How paddlers can save the Futaleufú
By Patrick J. Lynch, International Director Futaleufú Riverkeeper
Running the Futaleufú is a remarkable experience for someone who loves to paddle. You can’t beat the combination of whitewater, climate, location, and people who love the river and care about protecting it. And best of all, you can enjoy your time with the satisfaction of knowing your presence is fuelling an economy that needs more paddlers to keep the river from being destroyed. This last part is perhaps the most important.
Coming to Patagonia and running the Fu has never been just about the quality of the paddling. When Bio Bio Expeditions and other outfitters started blending their trips into the fabric of the watershed, they started a process of reimagining the future of Futaleufú. They got people out on the river, recognizing the importance of having more Chileans understand what the fight is really about. Rather than local residents being forced to either leave or accept destructive mines by their homes, where the lights never go out and gravel trucks churn by steadily 24 hours a day, they could instead create businesses to tap in on the growing influx of adventure seekers.
In Futaleufú, people want to protect their homes. They envision their kids growing up to be guides who train and work on the Fu – one of the most difficult rivers to master in the business – and then travel the world. Paddlers and other adventure seekers are working with the community because they have already seen many of the world’s mightiest rivers destroyed. The fight to save the Fu is emblematic of a larger struggle where communities go up against powerful corporate interests. The result of these battles is often predetermined; communities become divided, officials are bribed, and the dams or the mines win. But not with the Futaleufú. This one is a fight we can win.
That’s not to say the fight is an easy one. By the time experienced outfitters like Expediciones Chile, Earth River Expeditions, Bio Bio Expeditions and others first began running trips on the Futaleufú, most of the water rights to the river were already owned by a company called Endesa. Endesa is part of a large hydroelectric conglomerate with headquarters in Italy and Spain. They are infamous in Chile for destroying the country’s other world-renowned river, the Bio Bio. When Endesa flooded the Bio Bio, indigenous communities were forcibly relocated, the tourism sector collapsed, and artisanal fishermen at the river’s mouth saw their livelihoods disappear.
If they are not stopped, Endesa’s three proposed dams will generate over 1,300 MW of power. That’s more than enough energy to fuel a new mining boom in the region. And while local leaders like the mayor and the town council are strongly opposed to Endesa’s plans, nothing is currently stopping the company from doing just that. If we want to keep the Futaleufú flowing and keep the mining companies out of the watershed, we need to build a strong network of paddlers, outfitters, and people whose livelihoods depend on the river.
Each year the tourism services in Futaleufú get better and better, fuelled by both public and private investment in a bet that we can keep the river flowing. The first generation of local kids who learned how to guide are now coming of age and starting their own businesses. This is a remarkable change from 20 years ago, where the river was feared and feared only. Now it plays a central part in the community. Guides are building homes for their families and getting involved in projects that give back to the community, like setting up a new guide school.
In many other rural areas, people are forced to uproot themselves and look for work in one of Chile’s smog-covered hubs like Temuco or Santiago. Here people have hope of staying. But this can only happen with a protected Futaleufú River.
As more and more visitors arrive each year, other risks have to be addressed. These risks are manageable, and can be resolved in ways that benefit the community. One example is monitoring invasive species like the Didymo, which is spread when kayakers and fly fishermen fail to disinfect gear when moving from one water body to the next. A kayaker with Expediciones Chile and scientific adviser to Futaleufú Riverkeeper, Dr. William Horvath, recently sparked a government response to educate visitors about the steps they can take to protect the local ecosystems. Thanks to Dr. Horvath and his team, the government is set next month to release a new online database, open to the public, which maps invasives in the region. The database will allow paddlers and fly-fishing aficionados to develop routes that will help them avoid transporting invasive species to uninfected water bodies.
The Futaleufú River is gaining recognition not just among paddlers but also with environmentalists. The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most powerful environmental groups in the U.S., recently featured the Futaleufú River in its independent OnEarth magazine, with half a million readers. Patagon Journal, a bilingual publication with subscribers around the world, just put the battle to save the Futaleufú on its cover.
Locally, the fight has resulted in collaborative events like the annual FutaFest competition, anti-dam protests like Futaleufú Sin Represas (Futaleufú Without Dams), and a joint public-private effort led by Futaleufú Riverkeeper to designate the watershed as a Zone of Touristic Interest.
This place can be saved by paddlers. It can be saved by fly-fishing, mountaineering, canyoning, and new adventure sports that are still evolving and could look entirely different ten years from now. And it can be saved by attorneys with one foot in the river and one in the courts, navigating Chile’s regulatory framework to make sure the public’s calls for protection are heard by the political leaders who can do something about it.
We want to make sure people benefit in the long-run through conservation, rather than receive a few handouts or bribes in exchange for destroying the local environment and harming their health and livelihoods.
So how can you help? Pack your bags. Visit. Tell people about what’s going on. Find us on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/FutaleufuRiverkeeper) and share updates with your friends. And consider supporting Futaleufú Riverkeeper in our fight to protect the watershed and the communities who depend on it.
Every story needs a hero. Let’s make the Futaleufú something legendary.
Photo Credits: © Sebastián Alvarez
Patrick J. Lynch,