Santiago, Chile • A Mapuche Indian leader who became the face of Chile’s environmental movement was found floating in a reservoir she spent a decade trying to prevent from being created, and authorities said Wednesday they were awaiting autopsy results although the death appeared accidental.
While there was no official cause of death yet for Nicolesa Quintreman, a 73-year-old who was nearly blind, prosecutor Carlos Diaz said that "she apparently slipped, fell into the lake and died."
"Police informed me that from first glance and based on their expertise, the cadaver showed no signs of injury attributable to third persons," Diaz told Radio Bio Bio.
Quintreman was found Tuesday, a day after she went missing. Forensic pathologists returned the body to her family Wednesday in preparation for a funeral Friday. A day of mourning was declared in the community of Alto Biobio.
With her sister Berta, Quintreman became a national figure in Chile during protests against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on tribal land in the forested mountains of southern Chile. They led a public fight against the European power company Endesa at a time when Chile’s environmental enforcement was lax and its indigenous protection law wasn’t closely followed.
"I’m going to tell it like it is. My sister fell into the lake, she won’t ever come back," Berta Quintreman said, her voice breaking, in a radio interview. "This company should leave, and pull everything out. I want to emphasize this point — things have to keep progressing because my sister was a tireless fighter, and now my sister has left me all alone."
Hundreds of other families supported the women initially, but gradually gave in to the pressure and traded their land for other properties beyond the flood zone. Finally, Nicolesa Quintreman also traded her small plot in 2002 for an undisclosed sum and a larger property 9 miles (15 kilometers) away.
"People who said they were my friends abandoned me," she said then. "If they had stayed with me, I could have kept up the fight."
The project authorized by the center-left government of President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagble then flooded the Mapuches’ valley, generating more of the electricity Chile needed to power a growing economy.
The Quintreman sisters remained known as the founders of a new environmental movement in far southern Chile, one that now counts on the support of many international civic groups, which have gone to court to stop the construction of more dams. Among those being challenged is the HidroAysen project, which would block some of the world’s last free-flowing rivers and carve a path through the forests for high-tension power lines running for thousands of miles.
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