Trancura River: Mapuche communities and whitewater at risk

E-mail Print
By Tomás Moggia
Translation by Micaela Ross
It is dusk, and the sun slowly begins to set. For a while, a cold Andean wind blows while Cerro Las Peinetas receives the last rays of light. Illuminated by the sunset, the towers of this beautiful stone mountain shine in their entire splendor below a completely cloudless sky.
On the stage of Puesco Fest, attention is centered on Silverio Loncopán, and more than 300 people listen to him with much respect. Of Mapuche descent, the president of the Camilo Coñoequir Lloftunekul community talks about the problem that exist in the basin of the Trancura River, where several small-scale hydroelectric projects threaten the tourism industry and ancestral Mapuche culture.
 “We want rivers to run free,” Loncopán states at the end of his speech, garnering full approval from the audience and many afafán cries, a characteristic scream of the Mapuches that calls to the spirits of the people of the Earth. A little more than 30 meters away, the Trancura River roars stronger than ever while Loncopán remains on the verge of tears. Maybe a future where the rivers run free is possible.
An uncertain outlook
Lakes, rapid rivers, snow-capped volcanoes, and forests are part of the natural treasure that resides in Puesco, which has about 200 residents and is located 60 kilometers from Pucón in the Araucanía region of southern Chile.  Called by some the capital of adventure travel in Chile, Pucon residents have gradually developed and exploited the enormous potential of their landscape, making tourism this area’s top source of income.
Nevertheless, the popularity that has arrived to this Andean hotspot has also brought a series of threats. In the area around Pucón and Curarrehue, the government has approved 59 non-consultative rights for hydroelectric dams, an excessive quantity of small-scale hydroelectric projects relative to this limited territory.
Silverio Loncopán was born and raised in Puesco. Almost 70-years-old, he fears that with the arrival of dams, the rivers will dry up and the tourists will simply no longer come. For Loncopán, everything depends on water. That’s why the rivers are sacred, and he does not want the ecosystem to be destroyed for a few pesos. “We think about the future generations. Our sons and grandsons are going to need the life that the river gives. The dams bring only death and poverty,” he laments.
For awhile now, Loncopán and the community have been struggling against the Añihuerraqui run-of-river dam project being pushed by GTD Negocios, a US$ 22 million investment project with an estimated power potential of 9 megawatts. Along with disrupting the water flow, the project would be located just steps away from Nguillatuwe, an open space where one of the most important Mapuche nature and creation ceremonies, known as Nguillatún, is performed.
But maybe the greatest damage done by the company has already happened. Today, the community is a completely divided by the bad practices employed by GTD Negocios in order to win over the locals for the project. Loncopán says that over the opposition of the community, GTD Negocios went door to door offering each family 500 mil pesos (about US$ 1,000) for their support. As well, he affirms that negotiations made with the Mapuche have not been done in good faith as outlined in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.
The old unity and collaborative spirit that used to exist in the community is now a thing of the past. “Now the neighbors barely say hello to each other. The trust is lost.  The only thing we want is for the company to disappear so that we can live as we did before. We do not want compensation nor money, because this territory is of infinite value,” says Loncopán.
Faced with this disturbing outlook, Federico Medina, an Argentine who settled in Chile a few years ago, has taken on an important role in the defense of the environment and the local communities.  He admits that the battle has not been easy. Still, he says that it has been rewarding to be part of a Mapuche community and culture that respects its natural surroundings. And maybe it’s precisely because of that worldview that places like Puesco have managed to remain relatively unaltered.
For “Fede,” cultures like the Mapuche contain the secret to humanity’s future. “Our civilization, in just two thousand years, has almost destroyed the world, while they have lived in balance with the planet and continue to demonstrate that their worldview is correct.  We cannot continue to consume the planet’s resources as we currently are doing. We must reconsider the meaning of the rivers, the land, the forests, and the mountains.”
Rapids in danger
The Trancura River starts in the Araucanía region of the south Andes, close to the Argentine border and Lanín Volcano, and continues for some 80 kilometers before emptying into Lake Villarrica. Its name comes from the Mapudungún word trankura, which means noise or thunder stones. It is an indigenous word that clearly alludes to its powerful and furious current, which is a magnet for fanatics of whitewater that come here thanks to its challenging Class 3-4 rapids with big waves throughout.
“The “Three Trunks” rapids –located a short distance from Puesco- is one of the world’s most challenging kayaking spots. It is very beautiful scenically, it has a lot of slopes, and the water falls very fast.  Needless to say, if you make a mistake you will suffer the consequences. It’s necessary to protect it because it’s unlike anyplace else,” explained Federico Medina, who is also a kayaker.
Another run-of-river dam, the Epril Project, owned by Energia de la Patagonia and Aysén S.A. (EPA), threatens to affect this acclaimed part of the Trancura River by intervening with the flow on one of its many tributaries. It is an initiative that seeks to utilize a 400-meter drop on the Epril River in order to generate 20 MW of power.
“Its really surprising that Pucón, the capital of adventure tourism in Chile, is facing these kind of projects. It is super contradictory. They want to tarnish the reputation of the place with projects that don’t make any sense, because the resources don’t remain here and the communities don’t receive anything in exchange, except for some jobs for a few years. Bread today, hunger tomorrow,” says a highly critical José Miguel Castillo, a professional kayaker.
Rivers sold out
After several years dedicated to kayaking, “Momo” Castillo has had the opportunity to travel around the world getting to know countless rivers. Maybe that’s why it makes him so mad to see the model that currently prevails in Chile. “It’s sad that we can’t decide what to do with our resources, that they are controlled by small and powerful groups. We are between a rock and a hard place, but the people are willing to fight and we are certain that we will win,” he says.
The center-left Michelle Bachelet government currently includes among its plans a substantial reform of the Chile’s water regulations, which date back to 1981. “Water is a social right, not a consumer good,” Bachelet has said on more than one occasion. However, almost a year has passed and there has been little progress. An apparent lack of political must be addressed if the country is to ultimately solve the issue.
José Francisco Montalva, governor of the Cautín province, agrees with that assessment, adding that what is necessary is integrated development based upon dialogue between all actors, where growth does not occur at the expense of the people, the communities, and the environment. This young leader is confident that for communities like Pucón y Curarrehue, future development should be primarily through the tourism industry.
Change can’t happen overnight and Montalva knows this well. He finds it inconceivable that many projects aren’t made compatible with locals and end up destroying the foundation of some communities. Therefore, he says, the challenge is implementing public policies that include citizen participation and civil society.
The governor pauses, then states: “It’s necessary to change the prevailing paradigms in order to create a society in which we all have basic rights, that include the right to live in a clean environment and the right to determine how we want to live. In that regard, Curarrehue has determined that they support tourism and a harmonious existence between people and the environment. No doubt, we have to work toward that.”