International (Three) Days of Action for Rivers in Futaleufú

Scott Cushman

Photo by Toby McMullen

Last Saturday morning, March sixteenth, seventy-five people gathered on the banks of the Rio Futaleufú to float down a calm stretch of the world-renowned whitewater river. The crowd was an eclectic mix of Chileans and foreigners, raft guides and shopkeepers, professional kayakers and tourists. The local municipality had provided transportation from the town plaza in its yellow micro-bus, and a handful of local outfitters had contributed guides and rafts for those without their own boats. Many people had also brought their own crafts - whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks, duckies, and one homemade "paddle-cat" built out of giant truck inner-tubes and scrap lumber.

People formed themselves into small groups and picked rafts. The guides gave their crews instructions and then pushed their boats out into the river, waiting in the eddies along the rocks for the whole flotilla to gather before setting off downstream. In my raft were my girlfriend, Kay, three Americans who were staying at the same hostel as us, two Texans just arrived in town for a week-long guided river trip, and a young, bearded guy from Santiago who is traveling through Patagonia as part of his studies in eco-tourism. The mood on the river was festive. A few warm-blooded people jumped into the water, and one woman amazingly swam nearly half of the 10 km float. Call and response shouts periodically went up: "Futaleufú!... SIN REPRESAS!! (without dams)" At the take-out, we spent an hour attempting to spell the slogan in a big field with kayaks, rafts and people for a photographer across the valley.

Photo by Scott Cushman

The float was the final event in a three-day celebration of the International Day of Action for Rivers being held in the small town of Futaleufú (Futa), co-organized by the newly-established Futaleufú Riverkeeper NGO and the local municipality (the Riverkeeper group is Patagonia's first member of the international Waterkeeper network, which grew out of the Hudson River Fisherman's Association's successful struggle to protect their New York watershed in the '60s). Since the official Day of Action for Rivers fell on a Thursday this year, the idea was to stretch things out to the weekend, giving people who had to work during the week a chance to participate. We had arrived in Futaleufú earlier in the week to help the Riverkeeper's local coordinator, an outgoing young teacher from Santiago named María José Ortiz, with the preparations and to get acquainted with the area. We wandered around town posting flyers with the events schedule and talking to folks.

On Thursday morning, María José showed the documentary "Patagonia Sin Represas" in the school and led a lively discussion with the kids. In the afternoon, the public events got off to a slow start when Kay and I were the only ones to show up for a beach clean-up on the Rio Espolón, a tributary of the Futaleufú. As we sat in the plaza waiting for the volunteers that never came, Maria José grew despondent. She had just moved to town at the beginning of the summer, after months of helping to lay the groundwork for Futaleufú Riverkeeper, and she was still learning the ropes of local organizing.

Photo by Scott Cushman

Thankfully, Friday's festivities got off to a great start with a "paint-a-thon" in the plaza in mid-afternoon. The nice thing about having an event in the plaza in tiny Futa is that if you play some good music the whole town knows something's happening in short order. Colored chalk and two big speakers drew a good crowd of mostly kids, who showcased their art skills on the concrete. One sprawling scene took shape with a pre-dam vision of happy fish and big trees set against a post-dam nightmare of smoking factories, an "x"-eyed fish, a dead baby and a zombie. Creative kids. "Futaleufú Sin Represas!" and "Futa Libre!" slogans multiplied across the ground. Also underway was the creation of a big "Futaleufú Sin Represas" banner made of paint hand prints to take to the river on Saturday. The plaza was definitely the place to be on the beautiful early fall afternoon.

As evening fell, we moved a few blocks away for a showing of the documentary film "Patagonia Rising" followed by homemade navega'o, a warmed Patagonian sangria. About thirty people packed into the town's small grange hall to watch the movie. Tomás Vivanco, a local in his early thirties who works in the municipality's tourism office, spoke of the town's dedication to keeping the Rio Futaleufú running free in Chile. He introduced the film, which highlights the ongoing fight further south in Chilean Patagonia to stop HidroAysén, a mega-project of five dams proposed on the Baker and Pascua Rivers.

