Interview: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

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Standing Up for Communities and Water Rights
Why we must protect Patagonia’s wild rivers
By Jimmy Langman
His uncle, the former United States President John. F. Kennedy, talked environmental issues with him in the oval office of the White House when he was just 7-years-old. He was said to have taken an early interest in animals as a kid, creating a small-scale zoo at home and learning falconry, and with his father, he went kayaking and rafting on rivers across the United States. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., third-eldest son of the late political leader of the same name, has been passionate about the environment, outdoors and rivers from his youth.
As an environmental lawyer, in 1984 Kennedy led a fight to restore the Hudson River in New York. His work as chief attorney at the citizen organization Hudson Riverkeeper led him to later co-found the Waterkeeper Alliance in 1999, which now includes more than 200 waterkeeper organizations around the world that help communities “stand up for their right to clean water and for the wise and equitable use of water resources.” In Chile, the Futaleufu Riverkeeper was recently founded to safeguard the Futaleufu and Waterkeeper is interested in setting up more affiliates in the country. In addition to serving as president of Waterkeeper Alliance, Kennedy is an environmental law professor at Pace University in New York, a senior attorney at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and frequent writer and speaker on environmental issues.
It is Kennedy’s passion for rivers that eventually led him to develop a strong interest in Chile and Patagonia. One of his favorite pursuits continues to be rafting rivers. With two of his brothers, he once owned a whitewater company that for some 15 years organized every year first descents and regular trips on rivers throughout Latin America. But he particularly speaks with genuine awe for the Futaleufu River and what Chile once had at the Bio Bio River. He was active in the failed effort to save the Bio Bio, which he says is one of the “most tragic losses” he has ever experienced; and in the last decade has been helping to build international support to prevent Patagonia’s rivers at the Baker, Pascua and Futaleufu from suffering a similar fate.
Patagon Journal executive editor Jimmy Langman recently spoke with Kennedy about his long running connections to Chile and his views on the continuing conflict in the country over whether to construct large-scale dams on Patagonia’s wild rivers. Excerpts:
Langman: How long have you been coming down to Chile?
Kennedy: I spent a lot of time in Latin America as a boy. I went to Colombia for a summer to work on ranches and to travel around Latin America. I lived in Peru during my senior year of high school. And I went to Chile to interview Salvador Allende [the former president of Chile from 1970-73] during the summer of ’73, just before the coup, when I also did a lot of traveling around the country and especially backcountry skiing. Then I went back to Chile as soon as the democratic government came back. During President Aylwin, we brought the largest expedition ever down the Bio Bio River in an effort to save it from damming. Later, I started going down the Futaleufu with Eric Hertz of Earth River Expeditions to help him find people to protect that river. And I think I’ve been on the Futaleufu probably five times since then and continue to be involved with efforts to protect the river. 
You have brought a lot of famous celebrities to Chile with you on many of your trips to the Futaleufu in recent years.
Yes, Dan Ackroyd, Glenn Close, John McEnroe, a lot of other people. There’s a saying in the environmental movement: you have to see it if you want to save it. Because what industry likes to do is to go into places that are little known, often times there are indigenous people there, people with no power, and then privatize publicly owned resources. The job for environmentalists then is to develop a constituency for the waterway so that when a company like Endesa tries to dam it that there is a lot of people who object and have vested interest in keeping the river flowing wild. And it’s a good thing for the Futaleufu that it has become the mecca for white water enthusiasts around the world. It’s now the gold standard for white water lovers everywhere--paddlers, kayakers, canoers, rafters. It’s become the Grand Canyon of the south. And in many ways it’s more beautiful than the Grand Canyon. Its like the perfect river. The weather is good, there are no bugs, there is incredible wildlife and fisheries, spectacular views, and the water is almost a surreal, teal color. It’s other worldly. 
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