The rivers that unite us

By Paulo Urrutia and Jens Benöhr
The recently celebrated Nahuelbuta Libre festival has inaugurated the start of a new season of river festivals in Chile for 2019. For some, it may seem strange that this festival circuit starts in late winter. But the reason is simple: for fanatics of whitewater, melting ice and the winter rains give to rivers precisely that energy that each year attracts kayakers and rafters from all over the world.

Just as rivers unite towns, cities and even countries, they have also begun to unite athletes and inhabitants of different watersheds with a common objective; share a love of rivers and convey the importance that they flow free of pollution and barriers. That is also the main purpose of these river festivals: to promote the protection and defense of rivers, responsible local tourism in and around them, and invite people to enjoy the scenic and recreational value of rivers.
In this way, since the first Aguas Libres Festival held on the Nuble River in 2005, different initiatives have begun to emerge throughout the country which today number more than 20 festivals. Each has their own style, which arise from the particular interests of each group that organizes them. We can find festivals with professional kayaking competitions, such as the Guardian of the Maipo or Pucón River Fest; family activities such as Mataquito Río Abajo or San Pedro Libre, or a combination of sport and cultural activities such as Biobio Vive, Hornopirén, Puescofest or Kayagonia. Without a doubt, in most of them you will find kayaking and environmental education workshops, rafting excursions oriented toward families, river clean-ups, live music and the culinary delights found throughout our long and narrow country.

One of the most noteworthy elements of the river festival circuit is the fight against hydroelectric dam projects. These conflicts spark the interest of locals and athletes to protect the biological, recreational and economic benefits of their rivers. Although the river festivals of Chile are nothing new in the world, the fact that they transcend the barriers of sport to recognize the political value that we as inhabitants of a territory possess is something that perhaps uniquely characterizes our circuit.
Europe is different, for example, probably because its rivers are already mostly intervened. As such, outdoor communities have had to adapt to this existing reality. This is the case of Devil Extreme Race on the Moldava River of Vltava, Czech Republic, which we recently had the opportunity to attend. This festival brings together more than a thousand whitewater athletes, who descend non-stop this flowing river for only three days, which is when the period the Lipno dam releases its water each year to clear the sediments from its reservoir. While this festival is one of the largest in Europe, many of the attendees did not even know the name of the river they were enjoying. This river, which is the longest in the country, is devastated by nine dams and surrounded by monoculture tree plantations, yet none of this aroused the interest of those who mistakenly named the river after the dam, Lipno.

In fact, in the search for solutions to their conservation problems, many environmental movements in Europe are beginning to look to Latin America and its experiences as a model for river protection and work with communities. And in this regard, we firmly believe that the way our festivals are organized has indeed set a global standard, they represent a true revolution in how the Western world relates to rivers, where the influence of indigenous peoples – and their ecocentric perception of the human place in the cosmos –must play an important role.
How and in which to participate? Each festival has its own program and dates so we invite you to contact the organizers directly. You can also communicate with the Red por los Rios Libres (Network for Free Flowing Rivers), Bestias del Sur Salvaje, or the Chilean White Water Series. Enjoy these festivals for free. There are only a few activities (such as raft descents) for which you have to pay a nominal value to participate, and in this way help fund the festival.

We invite you to participate consciously and responsibly. Invite your family and friends to enjoy our free flowing rivers and in this way support the organizations that work to protect our rivers.
For our living and free flowing rivers!


Below, the calendar for Chile's river festivals for 2019-20.


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