Santiago -- I remember my first trip to Puerto Coihaique in southern Chile, the majestic Andes on one side of the small valley that leads into the Aysén, part of a large chain of fjords, wild rivers and lakes that has yet to be touched by modern civilization. Large native trees, ancient alerce, some between 1,500 and 2,000 years old, tower into the sky.
Seals and walrus sunbathe on the rocks of the Aysén fjord, feasting on fish and shellfish.
The main dirt road leading south from the major city of Puerto Montt takes over a day to navigate. It's a rough overland trip that can only be made in the summertime and includes a five-hour journey by ferry.
It's just north of here, in the last remaining stand of temperate wilderness forest in Chile's Patagonia, that Canadian mining and forestry giant Noranda wants to carve a deep-sea port and build an aluminum smelter.
In Coihaique, where the beginnings of a green sustainable economy centred around ecotourism are taking root, there is oppostion to the project. Three hydroelectrical dams on three wild rivers, creating an artificial lake that will flood some 13,000 hectares of land, and some 50 kilometres of service roads will have to be built to service the facility.
But in nearby Puerto Aysén, local unions want the high-paying jobs that Alumysa, as the project is known, will bring to the region.
Noranda claims the $2.75-billion U.S. Alumysa, the largest single investment in Chilean history, will create some 15,000 indirect jobs during the height of construction and employ some 1,100 workers, with an additional 5,000 indirect jobs, once the smelter is fully operational.
The Chilean Environmental Commission has raised serious concerns about the 24-volume environmental impact study presented by Noranda.
The commission's consultants submitted some 500 questions in response to Noranda's impact study. The company had until last week (August 31) to respond to the commission's concerns, but two weeks before the deadline received an extension until October 31.
It's small consolation to Tomas Mosciatti. He says there are too many powerful interests at work -- namely the support of big business, the media and government -- to entertain much hope the project will be stopped.
"Noranda scientists have helicopters at their disposal to fly to any point in Aysén to prove that a negative impact on the environment will be minimal," he tells me in his office in Santiago in mid-July.
Mosciatti is not your average environmentalist. He is part owner of a family-owned national radio network. Every morning Mosciatti takes to the airwaves of Radio Bío Bío, anchoring a daily three-hour news broadcast to the nation. In the evening he anchors the drive-home hour-long program. The news organization he leads with his brother, Nibaldo, is the only mainstream news outlet that is voicing any concern in these parts about Noranda's plans.
He fears a continuation of the eco-destruction forest companies have caused since their incursion 50 years ago.
"Natural aquifers and rivers have dried up in the south of the country," he says.
On the other hand, Roberto Biehl, Noranda Alumysa's general manager, speaks of the project from his Santiago office with unbridled enthusiasm. The environmental impact, he says, will be minimal.
He tells me emission controls for the proposed smelter "will be more stringent than those in Canada."
He argues that opposition to the project is "ideological" and comes from a small group of people "who do not want industrialization."
If Biehl comes across as a bit testy, it's because the coalition spearheading opposition to Alumysa, the Alianza por Aysén Reserva por la Vida, has been making much of Biehl's family ties to suggest the fix is in.
Biehl is part of a politically influential family in Chile's ruling centre-left Concertación coalition. His brother John is a former Chilean ambassador to Washington.
Biehl vehemently denies that his political ties have anything to do with the viability of Alumysa. "They try to look for reasons, any reason, to smear us. They create any kind of rumours that have nothing to do with the project."
From Ottawa, Chile's ambassador to Canada, Alvaro Zúñiga, says existing environmental legislation "is the guarantee that all will abide by the law."
He says Chile's international reputation as a country friendly to foreign investment will not be damaged if Alumysa doesn't go ahead.
According to company literature, Noranda interests in Chile have grown to 20 per cent of its entire operation, second only to Canada.
Inshore fishers, salmon farming operators and ecotour businesses who stand to be most affected by the project say Noranda's own data paint a scary eco-picture. Alumysa will require the razing of some 13,000 hectares and produce some 660,000 tonnes of toxic gases and liquid industrial waste per year.
They've filed a lawsuit in Coihaique court demanding the protection of lakes and rivers.
Masciotti adds that the eco-concerns are complicated by geography. The region, he points out, is made up of tens of thousands of small channels that are impassable to ships when the tides empty them.
He points to the possibility of heavy cargo ships running aground. But it's a risk, it seems, that Noranda and its Chilean backers are willing to take in the name of modernization.