Protecting a Sacred River: Transnational Appeals for Energy Justice and Indigenous Rights Recognition

Protecting a Sacred River: Transnational Appeals for Energy Justice and Indigenous Rights Recognition

The Pilmaiquén River is named after the swallow. Like the bird, the turquoise river makes a few quick and sporadic turns as it winds its way down from the Andean mountains toward the Pacific Ocean. In southern Chile, the Mapuche-Williche people hold the river as sacred to their culture. On We tripantu, the Mapuche new year which occurs on Austral winter solstice (June), the spirits of those who have died that year are known to travel up to the Wenumapu (the land above) when the river unites with the river of the sky, the Milky Way. Until We tripantu comes each year, these spirits live on animals in the river like birds and fish.

Machil Millaray collects healing water in the Pilmaiquén watershed. Photo by Pablo Piovano.

The Mapuche-Williche refer to newen as the vital life force of the river. But today, the river’s newen is threatened by the Los Lagos hydroelectric power project that is almost complete, and two similar hydroelectric dams that are already built. A third would irrevocably harm the newen of the river and with it the way of life of the Mapuche-Williche. After a fifteen-year conflict, this is the final act where the fate of the river will be decided.

The Los Lagos hydroelectric power project is being built by Statkraft, a Norwegian state-owned company and a global leader in renewable energy development. In 2015, Statkraft bought a conflict when they purchased the water rights and approved environmental assessment for the Los Lagos project, and an already functioning hydropower plant on the same river, Rucatayo. Mapuche-Williche leaders accuse Statkraft of not holding transparent dialogue in the territory, nor resubmitting the project for a full environmental review and Indigenous consultation as required by law. Despite these concerns, Statkraft is moving forward towards the completion of the dam—and the potential destruction of the Mapuche-Williche people.

With few options left, in May and September 2023, Mapuche-Williche leaders traveled to Norway to appeal to Norwegian leaders, civil society, and Saami people for support in halting the hydroelectric project installation on their river. On the first trip in May, I accompanied the delegation as a legal geographer who has researched in the territory. In legal terms, it has been difficult for Mapuche-Williche people to explain and have their relationships recognized to the sacred site where Ngen Kintuantü (a spirit guardian of the territory) resides, alongside the river in a cave. The law recognizes the industrial and capitalist interests of foreign developers but not the rights of the Mapuche-Williche to live in peace.

We do not want their [Statkraft’s] progress of misery, because for us money cannot be eaten. Because of the lawen (medicinal plants), the medicine is in our rivers. Because our history runs with the water. And because through water, as a vital element, we spiritually return to this space of the Willimapu territory.

– Machi Millaray, Oslo (May 2023)

Machi Millaray, one of the ancestral authorities who traveled to Norway, explained that these hydropower projects are “green colonialism” and an “ecocide” of their lifeworld. Green colonialism refers to how efforts to make environmentally beneficial change – like building renewable energy – can reinforce historical patterns of domination, dispossession, and cultural harm to Indigenous people, see the work of Susanna Normann.

The critique of Statkraft as exercising green colonialism did not start in Chile. It first took hold close to Statkraft’s home in the Saepmi territory of Norway in 2019 when the president of the Saami Council called out the impacts of wind energy development on their lands. The development of a large wind park where Statkraft holds primary ownership of Fosen Vind (52%) continues to generate significant conflict and resistance from Saami communities.

As Saami geographer Eva Fjellheim finds, this “fails to recognize that radically distinct lifeworlds, values, and land-use practices might not be reconciled” (p. 45-46). This conflict signals how the global energy transition can prohibit a fair process in where dialogue occurs, with whom, and how. This is commonly referred to as recognitional justice.

Over nearly ten years, I have listened to dialogues between Mapuche-Williche leaders with other territories, government agencies, and consultants. I have also written expert reports for the environmental courts on Mapuche hydropower conflicts, including one for the Pilmaiquén case in the Second Environmental Court. In a country plagued by extending and ingrained social and environmental conflicts, I often hear a repeated statement. The goal of improving dialogue with the Mapuche pueblo is to ‘nivelar la cancha’ (level the playing field), or ensure that there are terms for equitable dialogue.

