Yuyo Astorga can trace his family's roots in San Alfonso, a town outside the capital, Santiago, back to the 1800s. The soft-spoken farmer never imagined that he and 50 family members would be defending their land from a $325-million gas pipeline.
The much-anticipated pipeline, being built by the Calgary, Canada-based Novacorp and a consortium of South American energy companies, is the first to cross the Andes from Argentina. It brings the promise of lower energy costs and a cleaner environment to smog-bound Santiago.
It also brings worries to the residents of San Alfonso and the neighboring communities of the Cajon del Maipo Valley, who, with environmental groups, are trying to keep out the pipeline.
Barring access to their land with bits of metal and iron rods, the determined Astorga clan has twice fended off surveying missions to their 8,900-acre property. The family says they are prepared to "fight with their lives" for their homes even though the pipeline consortium, GasAndes, was awarded a concession for the property in October. "[Novacorp] believes they can fix everything in their path, and any obstacles can be overcome with money, by buying people," says Mr. Astorga. "But this is our life, our future, and our children's future. There is no amount of money worth that."
Tensions reached a high in May after GasAndes threatened to use police force to gain access to the land. Fearing a political backlash, Chile's National Environmental Commission (Conoma) stepped in and offered to smooth the way for a new concession along the north side of the river valley. According to opponents of the pipeline, Conoma had no choice but to try to make up for environmental approvals that, in violation of Chilean law, allowed the high-pressure pipeline to pass within yards of the Astorgas' homes on the river's narrow south shore.
Conoma maintains new technical studies will have to be conducted on the north shore, where the majority of the residents of the heavily touristed town of San Alfonso live, but the community has little confidence the government will do much to protect them.
In a recent protest attended by politicians and flag-bearing Chilean cowboys, residents questioned nascent environmental laws that awarded GasAndes a concession before carrying out an environmental impact assessment.
Community leaders vowed to go to the courts and get an injunction to stop the company, their fears compounded by the threat of gas leaks from earthquakes and flash floods, as well as two recent accidents in Canada with Novacorp-owned pipelines. They plan to argue that the project is a risk to public safety, despite the fact that GasAndes has faced close to a dozen such injunctions in Chile already, winning every one.
"[The government doesn't] want to give any indications to foreign investors that their projects could be hindered or stopped because of environmental considerations," says Manuel Baquedano, president of the Political Ecology Institute.
According to accident rates in Canada, GasAndes calculates it would be 123 years before there was an incident anywhere along the 750-mile pipeline, which is being built to withstand earthquakes and will be completely concealed once it is buried. The project is the first of its kind in Chile. "We have no culture of gas pipelines here in Chile - there is a real terror of pipelines," says Conoma spokesman Hector Olivo. "But we are not going to hold up the development of an entire region because of a few people."