Launched in 2012, Futaleufú Riverkeeper is an organization that works to uphold environmental justice principles and promote sustainability in the Futaleufú watershed through a model that combines community involvement and legal action. Futaleufú Rivekeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international non-profit founded in 1999 that now has more than 200 waterkeeper organizations on six continents, each working locally to protect different bodies of water. In Chile, the approval of the environmental impact assessment for the HidroAysén dams project in 2011 sparked the creation of Futaleufú Riverkeeper, the first of its kind in Patagonia.
Last week, I interviewed Patrick Lynch, executive director of Futaleufú Riverkeeper. A Santiago resident, Patrick is originally from New York, an attorney specializing in environmental law and active participant in the Patagonia Without Dams campaign. Here Patrick lends insight into the Riverkeeper model and the organization’s plans in southern Chile.
PJ: Futaleufú Riverkeeper has identified four threats to the local watershed: mining, hydroelectric dams, unsustainable development, and invasive species. Which of these threats is most pressing?
Lynch: Certainly the most important for us is the prospect of the dams. The dams will destroy the river and put an end to much of the local economy. Besides that, when the dams come in they will bring other initiatives, chief among them mining. The one thing that’s keeping the mining industry from entering now is the lack of energy. A mining operation needs three things—reliable energy, water, and good infrastructure— with these, it can exist and be profitable. Typically when a mining company has the first two, they can build their own infrastructure to get products and machinery in and out. The infrastructure piece is happening on its own in Futa; they’re already building better roads and connectivity. The only thing missing is energy, which is one of the reasons dams are such a concern.
This is more or less the case throughout Patagonia. What we hope to do in Futa is educate the community and visitors about what’s happening on other rivers in Chile. The best example, which most people are already aware of, is the Bio Bio River and the way the Ralco dam has negatively affected the community and Mapuche people. It has been devastating. Whenever Endesa or any large hydroelectric company has a project they want to develop, they are sophisticated in knowing how they can divide the community and get the support they need.
For us to get ahead of Endesa and build a strong consensus against building the dams in Futa, we need to have an equally sophisticated plan in place. In other words, we need to be proactive in developing strategies with the municipality and government to create an alternative plan that will lead to economic growth and tourism and everything else the community of Futaleufú wants.
PJ: The Futaleufú Riverkeeper joins the Maule Itata Coastkeeper as Chile’s second Waterkeeper organization and the first one in Patagonia. Do you anticipate future Riverkeepers in Chile?
Lynch: There’s a huge need, without a doubt. We’d like to adapt the Riverkeeper model to work specifically for Patagonia and work with other communities to help them set up their own program eventually. Nearly every town is faced with the risk of mining in their watershed, so if we can be successful in Futaleufú, we can share our experience with others in similar situations. As long as you have a community that’s interested, Riverkeeper can help play that role.
The challenges are different for coastal regions, lakes, and rivers, but the same model can be used. We aim to build an internal legal team that can address cases of permit violation and other watershed threats and to partner with law schools in Chile where professors assist students. Our founder and president, Robert Currie Ríos, is a Chilean environmental attorney and is overseeing the development of our legal branch. The method we are using— where you have attorneys working with the team and direct involvement with the community—in my opinion is the strongest type of waterkeeper program you can have. People have certain rights, such as right to public access to a waterbody or the right to clean water, and these rights have to be protected using every means possible.
PJ:How does Riverkeeper plan to be involved in the communityof Futa?
Lynch: Our Riverkeeper and general coordinator, María José Ortiz, is in charge of monitoring the watershed and working with the community. Like any small town, Futa has its share of conflicts among residents and also between the community and seasonal and non-native residents, yet there are some issues where we have to put differences aside and rally around a single cause. We are seeking input from the community and as more ideas are presented this will expand, but for now what we’re committed to doing is helping with education and supporting great initiatives already underway. For example, María José is a school teacher licensed in biological sciences and she will be collaborating with Fundación Patagonia Sur to develop environmental programs in schools— both in town and in several rural schools.
Another project, which I think is great for Patagon Journal readers to know about, is the Association of Guides of Futaleufú and their effort to establish a guide school in Futa. At its essence, this is trying to connect the community, and specifically young people, with the environment via trekking, fly fishing, kayaking, and other opportunities in the watershed. There are a handful of young kayakers from town who now travel the world as guides and are great examples of how activities in the natural environment can create opportunities and life changes for people of Futa.
Finally, we’ve consulted with FutaFriends’ board members and staff on several ideas and think their farmer’s market project is a great idea to continue supporting along with other community development projects.
At the end of the day, if the dams come in, all these community projects will be affected. I really do believe we need to have both sides— the legal side and the community side— or we will fail at stopping the dams. This two-sided approach is at the heart of the riverkeeper model.
PJ: In your opinion, is the movement to protect the Futa similar to any other river conservation efforts that Waterkeeper has faced in the past?
Lynch: In terms of dam opposition, I don’t know of a Riverkeeper program that has faced a project of this size. In that sense, it is a great opportunity to set a precedent.
There are other examples of communities that have successfully filed huge legal battles for watershed protection. One famous case was with the Hudson River in New York in 1966. The Hudson used to have so much industry on the banks that the color of the river would change depending on which color General Motors was making for their cars on a given day. People would go fishing and see the colored water and know what paint they were using that day. The government was doing nothing to protect the resource, so a group of concerned fishermen got together and formed the Fisherman’s Association. That group was a precursor to what is today Riverkeeper. An environmental attorney, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., was one of the early actors in the organization. Now the Hudson River has been cleaned up, there are environmental regulations, and it is one of the most prolific estuaries anywhere.
Even the fight against HydroAysén is a huge success story considering that when they planned that project, the hydroelectric companies expected minimal community resistance. They thought they could just build a few schools— they never expected that opposition groups like Patagonia Sin Represas would be so successful in getting the entire country behind their cause. But I think they’ve learned a lot from the HidroAysén debacle and as a result we will have to be more vigilant and careful in getting the community and legal actions in place to prevent future dam projects from happening.
I really want to emphasize that we welcome any suggestions and advice, both from members of the community and others living elsewhere who value the work we do. We are a new organization adapting this model for the first time in Patagonia so we need help, and Futaleufú residents needs to know that people care about stopping this project and want to help.
For more info, visit www.futaleufuriverkeeper.org
Photos courtesy of Futaleufu Riverkeeper