the Neff

In addition to the 3,000-kilometre line involved in the connection to the electricity grid, HidroAysén would have flooded 5,900 hectares of nature reserves, including six national parks, eleven national reserves, twenty-six priority conservation locations, sixteen wetlands and thirty-two protected private areas. Part of the wall of the Baker-II plant would have divided the Laguna de San Rafael National Park. The environmental damage would have been irreversible, but the social and cultural harm too, as six Mapuche communities, four in Toltén, one in Lautaro and one in Victoria, would have been dramatically affected. Moreover, the basic seismic studies, those of volcanic activity and those of unpredictable catastrophic floods, recommended significant reviews of the project.

El Saltón (River Baker): marking and sounding of the land by the Baker-II Dam

This situation, which could have seriously affected the history of the region, would have also altered its soundscape. The Chaos Orchestra therefore regarded the Baker’s environment as an outstanding objective for its research into the soundscape of the economic development. The well-known soundscaper Luis Barrie helped us in the preparation of the trip to the Aysén region, where we conducted a campaign to collect sound data along the entire course of the river, with special interest in the area surrounding the locations of the Baker-I and Baker-II Dams. We owe the success of the recordings to Luis Barrie and Rodrigo Torres, a musicologist from the University of Chile.  

El Saltón (River Baker): planned location for the Baker-II Dam

Patagonia Without Dams, a movement made up of several independent organisations and individuals and acknowledged as the largest organised opposition to the HidroAysén project, convened massive protest marches to demand a halt with the support of a broad array of Chilean citizens and environmental entities with major global influence. The Supreme Court of Chile ignored this and ruled in favour of the construction of the plants on 4 April 2012. However, the overall project was finally rejected by a committee of ministers in June 2014. The partners of HidroAysén (ENDESA, with a 51% holding, and COLBUN, with 49%), kept pushing until the definitive cancellation announced on 17 November 2017. Since then, the soundscape of the area has been maintained with very few variations.

The Baker, from afar at dusk


South: 47° 01′ 3,51″ – West: 72° 49′ 7,15″ – 8/11/2011 19:41.

Sons en Causa

Sons en Causa és un projecte de l’Orquestra del Caos basat en el registre del patrimoni sonor propi d’una sèrie de contextos culturals on a l’entorn mediambiental, a causa del creixement econòmic, són previsibles canvis irreversibles a curt i mitjà termini. Les diversitats cultural i biològica, encara enormes, són massa fràgils. Mereixen ser tingudes en compte i la seva gran importància, divulgada. El patrimoni intangible, i amb ell, el sonor, està seriosament amenaçat en molts llocs del món. Un cop produïts els canvis que ara ens semblen inevitables, els sons, i amb ells les seves causes, hauran desaparegut per sempre.

Enregistraments: Carlos Gómez

Josep Manuel Berenguer
Josep Manuel Berenguer és coordinador i professor de Psicoacústica i Música experimental del Màster en Art Sonor de la UB i director l'Orquestra del Caos. President d'Honor de la International Conference of Electroacoustic Music del CIM / UNESCO, President de Quantum Art Lab, membre del Patronat de la Fundació Phonos i del grup MISAME. El seu treball inicialment electroacústic s'ha orientat a la instal·lació, al temps real i a la interactivitat. Les temàtiques desenvolupades inclouen qüestions relacionades amb la filosofia i la història de la ciència, els límits de llenguatge, l'ètica, la vida i la intel·ligència artificial, la robòtica, el metabolisme de la informació, així com els límits mateixos de la comprensió i la percepció humanes del món. Luci, que explora els comportaments complexos emergents de superposicions d'elements simples, va rebre el Premi ARCO-Beep d'Art Electrònic.

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