National Geographic : 1993 Nov 30
Development CA5:E STUDY W, co rid 11ide BY JOHN G. MITCHELL PHOTOGRAPHS BY STUART FRANKLIN RKNESS IS ABOUT TO FALL across the valley of the Great Whale River. It is the end of a long August day in the north of Quebec, in a land of black spruce and tan granite, and we have come to see how this river runs while the water is free. I am traveling with Matthew Mukash. He is a Cree Indian. His people have been living in this country for 5,000 years. Across the purling water one of their tepees stands pasted against the sky, a ghostly pyramid trailing a thin white plume of woodsmoke down river. Mukash, who is chief of Whapmagoostui, a Cree village at the mouth of the river, on Hudson Bay, suddenly sweeps his hand in an arc. "All this will be flooded by the dam," he says. "The river has a sacred route to..follow, but they will drown it. All of it." The dam that troubles Mukash - if it is ever built-would be the linchpin of the Great Whale complex, just one part of the gigantic James Bay hydroelectric project. Sponsored by Hydro-Quebec, a quasi-government utility, the project has been building for 20 years. Its first power plant-the largest underground generating station in the world-was completed on the La Grande River in 1982; three others have since been commissioned, and work has begun on four more. Three great rivers-the Eastmain, Opinaca, and Caniapiscau were diverted to feed the 500-mile-long La Grande, doubling its mean annual flow and increasing its winter flow by a factor of eight. In the resulting trade-off the Eastmain was parched to.a trickle. So far, Hydro-Quebec has invested more than 21 billion dollars (16.3 billion dollars U. S.), built five wilderness airports, strung at least 5,000 miles of transmission lines through forest and wetlands, consumed more than 1.6 million tons of fuel, and blasted out and redistributed a volume of rock fill sufficient, in the words of the utili ty's literature, "to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops 80 times over." And this is only for starters, because if and when all the elements of Shouldering a morning's haul of Canada geese, Leonard Masty, a Cree, heads back to his family's camp near Whapmmgoostui. From native hunt ing grounds, Quebec's government plucks hydropower riches---Inflaming tensions over land use as old as European dement of North America.