The privatization of rivers in Chile

| 22nd January 2020
Rio Maipo
Auctioning-off rivers for private gain has severe social and environmental impacts. But there is a better way.


The Chilean government has continued with the mercantile treatment of common goods, putting several rivers in the Bio Bio Region up for auction, despite ongoing social unrest. 

The practice of auctioning off rivers is legally supported by the 1981 water code. By conceiving of water as an economic asset, this code has made rivers mere objects for energy exploitation; the state hands over access through a resolution that enables private parties to harness rivers for commercial hydropower. 

This has meant that, with the passage of time, multiple rivers in Chile have been appropriated by foreign companies, which have controlled water rights from the Cuervo river (Xtrata of Switzerland), Rio Bravo (AES Gener of the United States), Palena river (AES Gener), Baker river (Endesa from Spain, now Enel from Italy), Blanco river (Xtrata), Chacabuco river (Xtrata), Pascua river (AES Gener), Figueroa river (Enel and AES Gener), Manso river (Endesa and AES Gener), Puelo river (Endesa), Cisnes river (AES Gener), Futalelfu river (Endesa), Maipo river (Aguas Andinas from Spain).


This process has been accompanied by a strong concentration of the country's energy matrix, where a few companies from the Global North control the existing market, which mainly seeks to sustain the energy demand of industry and mega-mining. 

This also generates deep socio-environmental impacts through water pollution, the displacement of communities and the destruction of local economies.

These large companies control narratives through the mainstream media, arguing that for Chile to reach the goal of development, it needs more and more energy, without questioning where that energy is directed, the role of the State and much less thinking about the possibility for citizens to generate their own energy through energy communities and cooperatives.

The imposition of this neoliberal ideology at an extreme level is becoming increasingly tense, and is now being questioned by a the people in Chile, who are demanding rights of all kinds. The Movement for Water and Territories proposes de-privatizing water and enabling community management, within the framework of the Rights of Nature.


Rivers are highly valuable, and can be treated as political and legal subjects with rights. This is the case in Colombia (Atrato river, Quindio river), New Zealand (Wanganui river, Urewera river), India (Ganges river, Yamuna river), which shows us that it is no longer enough to protect rivers from the perspective of Environmental Rights, but to give real voice and political representation to non-human beings.

Understanding rivers as political subjects and giving them legal recognition opens up the possibility not only of overcoming instrumental and mercantile conceptions of life, where Chile is perhaps the worst case of all, but also of decolonizing an anthropocentric and westernized view of the planet. 

We are in the midst of a planetary crisis. For this reason, the mountains, soils, forests, and seas should also be recognized, as they have the capacity for agency and are a fundamental part of ecoterritorial dynamics.

This Author 

Andrés Kogan Valderrama is a sociologist and PhD student in Latin American Social Studies. He is also editor of the Observatorio Plurinacional de Aguas.

Image: Rio Maipo. raulito19782001, Wikipedia. 

More from this author


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here