Energy Research & Social Science
Internationally, high head diversion small hydropower is being developed in mountainous regions. In contrast to the history of large reservoir hydropower’s well-documented social and environmental impacts, scholarship is only beginning to examine the impacts of small hydropower in river basins around the world. While a number of articles globally emphasize the principle ecological impacts of small hydropower, few articles examine the social impacts, and fewer still draw from ethnographic or collaborative inquiry with affected peoples. Through an ethnographic, collaborative research approach with Mapuche-Williche Indigenous leaders in the Puelwillimapu Territory of southern Chile, I interrogate how the interrelated social and environmental impacts of small hydropower cited in Environmental Assessments compare with those lived and perceived by affected Mapuche-Wiliche communities. Small hydropower development targets areas of cultural significance in Mapuche territory, generating considerable conflict. Additionally, knowledge politics shape and obscure small hydropower’s impacts. Analyzing two case studies, I argue that judging a small hydropower project’s size by megawatts can mask significant impacts. The current trend to design environmental regulation for small hydropower based on megawatts is shortsighted, infringing upon Indigenous rights. In Chile, harmful projects are being developed without consulting Mapuche-Williche people. Small hydropower’s impacts are expressed in not only ecological fragmentation, but also in the fragmentation of social relationships and ancestral knowledge recognition. Thus, this article seeks to expand our notion of what counts as an impact to include those that Indigenous communities identify as important. In conclusion, I provide recommendations for improving small hydropower regulation and Indigenous Consultation for hydropower. Reflecting on an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, this paper contributes methodologically to the field of energy and social sciences.