Yet in transnational conflicts, external actors often determine the terms of dialogue. When Statkraft purchased the projects, it opted not to conduct an Indigenous Consultation. New Indigenous communities have been formed over the course of the conflict via outside negotiations undertaken by the company, threatening ancestral ceremonies and leadership. With weak Chilean regulation, Statkraft has continued to set the terms of recognition. This decision, and their continued strategies of targeted negotiations and misinterpretation of Mapuche-Wiilliche cosmology, enable a harmful project to proceed.

Hydropower development in Mapuche territory continues to infringe upon their rights as Indigenous people. I have written about the spatial injustices and regulatory issues for small hydropower development in a 2019 article in Energy Research and Social Science, mapped hydropower conflicts in relation to historical dispossession in a 2021 article in Geoforum, and analyzed the Pilmaiquén - Statkraft conflict with colleagues in a 2021 article in the Journal of Latin American Geography. Felipe Guerra, a co-author, lawyer, and long-term collaborator of the territory, refers to the “epistemic injustice” in how the law is interpreted and applied to sacred sites in Indigenous territories for economic development projects including this case, in his doctoral thesis and forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Pluralism.

Machi Millaray and Saami youth leader Ellen Nystad in Oslo, Norway in May 2023. Photo by Pablo Piovano.

Conflicts over Indigenous rights and their ancestral land use are increasingly serving as checks for environmental protection and biodiversity safeguarding. Yet Indigenous peoples’ protection is often misinterpreted by outside actors. In Chile, this could begin with questioning the continuous criminalization of the Mapuche Pueblo. The commonplace way Chilean national news tells stories of conflict in Mapuche territories obscures their role in many cases as protectors of nature and defenders of sacred sites.

In her speech in Oslo, the Machi Millaray explained that their sacred ceremonial site is an amunkowe (movement of water) of water that flows including rivers and streams where drops of water unite intangible dimensions. This helps explain that water and land cannot be divided, thus, the Machi indicated that the ruka (house) of Ngen Kintuantü implies direct connections with the Wenumapu (land above). Chile’s current legal system has shortcomings for recognizing Mapuche knowledge and geography, in part due to its privatization of water use rights.

Map by Sergio Iacobelli, Sarah Kelly, and Julio Muñoz in conversation with Machi Millaray and the traditional organization Aylla Rewe Kintuantü. This map was part of an expert report that I wrote for a case in the Second Environmental Court of Chile.

Mapuche-Williche and Saami leaders in Saepmie territory, May 2023. Photo by Pablo Piovano.

In September 2023, Machi Millaray made a second trip to Norway to file a complaint with Norway’s Office of Economic Co-operation and Development regarding its guidelines for multinational companies and Statkraft’s alleged human rights infringements. The outcomes of this filing are still unknown. Meanwhile, construction continues in the temperate rainforests of southern Chile and opposition to the project now includes over 150 Mapuche-Williche communities. It is in this ancestral territory that the Mapuche conserve their lawen (medicinal plants), among other aspects of life and ancient wisdom. In this era of rapid climate change, these dialogues do not merit anything less than just, transparent, and equitable spaces.


This is an adapted essay from an op-ed publication that I previously published in Chilean national and regional newspapers that was edited by journalist Mane Ossandón. The op-ed was published with the permission of the traditional organization Aylla Rewe Kintuantü. Another article about this case and its implications for energy justice is currently under review; thanks to our transnational group of authors who have informed my thinking on the case.

For Further Reading

  • Fjellheim, E. M. (2023). Wind Energy on Trial in Saepmie: Epistemic Controversies and Strategic Ignorance in Norway’s Green Energy Transition. Arctic Review on Law and Politics, 14, 140-168. Guerra-Schleef, F. (Forthcoming). Misunderstanding Ngen Kintuante. Journal of Legal Pluralism.
  • Kelly, S. (2019). Megawatts mask impacts: Small hydropower and knowledge politics in the Puelwillimapu, Southern Chile. Energy Research & Social Science, 54, 224-235.
  • Kelly, S. H. (2021). Mapping hydropower conflicts: A legal geography of dispossession in Mapuche-Williche Territory, Chile. Geoforum, 127, 269-282.
  • Kelly, S. H., Guerra-Schleef, F., & Valdés-Negroni, J. M. (2021). Negociando consentimiento y derechos indígenas: Geografías legales de la fragmentación en territorio Mapuche-Williche, Futawillimapu, Chile. Journal of Latin American Geography, 20(2), 67-102.
  • Normann, S. (2021). Green colonialism in the Nordic context: Exploring Southern Saami representations of wind energy development. Journal of community psychology, 49(1), 77-94.