The headwaters and biggest tributary to the Amazon River is facing massive dam threats, but nothing has been built yet and the timing is right to ramp up the campaign to save the Maranon River.
(Reposted from Canoe and Kayak, August 2016)
Our first wisp of the Maranon River came when we were 6,000 feet above it. We had just driven from the town of Celendin up to the lip of the canyon, and then looked down a couple miles along the steep cliff. The thin chalky-blue line of the Maranon slithered through the bottom of the canyon. A collective “WOW” came from the mouths of the 12 people in our minibus — the canyon was deep, immense, and the river looked like a tiny thread below. Two hours later, after having driven down the snaky one-lane road switch-backing endlessly downward, we arrived at the river in the tiny village of Balsas. A 6-night trip awaited us, during which we would learn about the threats of hydroelectric dams on this beautiful and pristine river.
They call it “The Grand Canyon of Peru,” or sometimes “The Grand Canyon of South America.” It drains the entire Peruvian portion of the east slope of the Andes Mountains and is the headwaters and the largest tributary to the Amazon River. As our minibus unloaded, we gawked at the amazing scenery and stumbled around on the cobbled rocks at water’s edge. After a couple hours unpacking the trucks and packing up the dry bags, we slipped into the water with four rafts and three kayaks. Our guides were seasoned Peruvian rafters and adventure travelers, and our hosts were the new “Maranon River Waterkeeper” organization which is an affiliate of the international Waterkeeper Alliance.
Peru has amazing mountains and rivers and provides whitewater adventure opportunities for hundreds-of-thousands of international rafters and kayakers every year. The Maranon River currently has almost no commercial rafting activity on it, and so on our seven-day trip we saw zero other rafters and kayakers. The river offers Class I, II, III, and IV rafting in the dry season in June. The weather was exceptionally dry prior to our arrival, with flow at about 6,000 cubic feet/second (cfs). In the rainy season in March and April the river can swell to over 30,000 cfs and is considered to be un-runnable. Being an undammed Andes mountain river, the Maranon is ecologically pristine with massive sand bars, sediment-filled tributaries, driftwood on the banks, migrating fish and wildlife, and little human activity.
However, the hydroelectric dam-building corporations have had their eyes on this pristine river for decades.
Of the twenty dam sites that have been identified on the Maranon over the last three decades, seven are serious proposals, and four are in the permitting process with the Peruvian government. At least three hydroelectric corporations are proposing the different dams. On the third day of our trip, we paddled through the “Chadin II” dam site, a proposal that has been put forward by the Odebrecht Corporation, a multi-national construction conglomerate based in Brazil. Some good news about this particular dam proposal is that Odebrecht is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that has put its CEO in prison and has forced the company to stall many of its efforts and eliminate some of its operations, including for the time being, the Chadin II dam proposal. The proposed Chadin II dam would be over 500 feet high and drown dozens of miles of the river canyon including the small vilage of Mendan.
The last ten years have seen an incresingly contested debate about dams and hydroelectricity in Peru. While the hydroelectric corporations and some factions of the government argue that more electricity is needed, the facts appear to be different. Peru currently meets all of its electric needs with its present system, and the arguments for more electricity are being pushed by the multi-national hydroelectric corporations that hope to sell the electricty — for their corporate profit — to neighboring countries or to the mining industry.
Anti-dam activists also argue that the hydroelectric corporations are running roughshod over the permitting process and the political process surrounding it. The corporations have been accused of paying off local villagers, paying people to attend public meetings to speak in support of the dams, trespassing on private land in the villages, and creating a hostile situation where villagers and dam opponents are increasingly harrassed and threatened when they speak out. Importantly, anti-dam activists argue that if Peru really needs more electricity, it should focus on wind and solar, instead of damming and destroying its wild and pristine rivers like the Maranon.
The battle to protect the Maranon River has been alive for several years, mostly due to the work and funding of International Rivers and one their grantees, Sierra Rios. Most recently, the newly launched Maranon River Waterkeeper is developing a complementary campaign to fill in some blanks in the campaign plan. Much work needs to be done — legal, financial, research, education and advocacy, international media outreach, and organizing the Peruvian people — so there’s plenty of opportunity to engage on many levels to protect the river.
