SANTIAGO, Chile — A $7 billion project to dam two of the world’s wildest rivers for electricity has won environmental approval Monday from a Chilean government commission, despite a groundswell of opposition.

The commissioners – all political appointees in President Sebastian Pinera’s government – concluded a three-year environmental review by approving five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Aysen, a mostly roadless region of remote southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.

Monday’s vote – 11 in favor and one abstention – could prove to be pivotal for the future of Chile, which has a booming economy, vast mineral wealth and a determination to join the elite group of first-world nations.

With its energy-intensive mining industry clamoring for more power and living standards improving, Chile must triple its capacity in just 15 years, despite having no domestic oil or natural gas, some analysts say. Chile imports 97 percent of its fossil fuels and depends largely on hydropower for electricity,

Supporters say the economic benefits of the dam project justify carving roads through the heart of Chile’s remaining wilderness and running a thousand miles of transmission lines to power the capital, Santiago.

The dams together could generate 2.75 gigawatts, nearly a third of central Chile’s current capacity, within 12 years. The Aysen region will receive less expensive energy, jobs, scholarships and $350 million in infrastructure, including seaports and airports, said HidroAysen’s executive vice president, Daniel Fernandez.

But people in the sparsely populated area are divided. Only three dozen families would be relocated, but the dams would drown 14,000 acres, require carving clear-cuts through forests, and eliminate whitewater rapids and waterfalls that attract ecotourism. They also would destroy habitat for the endangered Southern Huemul deer: Fewer than 1,000 of the diminutive animals, a national symbol, are believed to exist.

“They should advocate for the citizens, but it seems that what really matters here is drawing foreign investment,” said Tortel Mayor Bernardo Lopez, who says 600 people in his community depend on tourism.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer for the U.S.-based National Resources Defense Council, appealed to Pinera to call off the project.

“It’s the most beautiful place, I believe, on the planet,” said Kennedy, who kayaks there every year. “I don’t know any place like Patagonia.”

Investors have spent $220 million on the project so far, but opposition has grown to 61 percent of Chileans according to the latest Ipsos Public Affairs poll, and the government is concerned about a backlash.

Protests were planned for downtown Santiago, and more than 1,000 people gathered outside the hearing in the regional hub of Coyhaique, chanting and carrying signs. Some threw rocks at commission members when they arrived, and clashed afterward with hundreds of police, who responded with a water cannon. Several protesters were bloodied in the melee.

Mining and Energy Minister Laurence Golborne had urged opponents to turn to the courts instead. Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter sent in extra police.

“The most important thing is that our country needs to grow, to progress, and for this we need energy,” Hinzpeter said before the vote.

Chile’s decision has lessons for a world confronting a future without inexpensive fossil fuels and questioning nuclear safety. The country has abundant renewable-energy potential, from dams on its many rivers to year-round sun in its northern deserts, wind along its long Pacific coast, numerous geothermal sites and biomass from its large agricultural industry.

But Chile gets less than 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources other than hydroelectricity, has done little to encourage efficiency, and lacks a strategy for securing future supplies, although a government commission will make such recommendations by September.

While a growing number of countries are modernizing networks to enable individuals with rooftop solar panels to contribute electricity, Chile’s grids aren’t even linked.

It’s another legacy of dictator Augusto Pinochet: To encourage development and undo his socialist predecessor’s attempts at land reform, he made waterways the property of the state energy company and eliminated regulations to protect competing interests. The rules remained even after the company was privatized and sold to foreigners.

As a result, Chile’s rivers are the tax-free, private property of the Spanish-Italian Endesa energy company, which now has huge influence and few incentives to modernize the system in ways that would encourage competition. Colbun SA, a Chilean electricity generator, also is participating in the HidroAysen project.

“It makes no economic sense. The big energy demand is coming from the northern part of the country and the metals industry, and in those regions you already have available resources,” Kennedy said. “The Atacama desert is ideally suited to solar thermal production. It’s got the altitude, 365 days of sunlight a year and power lines that already exist … The only reason these dams are being built is because of the political clout that Endesa has over the Pinera government.”