Juan Pablo Orrego / Grupo de Acción por el Biobío

(1998, Chile)

...for his personal courage, self-sacrifice and perseverance in working for sustainable development in Chile.


Juan Pablo Orrego was born in 1949, and has a Master in Environmental Studies (1986). At a younger age he was a composer and singer in a popular urban folklore group. In 1991 he helped to establish and was elected to be general co-ordinator of the Grupo de Acción por el Biobío (GABB) to attempt to stop the construction of six dams in the Biobío River in southern Chile, one of South America's most spectacular rivers and of great ecological significance. Its watershed is also home to the Pehuenche indigenous people, numbering about 10,000.

Contact Details

Juan Pablo Orrego
Exequiel Fernández 189
Depto. 101 – Ñuñoa
Santiago de Chile



Since the early 1960s there had been plans to build a linked series of six mega hydro dams on the Biobío, planned without any environmental consideration. Originally the scheme belonged to ENDESA-Chile, a state-owned energy utility, obscurely privatised in the last days of the Pinochet regime, with some officials of Pinochet's government becoming its major controllers and beneficiaries.

The privatisation included 90% of Chile's water rights. As a near monopoly supplier of Chile's electricity, it wielded enormous economic, political and media power. In 1997 the Chilean company was sold to ENDESA-Spain with the water rights.

GABB had two main thrusts to its work: building an ample coalition for campaigning at a local, national and international level to stop the building of the dams, and working together with the Pehuenche for the defense of their right to remain in their ancestral territory.

The campaign was remarkably successful in many ways, enabling GABB to make the previously secret plans for dam construction a hot issue of environment and human rights, and to denounce Chile's undemocratic and unsustainable development model, which was forcibly put in place during Pinochet's 17-year brutal dictatorship.

Orrego criticises that the constitutional, legal and institutional system installed in Chile by Pinochet has been "enthusiastically administered since then, without any changes, by the three successive 'democratic', so-called socialist governments." He calls this system "a check mate for democracy, that empowers corporations and disempowers people."

Despite GABB's successful campaigning, the government allied with ENDESA proved to be an almost invincible adversary. The first dam, Pangue, was built and inaugurated in 1997 and a second, Ralco, was built and inaugurated in 2004, both behind schedule due to the campaign. However, only two of the six dams were built, saving a substantial portion of the watershed and river from its destruction, and the campaign put in the public agenda issues that no one had raised before: issues of energy policy, environment, indigenous people's rights, ENDESA's energy monopoly and the neo-liberal development goals of the establishment. The campaign also resulted in a much better deal for the relocated Pehuenche than they would otherwise have had.

In addition, Orrego's campaign made a substantial difference to the International Finance Corporation's handling of such projects, following a complaint by GABB and some 400 Chilean citizens before the Inspection Panel of the World Bank, which resulted, according to the public declarations of officers of both financial institutions themselves, in a major revision of their operational directives and procedures.

In Chile the Biobío has become a symbol of the environmental and social struggle, which is still going on in the country. According to authorities and analysts the story of hydro development in Chile has a before and after the Biobío campaign... for the better.


Acceptance Speech by Juan Pablo Orrego

December 9th, 1998

Madam Speaker, Honourable guests, Dear Friends, 

I feel truly honoured to be here today, with you all, receiving the Right Livelihood Award. I'm gratefully receiving the Award in my own name, in the name of my companions of the "Grupo de Acción por el Biobío", Christian Opaso and Rodrigo Garretón, who are present here today, and in the name of the Pehuenche families with whom we have been, for the last eight years, trying to stop the damming of the Biobío river and the destruction of its magnificent watershed.

I have come to realize that defending the Biobío, speaking for the mother-Earth and rooted peoples has been a privilege and has become a spiritual journey, which does not mean pure bliss; it has been a tough, at times quite painful campaign.