One of the biggest needs of the campaign is to get more attention for the river in media and in funding circles. To achieve that, the Maranon River Waterkeeper has joined with a Lima-based adventure travel company to launch the “Maranon Experience,” which offers a variety of raft trips down the river that can be customized to fit the needs of media, guests, funders, and policymakers. Additional work that is a high priority involves engaging with the Peruvian government on behalf of the river and the Peruvian people. As one of our trip-mates, Enrique Ortiz, noted on our trip:
“Peru needs to have a plan. Right now the hydroelectric corporations have a plan, but Peru doesn’t have a plan for the benefit of the environment and the people of Peru.”
In support of this planning, several outreach efforts are ongoing and more will begin soon, including an action alert on the Waterkeeper’s website that reaches out to the Peruvian government asking the Minister of the Environment to launch a “Strategic Environmental Assessment” that would halt the dams and protect the river while a planning process moves forward.
Another of the exicting opportunities to protect the Maranon River and the landscape surrounding it involves creating a “National Protected Area” that encompasses both sides of the river. The proposal being pushed forward by regional conservation organizations would protect about 250,000 acres — 175,000 on the western side of the river in the province of Cajamarcas, and 75,000 acres on the eastern side of the river in the provice of Amazonos. While the proposal would not specifically stop the dams, it could create a ‘regional conservation area’ and potentially become a new eco-tourist zone in Peru to highlight the biodiversity, river, waterfalls, wildlife, Inca ruins, and adventure-travel opportunities. Most tourists who visit Peru head south, towards Machu Piccu. This new northern National Protected Area would help bring a recreational economy and public attention that could help stop the dams and protect the river.
In the last five years, activists and conservation groups are making a bigger commitment to the protection of the Maranon. Accompanying us on our trip was a photographer from World Wildlife Fund which is creating a campaign to support Maranon protection. Funding organizations including Global Greengrants Fund have stepped in to support International Rivers’ campaigns and actions. Peruvian organizations including Forum Solidaridad and Ecodess have engaged. Earthrights International and other legal firms are helping to address and support the rights of activists and landowners, as well as the enforcement of Peruvian environmental laws in Peruvian and Latin American courts. In addition, the Wildlife Conservation Society has been engaged in wildlife studies in and along the river that can help support the science to argue against dams being built.
The battle is being fought on multiple fronts. For example, during our raft trip, Bruno Monteferri told our group, “I believe all rivers are sacred. But, we need to tell an economic and a political story too.” Likewise, Enrique Ortiz focused on the biological diversity as well as the cultural symbolizm of the river when he told us, “This area should become a national priority for protecting biodiversity, and protecting this river should be a part of the national pride of Peru.”
As we near the end of our trip and approach the village of Pueblo Malleta, the river begins to widen out with more sand and gravel bars spreading out the flow of water. Along the bends of the river, oasis spring up where farmers have planted small fields including palm trees with coconuts hanging on the branches. We hear and see a few irrigation sprinklers that suck water out of the river and spray fields of mangos and coca. Pueblo Malleta is also the end of much of the mountain-canyon portion of the Maranon. Downstream, the river slips into the Amazon jungle and serves more farming villages, but is also threatened by proposed hydroelectric dams that would stair-step all the way to the Amazon River.
The good news about the Maranon is that no dams have yet been built, and thus the timing is good to increase pressure on the dam-building corporations and the Peruvian government. Additionally, at the same time that the dam companies are stalling their efforts, the mining companies — and their need for electricity — are also slowing down due to the drop in copper prices. Furthermore, the regional governments that straddle the river — Cajamarcas and Amazonas — have diverse opinions about the dams, with opposition increasing as more people are educated and organized. Finally, Peru’s adventure travel economy is increasing, and the Maranon is a pritine resource for rafting experiences.
We believe victory is possible — we can save the Maranon!
Gary Wockner, PhD is an international environmental activist and writer, and a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors. He also consults and volunteers for Global Greengrants Fund and International Rivers. Contact: Gary@GaryWockner.com