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In Chile, massive protests have broken out over plans to build a set of dams in Patagonia, one of the worlds most iconic wilderness areas. Conservationists say dams will change the region forever. Yet, Chile is hungry for energy to fuel copper mining, and the government is pushing ahead with the dams. In response, Chileans are taking to the streets. Annie Murphy reports from Chile.

ANNIE MURPHY: Its a crisp afternoon, and tens of thousands of protesters fill Santiagos main avenue. Bundled up in jackets and scarves, they shout Chiles not for sale and Patagonia: free of dams. Protesters range from toddlers waving signs atop parents shoulders, to teenagers and adults, to seniors. 83-year-old Grimilda Sanchez is standing off to the side, taking it all in. Shes wearing a prim wool skirt, and a silk scarf. She looks serious, almost disapproving. But when I ask what she thinks of the march, shes all for it.

Ms. GRIMILDA SANCHEZ: (Spanish language spoken)

MURPHY: The countrys resources are being sold off, right now, she says. This march is about more than politics. People have understood that they need to take to the streets to defend their rights. This protest makes me deeply happy, she says, and Im going to go join in. Sanchez steps off the curb, and her shock of white hair disappears into the crowd. Opponents of the dams say the project will destroy a pristine landscape, and alter the entire ecosystem of Patagonia. Luis Mariano Rendon is an environmentalist and one of the organizers.

Mr. LUIS MARIANO RENDON (Environmentalist): (Through Translator) Pressure on natural resources is only going to increase. And its going to require democratic processes that ensure that those natural resources are exploited in a way thats reasonable and sensible and benefits local people.

MURPHY: But Chiles economy grew by about six percent last year, and is largely driven by energy-intensive copper mining. The government insists the dams are necessary if Chiles going to keep developing. The Ministry of Environment, however, did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Rolf Luders is an economics professor at the Catholic University of Chile. The bottom line he says?

Prof. ROLF LUDERS (Economics, Catholic University of Chile): He have to have more energy if we to grow.

MURPHY: The bottom line? He says.

MURPHY: But student leader Giorgio Jackson, whos been participating in the protests, says that mentality is exactly the issue.

Mr. GIORGIO JACKSON (Student Leader): (Through Translator) The country always wants to grow faster, but for what purpose? To destroy the environment? Development or environment, thats a false question. Its not one or the other. We can advance while saving energy.

MURPHY: Protesters like Jackson propose investing in small-scale, alternative energy projects, and say theyre willing to change their own energy consumption if it means keeping Patagonia free of huge dams.

Luciano Cid works in management at a cell phone company, and considers himself politically conservative. Hes stopped to listen to a group of students discussing climate change in the street.

Mr. LUCIANO CID (Management for cell phone company): (foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: I share some of these young peoples opinions, he says. Were immersed in consumerism; not just in Chile, but all over the world, and its blocking out other values. Hidrosyen is just one of many things that are happening to the environment. Just look at the air pollution in Santiago, he says. He has a point. Air pollution from industry and cars is now so bad that city-wide environmental alerts are common. Here, the snow-capped Andes were once something to be proud of but now, theyre jagged shadows in the smog. For many Chileans, the only thing thats clear, is that something needs to change.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in Santiago, Chile.

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