Commentary: My River Journey

by Monti Aguirre
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In the beginning of time, the Anaconda-Canoe descended from the Milky Way with the first inhabitants of the world. From the center of the earth, it ascended the rivers, stopping to settle human kind. – From an Amazonian Tukanoan creation myth.

Monti Aguirre
Monti Aguirre
My connection with Latin America's rivers stretches back to my childhood, growing up along Colombia's Magdalena River. When I was smaller than a grown catfish, I swam across the river with my dad during the dry season. Upstream, where the river narrows, we caught jumping bocachico fish when they came by the thousands to spawn.

This early swirl in rivers inadvertently set my path. Before I began working at International Rivers, I traveled to see where the Anaconda-Canoe let people off in the rivers of the Amazon. When I got to the headwaters of the Río Negro in the remote Brazilian jungle, an indigenous Tukano man pointed to a big indented boulder by the side of the river and said, "Foi aqui." It was here. Startled by this revelation, my curiosity about the Amazon, its peoples, forests, rivers and myths grew.

My interest led me to the Anthropology Museum in Bogotá – a big old stone colonial jail. Buried underneath a pile of black and white photos was a picture showing a hammock strung between two trees. In it were piles of human bones. Bones were scattered below the hammock as if it could not hold more. These were the bones of indigenous people who were enslaved, forced to extract latex from rubber trees, and tortured if they did not get enough. If they attempted to escape, they were killed. I remember the goosebumps on my arms when I saw the photo, and the thought running through my head: how could a human commit such a crime against another human?

My journey took me next to the Brazilian Amazon, where in the mid-1980s Glenn Switkes and I made the film, "Amazonia: Voices from the Rainforest." With the smell of burning rainforest fresh in our minds, we rushed to the Balbina Dam as the flat and shallow reservoir began to fill, flooding more than 2,360 square kilometers of pristine tropical rainforest. We traversed the dark reservoir waters circling around drowning trees and saw snakes swiftly swimming in search of higher ground. A few baby sloths, monkeys and jaguars were rescued and placed in cages. We were overcome by a pungent sulphur smell. I recollect my fear at this reality: how can we humans commit such crimes against nature?

Many years later, I would remember the photograph of the piles of human bones when I heard Don Carlos Chen, a Maya-Achi man, speak of atrocities committed against his relatives. His wife, three children and 400 fellow villagers were massacred in the middle of the Guatemalan civil war when they refused to move from their rich ancestral lands for the Chixoy Dam.

All too often, communities like Carlos' are the last to learn about dams planned in their areas. They are forced to make sacrifices for the "greater common good" and seldom get anything in return. Their lives are changed forever.

Over the past 30 years, a barrage of dams has been built across the rivers of Latin America. With each, the pulse of communities and nature has suffered. Our cover story highlights plans to dam the tributaries of the mighty Amazon River – plans that are facing fierce opposition from indigenous peoples.

The people of Latin America are rising up and saying "no more." Mexicans have waged an intense struggle against La Parota Dam. Using protests, legal strategies and roadblocks, they have stalled the dam for many years. Felicio Pontes of Brazil has used the rule of law to successfully halt dams in the Amazon Basin. Across the region, communities are organizing their own consultas, or local referenda, stepping in to be a part of the decision-making process. In Chile, investment in renewable energy sources has grown significantly in the last year, including an estimated one billion dollars invested in wind power.

Even though our work often entails facing dark, gruesome and painful realities, I thrive in the space where together with partners we think of ways of protecting rivers, and ultimately defending the life of the people. But we need more people to stand and speak up for rivers and communities. We need your voice.