Athletes with commitment

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Photo: Paulo UrrutiaPhoto: Paulo Urrutia

Editors Note: The following article is from Issue 17.
By Jens Benöhr, Patrick Lynch and Paulo Urrutia
More and more often, countless people every day leave the vortex of the cities to appreciate and enjoy nature in all its splendor. On every mountain and valley, and every river and lake, it’s common today to find a growing number of people who practice outdoor sports, perhaps their way of understanding a little more this “pale blue dot,” as the astronomer Carl Sagan once called the planet we inhabit.
Through activities like hiking, mountaineering, cycling, surfing and kayaking, you can explore diverse ecosystems and, at the same time, be reminded of the limits of urban comfort. In the open air our bodies are at the mercy of the penetrating cold, the abrasive heat of the sun or the implacable hardness of a cliff, but also the softness of mosses and the incessant bubbling of free-flowing water. Outdoor sports are not simply a way to escape; above all they are a great learning tool using the senses and can generate deep feelings of attachment to a place.
Bestias del Sur Salvaje
A few years ago, together with a group of friends united by a love of nature, we decided to create a group called Bestias del Sur Salvaje. Kayaking and mountaineering have given us the chance to encounter areas affected by large interventions, sacrifice zones where one can perceive a deep sadness in the surrounding area, as well as anger due to the high socio-environmental damage caused by excessive exploitation of the environment.
When we first ventured into the rapids of the mythical Biobío River, we were dismayed by the negative impacts the Ralco and Pangue hydroelectric plants have caused among indigenous Pehuenche communities. A few friends who live in Alto Biobío tell us the dams have “made people sick,” causing suicide, alcoholism and poverty. This is not an isolated event. The same impacts have been repeatedly described for similar projects in other parts of the world.
Such impacts motivated us to organize the first river festival in the area: Biobío Vive. The festival mixes environmental education activities with outdoor sports, seeking to bring participants to the rivers and into nature in general. Activities like kayaking and rafting take place in one of Chile’s largest sacrifice watersheds, in the context of a clear political message: the dams must be dismantled to restore the Biobío River, following examples in the United States, where more than a thousand dams have been dismantled to date.
Kayakers part of Bestias del Sur Salvaje examining the hydroelectric dam construction on the Ñuble River in Chile. Photo: Paulo UrrutiaKayakers part of Bestias del Sur Salvaje examining the hydroelectric dam construction on the Ñuble River in Chile. Photo: Paulo Urrutia
Paddling united
A key element of our collective has been forming alliances with other groups, and recognize our limits just like we do on the river. There are great examples of athletes who are committing to projects with far-reaching effects in Chile, such as Rios to Rivers, Punta de Lobos, Te Mahatu Surf Social, and the Los Escualos kayaking school, among others.
In the heart of Patagonia, this last initiative has been operating in Cochrane for almost 20 years, ever since its founder Roberto Haro - known as "Profe Haro" - acquired the first kayaks to give kids and teenagers the chance to paddle along the Cochrane and Baker Rivers, becoming a cultural institution that teaches about sports and environmental awareness. Today, two alumni of the school, Jaime Lancaster and Nicolás De la Rosa, have become leading Chilean athletes who travel to rivers around the world bringing a clear message: "We paddle for a Patagonia without dams."
Ríos to Rivers, meanwhile, is an NGO led by American kayaker Weston Boyles, which conducts exchange programs that have allowed young Chileans to visit places like the Colorado and Klamath rivers in the United States. In 2020, the Klamath will become the site of the world’s largest dam removal, making it an especially noteworthy example of collaboration between indigenous and American communities to recover a free-flowing river.
Earlier this year, Ríos to Rivers organized a descent of the Baker River with young people from the Klamath River, students from the Los Escualos school, and Pehuenche representatives from Alto Biobío. Through cooperation and mutual support among different initiatives such as this one, we are building networks and linking ideas about the role of conservation in sports and enhancing the long-term work we are all trying to do to protect the environment.
The outdoor environmental exchange program Ríos to Rivers at the Klamath River in Oregon. Photo: Ben LehmanThe outdoor environmental exchange program Ríos to Rivers at the Klamath River in Oregon. Photo: Ben Lehman
Commitment without borders
An important lesson that rivers give us is that borders do not exist. Chile shares 40 watersheds with Argentina, opening up the possibility of working on transboundary conservation with neighboring groups and international institutions where national boundaries are not a barrier. Political borders are human inventions; we owe a responsibility to find and meet people in other watersheds, countries and continents. In each place, there are individuals aware of the need and urgency to collaborate to protect the planet’s last wild places. The extreme south of Chile is one of these places: its untamed rivers still flow freely into the sea, and local communities have learned to live with them in harmony.
Athletes have a great opportunity to serve as spokespeople. Traveling over seas, rivers and mountains around the world, we often find the same problems. If we can succeed in combining the sports we are so passionate about with direct actions for the ecosystems we visit and their inhabitants, we will make a major contribution to the protection of this little pale blue dot. 

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