"Defending my home": Interview with Rocío González, director of Futaleufú Riverkeeper

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Futaleufu River. Futaleufu River.
By Caterinna Giovannini
From Argentina, the Futaleufú River flows across the Andes Mountains and empties into Lake Yelcho, in southern Chile. It is around this mighty, fast-moving river that Rocío González, who arrived here from the southern city of Puerto Montt at the end of 2013, found her perfect place to raise a family with her husband. What attracted this social worker who formerly worked for Chile's education ministry was the quality of life, she says. In the small town of Futaleufú, population 2,623, Rocio loves that every day she can listen to the flow of the river, contemplate the color of its waters, and marvel at the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape.
But upon learning that this might one day no longer be possible, that the place where she lives could change forever, Gonzalez decided to join the fight to defend her new home. "When I learned that the Futaleufú River was being affected by the construction of dams, I thought I could not remain passive in the face of such brutality," she explains. "That's how I joined Futaleufú Riverkeeper, as a volunteer," says the energetic woman who is now the organization's executive director.
Created in 2012, Futaleufú Riverkeeper is a non-profit and member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international NGO that unites local communities around the world working to protect their water. In May of this year, Futaleufu Riverkeeper celebrated its tenth anniversary and, thanks in part to its dedicated work, the Futaleufu River now has the opportunity to perhaps become a conservation model. "Today, the river remains world class, and it is one of the most significant rivers in the world for whitewater sports," says González.
However, Futaleufu Riverkeeper aspires to even more. Its members are not satisfied with simply trying to protect this river; their mission: "to contribute to the free flow of all Patagonian rivers, inspire conservation awareness, and foster the harmonious coexistence of the beings that cohabit the Futaleufú watershed."
Patagon Journal spoke with Rocío González about the group's efforts to protect this river in a country where rivers still have no legislation to protect them, and her ongoing efforts to marry their conservation initiatives with ecologically sustainable, local development. Excerpts:
Patagon Journal: Is it difficult to promote conservation initiatives that require decision making and policy changes at the national level, being so far from Chile's capital? 
González: We are located in the town of Futaleufú and that gives us an important territorial perspective because we live there. We are part of the comunity. My family is in Futaleufú. That means this is not just a job. I am working to defend my home, this is where my children will grow up. Futaleufu Riverkeeper gives me the opportunity to share this vision of development and conservation with my own neighbors, with the people I live with and want to live with for many years to come. 
We, as a small organization, cannot do everything and there are important projects we need to work on. For that, alliances with other organizations that are bigger or have a different scope are very important.
Futaleufú Riverkeeper was created in 2012 to address threats from the construction of a hydroelectric dam. How different was the state of conservation and protection of the river 10 years ago compared to today?
Ten years ago the river's water rights were in the hands of the Endesa company, which is now called Enel. That as of 2016 has changed and now the water rights and water of the Futaleufú River are back in the hands of the State. This is an improvement in terms of the situation of the river, although on the other hand it has also suffered some changes in the amount of water it carries. I would daresay that this has happened as a consequence of climate change and the decreasing amount of snow at upper elevations. 
Its banks have also changed. We understand that the quality of the water and the health of the river depends largely on what happens on its banks and in ten years we have seen the intervention of riparian vegetation. This is due to the felling of trees as a result of property division and urban development. 
Rocío González at Futaleufú, Chile.Rocío González at Futaleufú, Chile.

Is the river currently free of threats?
There are still threats present, but not as imminent. The water rights of the Futaleufú River have been returned to the State, so there is a window of time, we know how long it will last, and that allows us to think about what kind of development and what kind of future we want, not only for this river, but also for the valley, the watershed, and the communities that live here.
It is an opportunity that we have to take advantage of and we will make every effort we can to establish protection tools at different levels that will allow us to protect the river and the watershed.
Why is it a window of opportunity?
The Futaleufú River has a window of time for conservation, but as long as its water rights are available to be applied for there is always a risk. In Chile, although we have made progress in terms of conservation, the rivers are not protected. That is a pending challenge that we still have. 
Another of your group's projects is community monitoring, in which volunteers are trained to detect threats to water quality in the watershed. What do you hope to find from this monitoring?
It is a relatively new program that has two main objectives: on the one hand, to establish a baseline of knowledge about the physicochemical aspects of water quality in our watershed, but mainly to help the community become more directly involved with the river through knowledge of its watershed, which is why the program works with volunteers.
We believe that this is a way to start implementing a program that over time we hope to deepen and make more comprehensive, involving other parameters such as bacteriological or biological parameters. 
Futaleufu Riverkeeper celebrated its 10th anniversary in May. Futaleufu Riverkeeper celebrated its 10th anniversary in May.
What are the main pollutants in the river?
We are fortunate as there are no major pollutants in the river, that's because the amount of water and the slope that affects the speed with which the water flows means that the river has a capacity to dissolve any pollutant effectively and quickly. There are no important contamination focal points that have been identified so far; therefore, the water we have here is quite clean.
The only clear and measurable source of contamination was from the sewage treatment plant that discharged its water into the Espolón River, one of the main tributaries of the Futaleufú River. This caused algae blooms and foul odors. Fortunately, this situation has improved thanks to a protest campaign, hard work and negotiations.
Do you think you will someday be faced again with a threat to the watershed as serious as the construction of the dam that prompted the creation of Futaleufu Riverkeeper?
I don't know if we will face a threat as big as a dam, which is something very disruptive for the whole ecosystem, but there are many other threats happening now, mainly linked to real estate expansion and the fragmentation of the territory, the construction of new roads, the demographic explosion, and the resulting pressure on ecosystems and natural resources.
There are more houses, more bathrooms, more kitchens and more cars. There are a series of consequences to the real estate boom that is becoming evident in Futaleufú and in Patagonia as a whole.
Also, having a greater flow of people in the future means that more effort will be put into improving connectivity, which is beneficial, but, on the other hand, it also means that extractive companies such as timber and salmon companies will set their sights on this region. 
What are your next big projects?
Our next big projects have to do with alliances with other NGOs and moving toward a more definitive protection of rivers. We are analyzing different protection tools that so far are not very strong in Chile, but that we want to implement on Patagonian rivers. It is in strengthening these alliances that we hope to advance and achieve definitive protection for our rivers.
To support Futaleufu Riverkeeper, or find out more, visit them at www.futaleufuriverkeeper.org.

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