Endesa, the same Spanish-owned company that controls 51% of HidroAysén, also owns the water rights to the Rio Futaleufú. And the same qualities that make the Futa a world-class whitewater river - high volume and steep gradient - also curse it with massive hydro-electric potential. Although the potential of the Futa is somewhat less than that of the Baker and the Pascua, the river is much closer to the population centers and huge mines farther north in the country. Given that the 2,200 km long transmission line needed for the HidroAysén project has been a huge sticking point, one might wonder why Endesa didn't attempt to dam the Futa first. Dr. Bill Horvath, the scientific director for the Futaleufú Riverkeeper, told me he believes that Endesa is making a bold but calculated move by concentrating its efforts first on the Baker and Pascua. All the short, high-volume rivers of Chilean Patagonia spill west off the Andes to the Pacific. Dr. Horvath thinks if Endesa can manage to force HidroAysén, its southernmost project, through to completion, the transmission line running north along the coast "would open up Patagonia like a zipper" to hydro-electric exploitation; the company could easily plug projects on the Futa and other northern Patagonian rivers into an already existing line. If he is right, the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign has been wise to maintain its focus on blocking the HidroAysén transmission line.

Photo by Scott Cushman

At the paint-a-thon earlier in the day, I had spoken with Alejandra Muñoz, a sunny teacher originally from Santiago who has been living in Patagonia for ten years, first at the southern end of the Carreterra Austral in Villa O'Higgins, where she helped start an anti-dam group, and more recently in Futa. I asked her how people in Futa feel about the possibility of dams on the river. She told me that in contrast to Villa O'Higgins, where the municipality was in the pocket of HidroAysén, it is easy and somewhat fashionable to be against dams in Futa, since the local authorities are generally anti-dam. But she worries that most people in town don't really give too much thought to the issue at this point.

However, Dr. Horvath has been tracking some developments in the Futa Valley that seem to indicate certain people are taking hydro-development here quite seriously. A shadowy group of lawyers in Santiago is attempting to gain legal title to a huge stretch of land known as the Borquez Tract, which runs along the southern edge of the river from its mouth at the town of Chaitén all the way up to near where the dams might be built. A homesteading law enacted in the 1970s to encourage settlers in Chilean Patagonia gave legal titles to many of the campesino families still living in the area. The Borquez Tract, a land grant to a wealthy senator, pre-dates these claims by decades. The group from Santiago is quietly waging a war of attrition, dragging the settlers into the expensive court system over technicalities. If they are successful, they could end up in control of the exact piece of land Endesa would need for its transmission line if it dammed the Futa. That would mean no pesky, photogenic gauchos attached to their land and way of life, holding out and protesting... just one landowner eager to sit down and negotiate a price. Futaleufú Riverkeeper's executive director, lawyer Patrick Lynch, is currently working to put in place legal assistance for the settlers, and investigating the legality of their challengers' actions.

Photo by Scott Cushman

Another piece of the puzzle in the Futa Valley is minerals; a large mining claim has been made at nearby Lago Espolón by the Kinross Gold corporation. Although the company is now stating they don't intend to develop the claim, a huge source of cheap electricity next door would no doubt get the bulldozers moving, whether by Kinross or one of their competitors. In fact, many conservationists now believe that the real motivation behind large-scale hydro-electric projects in Patagonia is not to send energy north, as the energy companies have been claiming, but to feed new mines in the region.

Photo by Scott Cushman

Conspicuously absent from the week's events in Futa were the valley's rural residents, those settlers whose land is now so interesting to Endesa and the speculators. This is understandable, given the difficulties of leaving a working ranch and driving into town, but the locals I talked to all agreed that for the anti-dam movement here to be successful, it needs the campesinos; not only are they emblematic of the region's traditional culture and close to the hearts of urban Chileans, but they hold the titles to the land directly threatened by exploitation. The quirky diversity in the Futa Valley - its mix of river rats and cowboys, gringos, Santigueños and settlers - at times a source of tension, must be harnessed by the river's allies if they are to have any chance against the relentless pressures of exploitation. The challenge for María José and her team over the coming months and years is to build alliances, in town and out in the campo. If they can rally the whole community to the urgent cause of protecting their lifeblood river, they'll stand a chance against the forces aligned against them.

  • To that end, Futaleufu Riverkeeper is seeking funds to purchase a vehicle, among other necessities. Check out their website and Facebook page for more information and more photos from last week's events. One easy way to help is to take a second to "like" the OARS Whitewater Rafting Facebook page; the California-based outfitter has pledged $1 to the Futaleufú RIverkeeper for every "like" they get before the end of March, up to $2500.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013