River festivals: from protest to proposal

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Biobio Vive Festival. Photo: Victor MansillaBiobio Vive Festival. Photo: Victor Mansilla
By Paulo Urrutia and Tomas Gonzalez
The people who live in Chile’s various watersheds have always celebrated their rivers, even before there were threats to their ecosystems and their communities. In recent years, several festivals have emerged in watersheds around the country with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of these bodies of water.
These celebrations around our natural spaces go back thousands of years, to the first peoples of the world. In these instances, communities met to pay respect to the kindness nature gives us. Today, river lovers organize festivals celebrating the freedom with which rivers flow and the life they give us.
Without a doubt, the origin of these festivals is a form of protest against the threats of hydroelectric, forestry, and mining projects. But the motivation is also a shared love for rivers, seeking to show how there are alternatives - economic, political and social - where a more harmonious relationship between man and nature is possible.
These series of festivals for Chile’s free-flowing rivers have grown steadily, turning into some of the largest events of their kind in the world. This year there are sixe rivers featured. These events are a time in which kayakers and river lovers in general become hosts to visitors, inviting them to learn about the history, importance, and protection of their rivers.
Organizing the river festivals is always community-based and self-managed. Through collaboration, the festivals manage to share something essential: the importance of free-flowing rivers. They also include moments where it’s possible to bring river sports closer to people who do not usually do those kinds of activities, especially for the inhabitants of these places for whom rafting and kayaking is not a part of life. Unlike other sports, these activities take place outdoors and don’t require building infrastructure, since rivers, forests, and mountains are the best locations for such endeavors.
The festivals have several objectives: promoting the protection and defense of rivers; encouraging responsible local tourism; and inviting people to join the world of whitewater sports. Many of these festivals include live music, environmental awareness talks, local food and craft stalls, and kayak and rafting competitions. In addition, visitors are offered the opportunity to descend the river in rafts to experience the unique connection to the flow of our rivers.
None of Chile’s rivers are protected, since there are no national laws that guarantee a real safeguard of water. The requirement of preserving an ecological flow (10% of the average annual flow) is really an anti-ecological flow that does not allow life in the medium or long term in any of its forms. In each river, development projects threaten ecosystems and the right of local communities to use and enjoy these rivers. Waterways are not respected, whether their use is for drinking water, irrigation, fishing, adventure sports, tourism or cultural traditions and the rites associated with the rivers. Instead, controversial water rights are already granted (and in many cases over-granted) to large foreign companies. In this context, tourism is considered a key political tool; a true economic alternative, where these festivals become a platform to spread the natural and productive wealth of the river’s protectors and inhabitants of the watershed. Therefore, with much enthusiasm we invite you to participate in each of these festivals. At the festivals we do it all! Long live the free rivers of the world!
Below, the calendar for Chile's river festivals for 2018-19. 



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