Celebrating Chile’s rivers

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 Photo: Salomé CandelaPhoto: Salomé Candela
 
 
By Paulo Urrutia, Patrick Lynch and Jens Benöhr, members of the Chilean Free-Flowing Rivers Network
 
Throughout Earth’s history, rivers have been essential for the survival of both humans and other species. Around these rivers, some of the oldest civilizations rose and fell. Rivers have represented life, death, obstacles, borders, transportation routes and even gods. Their very existence made them subjects of veneration and respect.
 
Around the planet, there are places where rivers abound due to their geographic characteristics. Chile is one of those privileged places where water descends impulsively from the heights. Throughout our narrow geography, hundreds of streams and rivers flow from the mountains to the sea, nurturing forests, fields and cities. Some of these rivers even cross man-made borders, especially in Patagonia, where the Manso, Baker and Futaleufu rivers flow right through the Andes, regardless of our imaginary borders on the map.
 
However, currently almost all the rivers in Chile’s central region have at least one hydroelectric plant interrupting their flow, while those in the southern region and Patagonia are threatened with several hydroelectric generation projects. It is regrettable, but some rivers are already known as "sacrifice watersheds," destined to be heavily-intervened for the development of the country. The historic Biobío River is one example of these highly intervened watersheds. This ancient river was a place of pilgrimage for rafting and kayak legends, with monstrous rapids that made the most daring tremble. Environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called the Biobío "the jewel of Chile," equal to the Colorado River in the United States. But today the river’s most impressive rapids, along with forests, cemeteries and the traditions of the Pehuenche people, are submerged beneath millions of liters of water from three gigantic reservoirs.
 
Faced with such threats to the communities and ecosystems that depend on these rivers, several festivals have arisen in recent years to raise awareness about the importance of rivers, celebrating the freedom with which they flow and the life they provide us. It is the first circuit of river festivals in Latin America, organized by local river lovers with support from people all over the world.
 
 
Photo: Salomé CandelaPhoto: Salomé Candela
 
 
Celebrating free-flowing rivers
The origins of many of these festivals started with kayakers. One of those kayakers who represents an inspiring example of commitment and political action was Jon Clark. Born in the United States, this river nomad left behind a lasting legacy in the village of San Fabián de Alico and the community of river lovers in Chile. Motivated by the beauty of the Ñuble River, Jon began to show the river to local people through whitewater sports like kayaking and rafting. He taught local youth to value and care for nature, as well as floating and navigating the river as a potential tourist attraction and a way to connect more people to rivers.
 
When “Juanito,” as he was warmly called by his friends, first learned of plans to build two large hydroelectric plants on the Ñuble River- the Punilla reservoir and the Hidroñuble hydroelectric power plant- he didn’t hesitate to mobilize the community of San Fabián de Alico to defend the river. In 2005, friends joined with Jon to create the first festival along the banks of a Chilean river, the Festival de Aguas Libres, now called Ñublefest. Later, several communities located in threatened watersheds around the country followed their example and began organizing their own river festivals.
 
Today, these festivals are important on-the-ground meetings for uniting and connecting people who participate in local, national and international campaigns for defending rivers. As Alejandro Campos, a kayaker born in Concepción and dedicated to teaching whitewater rafting and kayaking, says: "The idea is to peacefully demonstrate against projects by companies that want to destroy our natural resources in exchange for filling their pockets."
 
 
Photo: Bestias del Sur SalvajePhoto: Bestias del Sur Salvaje
 
 
Promoting the defense of rivers
The main goal of these festivals is to encourage the protection and defense of rivers, promote local tourism and invite people to join the world of whitewater sports. Alejandro is emphatic about this point: "We have to protect what we have. Water is life. It is everyone's and we want the whole community to understand and unite in enjoying and manifesting not only for us, but for those who will come later, our children and the children of our children." Many of these festivals include live music, environmental education talks, local food and craft stalls, in addition to the classic kayaking and rafting competitions. A key feature of the festivals is that visitors are offered the opportunity to descend the river on rafts to experience the strength and beauty of free-flowing rivers from within.
 
It is important to understand that each festival has been created as a citizen response to the immediate environmental threats to the local watershed. These destructive projects threaten river-dependent ecosystems and the right of local communities to use and enjoy these rivers, whether it be for fishing, adventure sports, tourism, or the traditions associated with these watersheds. For all these reasons and more, environmental organizations and social movements recently forming the Free-Flowing Rivers Network, with the goal of exchanging experiences and proposing laws and policies that protect all of the nation’s rivers.
 
Respecting our ancestors
The spiritual importance of rivers is one of the strongest grounds for protection in Chile. One of the most important rivers in the country is the Biobío. The significance of this river for the Mapuche people is reflected in their worldview, where there is both an earthly river and a spiritual one, necessarily corresponding to have balance between the two dimensions. Within this vision, the great Biobío (or Butaleubú as it was known) represented this great terrestrial river for many years. Its hundreds of tributaries extended throughout the territory, around which countless families formed their lineages. In this way, the Earth’s great river also had its equivalent in the great river of the sky, Wenuleufú, known to us as the Milky Way. In this spiritual plane, and in this "galactic river," is where the ancestors who once populated the planet now live. This account gives us a glimpse of the cultural importance rivers have under the Mapuche worldview, for whom rivers are sacred.
 
 
Photo: Salomé CandelaPhoto: Salomé Candela
 
 
Chile’s message to the world
Often, in order to win the policy discussion there is a need to justify through economic figures the benefits of protecting nature; why one river or another should not be dammed. Within this statistical vortex, we want to remind people that we can also defend things because of a simple fact: because we love them. This year, we declare ourselves deeply in love with the freedom of rivers. And above all, we aspire to live in a society that acts with respect and ethics, and where development does not mean benefiting some to the detriment of many more.
 
We hope that sharing this information will let the world know about the lack of policies in Chile and other countries that still have the opportunity to protect their free-flowing and living rivers. We also believe that visitors from other countries, who come each year to join us in celebrating the importance of our rivers, will also have the desire to support local movements. As Jon-Luke Gensaw, a Native American member of the Yurok tribe and participant in an exchange program run by the nonprofit Ríos to Rivers, recently spoke along the Klamath River – future site of the largest dam removal in history - "If we all have the same fight and we all have the same message, then they can’t turn us down."
 
Below this article, we share a calendar announcing the different river festivals and their locations in watersheds around the country. We invite you to participate in these festivals and acknowledge the future path of the movements and people fighting for the defense of these rivers. Essential for life, rivers deserve to be celebrated. Long live the free rivers of the world! 
 
 
 

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