Deep ecologists say that when a human being defends a forest, a lake, dolphins or tigers, it is the ecosystems or beings who have found a human voice. It is a beautiful concept and I'm sure that the Biobío flows within all the people who have been defending the river and its people, and it is a privilege. As a scientist I have also realized that nature and humans conform a continuum, so that caring for nature is caring for humanity; unfortunately this also means that degrading nature degrades us.

When I received the first letter from the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, I was amazed about how strongly identified I felt with the Foundations "motto", Mahatma Gandhi's phrase printed in the Foundation's stationary: "The world has enough for everyone's need but not for everyone's greed." A few decades after Gandhi's passing it is evident that there is not even enough for the insatiable greed of a few.

The global market oriented by neoliberal economics is a system based on environmental degradation which generates apparent opulence for a very small minority - 5% of humanity - while it generates poverty and misery for the most. I say "apparent" opulence because the level of the system is the level of the lowest: in other words, a degraded humanity and biosphere makes one unhappy planet for us all. Opulence does not shield anyone from ultraviolet radiation or the violence which pervades humanity.

The saddest thing about this whole situation is that most of this suffering and destruction is unnecessary and avoidable. I am certain that "there is enough for everyone's need" on this planet. The best proof is that in spite of all the overexploitation and overconsumption, in spite of the greed and depredation, of the entropy that humans are generating, the biosphere is still sustaining the 5 to 6 billion of us. Imagine if globally we were wise and sharing, if we were humble and generous, if we were as we can be, as many are and have been. Humanity could perfectly be a net generator of synergy and goodness for the biosphere.

I am privileged, though, because rooted peoples have shown me this potential of human beings deployed and realized. The dilemma is the situation of so many humans living in degraded sociocultural and ecological situations and who do not know any better, who do not know about our marvellous potential. How does a person motivate him/herself to work towards something that he/she does not know exists?

Human's orientation depends on culture and education. We can be gardeners or the destroyers depending on an education which nurtures, deprives or hurts us. Rooted peoples have known this for ages and this is why their culture, their rituals, symbols and myths are a constant reminder of the tightrope between entropy and synergy that humans walk on this earthly reality, of the fragility of this present biosphere which sustains human life and of the totally reciprocal and caring relationship that needs to be established between humans and nature to attain the optimum homeostatic potential of both.

In this context, I remember something that a Huichol indian of the Mexican Western Sierra Madre said to me in 1985: "Our culture is right because it is beautiful and it is beautiful because it is right." This rightness and this beauty is what we urgently have to strive for.

It is in this context that we have defended the Biobío River and the rights of our Pehuenche brothers and sisters. We have questioned and confronted the destruction of the Biobío and of a rooted people's culture as a symptom of a destructive pattern of growth of urban-industrial societies, of which Chile is no exception.

We are facing a global, planetary problem; a problem which is somehow worse than "life or death" because our actual dilemma is rather well-being or growing degradation of the living conditions of more and more human beings, if  we do not confront fully, and really understand, what is happening to us. For this we need to start by including the non-human in this "us"; by recognizing the total interdependence and interpenetration of all beings, things and phenomena which conform the biosphere.

For this we need humility and a sort of rooted cosmic consciousness which is hard to find today, at least in "westernized" societies. And this recognition of the unity of the multiplicity of the biosphere does not obliterate  the human identity, or human identities. On the contrary, diversity is basic for the sustainability of the biological systems, and I think this applies as well to our sociocultural systems which never stop being fully biological.

I would like to finish thanking again the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for their support. In Chile, the award has had an important positive impact. We certainly feel stronger and more protected, somehow. We will keep working with more strength and determination knowing very well that the Earth and the sky are the limits of the challenge we are all facing together.

But any step in the right direction helps, even tiny steps. So we will keep walking together with you, with our Pehuenche and Chilean brothers and sisters, and all others who remember, who know that we can and need to do much better.  We are one.

Thank you.



J. P. Orrego. Entropía del Capitalismo. Ecosistemas - El Desconcierto, Chile, July 2014.


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