Organizations band together to push new river protection law for Chile

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Río Puelo Valley. Photo: Andres AmengualRío Puelo Valley. Photo: Andres Amengual
By Zoe Baiilargeon
Despite the massive strides made in land and marine habitat conservation in Chile over the past few years, the country’s many free-flowing rivers have not been afforded similar preservation. Currently, only 1 percent of the rivers throughout Chile – 12 out of 1,251 – have some level of legal protection.
With the constant threat of hydroelectric dam projects (sprouting the #PatagoniaSinRepresas campaign), and concerns about contamination from mining and other industrial activities, water rights, loss of endemic species, and other issues, several environmental organizations are now spearheading an effort to promote a new river protection law in Chile.
The proposed law, called the “Wild Rivers Law,” is inspired by similar legislation from US president Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1968 approved the “Wild and Scenic Rivers Law” to promote better management of fluvial systems throughout the United States, as well as to encourage the public to get involved in conservation projects for their rivers. Here in Chile, the law would have similar goals: safeguard the environmental, social, cultural, ecological, touristic, and scenic values of these waterways for current and future generations, and recognize and encourage appropriate economic uses.
“The rivers fulfill essential functions for the preservation of the ecosystems, as well as for the culture and even for the safeguarding of spiritual values. They are an important part of the landscape and of life. Precisely for its beauty and natural wealth is why we seek [for rivers] to be protected by the State of Chile,” says Macarena Soler, founder of Geute Conservación Sur.
Great egrets. Photo: Samuel LizanaGreat egrets. Photo: Samuel Lizana
The organizations behind the initiative include International Rivers, Ecosistemas, Terram, Rios Salvajes, and Geute Conservacion Sur, with their spokespeople emphasizing in a Feb. 6 press release announcing the initiative, the far-reaching consequences for not protecting rivers, especially as climate change worsens. Monti Aguirre, Latin American program coordinator of International Rivers, stated that "the movements to protect the rivers are often local, but the consequences of failing in their protection are global: displacement, poverty, food insecurity, loss of biodiversity, and poor quality water on the planet. Healthy rivers with intact flood areas are our best defense against major floods and droughts, the consequences of climate change. Rivers and clean water present us with a vision of cooperation beyond borders.”

“From north to south to the center, most of the rivers in this country are in the process of bioecological death, where all the species of freshwater fish are in danger of extinction, affected by a multiplicity of mining, agroindustrial, hydroelectric and water industry sectors,” added Ecosistemas president Juan Pablo Orrego, who calls for “a comprehensive and effective law.”
Although there are laws in place that provide protection of some aquatic environments in Chile, such as marine protection areas, its rivers fall more under a grey area. The first effort to change this was in 2005 when Law No. 20,017 was passed, whch states that river resources (primarily as sources of water) must be preserved to supply populations in areas where there is no other alternative for clean, fresh water. But only 12 rivers have received this designation so far.
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