The San Pedro River and the sacred basin

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Kayakers at Salto La Leona, Fuy River. Photo: Salomé CandelaKayakers at Salto La Leona, Fuy River. Photo: Salomé Candela 
By Paulo Urrutia
Translated by Andy Ford
Our perception of reality is nothing more than the way in which we have constructed different kinds of lenses for observing it, based on experience with our environment. In order to understand what Río Sagrado (Sacred River) meant, we must be willing to change some of its pieces. It was a 7-day kayak expedition of 200 kilometers that lead us to the heart of Mapuche territory.
 This expedition, organized by Bestias del Sur Salvaje (Beasts of the Southern Wild) along the San Pedro River (known ancestrally as Wazalafken), was possible thanks to support from the fund Early Career Grants, granted by the National Geographic Society.
The sporting challenge of navigating the river's turbulent waters, incorporating the stories and wisdom of the inhabitants of the territory, motivated not only NatGeo, but also production company MVMT, Fundación Plantae, Futaleufú Riverkeeper, Outdoor Research, and Planet Fuel. They all saw in this project the opportunity to make visible the worldview of the Mapuche people and the reality of one of Chile's most pristine river basins in the documentary Río Sagrado. The expedition sought to navigate these waters from mountain to sea with river and touring kayakers from different parts of the country—an odd combination, but not an accidental one.
The combination of these disciplines sought to reflect in the documentary and in the team the shared visions that the athletes create with their medium and the deep relationship that exists between the health of a river and our oceans. In this way, the Río Sagrado team would delve into the Mapuche people's sacred vision of nature and water and the relationship of respect that its inhabitants cultivate with these spaces, understanding it as an interdependent whole.
Canela Astorga kayaking below a bridge. Photo: Erick VigorouxCanela Astorga kayaking below a bridge. Photo: Erick Vigoroux
From exploration to commitment
It wasn't easy. Things don't just happen by spontaneous generation, and that was not the case here either.
In 2015, Bestias del Sur Salvaje is born, where anthropologist Jens Benöhr and geologist Paulo Urrutia combine their passions for outdoor sports as well as their socio-environmental concerns. Between mates, hot chocolates, and campfires, the beastly team has gone on to forge several projects to date. These initiatives, characterized by willpower and collaboration, have come to life thanks to the motivation and energy of people who believe in them. A clear example of this are our friends Erick Vigouroux and Nicole Ellena, who without hesitation joined in on an adventure through the Nahuelbuta Range to measure the forestry industry's impact on the territory and its people. “La otra cordillera” (“The Other Range”) is a short story told by a group of kayakers who manage to explore the Carampangue River from mountain to sea, revealing a hidden reality at the root of the Chilean forestry conflict. The documentary was filmed in the year 2016, without funding and with the unfailing conviction to show the reality of our country. The stories about the spirituality of water from Manuel Maribur, Mapuche inhabitant of Nahuelbuta, planted the seed in las Bestias and the MVMT team for what would become the exploration of the San Pedro basin.
The Birth of the Wazalafken
The climate in southern Chile made itself manifest a week before the team's arrival with intense rains combined with the spring thaws. The rivers were overflowing, and the possibility of starting in the turbulent Lizán River disconcerted us. In this kind of river, one small error can result—in the best of scenarios—in a lost kayak. Beyond the intensity of the danger of the initial stretch, the concern lied in the fact that commitment to the message took precedence over the sporting challenge. And so, that night of intense rains, we set up camp in the town of Liquiñe—the area with the highest geothermal concentration in the country. There, Mario Neihual spoke to us of the mapun kimun—ancestral Mapuche wisdom. He revealed to us the profound connection between nature and humans for the Mapuche people: “Human beings have the capacity to destroy those sacred spaces—such as the Menoko (wetlands) or Trayenko (waterfalls)—which, in practice, is to destroy the spirit that inhabits us, that part of us that is lost upon intervening into this space. When we make ourselves part of the other, we lose our individuality and we start to become a collective, you start to become Mapuche” said Neihual.
The kayakers in front of a dam. Photo: Carlos LastraThe kayakers in front of a dam. Photo: Carlos Lastra
Downstream of the basin, Jorge Weke would expand on this idea: “The presence of protector beings and inhabitants of nature—known as Ngen in the Mapuche oral tradition—demonstrates that nature is not an aggregate of resources under the dominion of human beings; on the contrary, society and nature carry spirit and form a relational whole.” That Monday, October 9th, the warmth of Mario and a radiant sun were the invitation for the team of kayakers comprised of Jens Benöhr, Paulo Urrutia, Pablo Cariqueo, Canela Astorga, Tobias Hellwig and Patrick Lynch, to begin the adventure.
The Liquiñe River and the CuaCua River calmed the uncertainty of the day before. We navigated between the meanders of the CuaCua River, while the blue shades of dusk began to cover the horizon. Upon nightfall, our kayaks and the waters of the CuaCua flowed in unison into Lake Neltume. With only the light of the stars reflected in the lake, we lost the horizon line that divided the sky from the earth. With a calm lake and a clear sky, the scene was as if we were floating in a sea of stars. We looked above, to the side, or at the water, and we saw stars shining everywhere. Perhaps one of the most epic moments of the whole expedition.
The Central San Pedro, a threat to territorial harmony
The rest of the trip again mixed in rapids surrounded by coigües that hung over the river channel. The Neltume and Fuy rivers provided that touch of adrenaline, before arriving at Lake Panguipulli to set up camp. There, Patricia, a resident of Puerto Fuy, told us of a history of resistance that has been taking place for several years, downstream of Lake Riñihue.

To get there, guarded by the Mocho-Choshueco volcano, we crossed the Enco River, which unites the waters of the Panguipulli and Riñihue lakes. It was in the drainage of the latter, where the San Pedro River begins, that we came to know the real impact of what would become the beginning of the works of the Central San Pedro power plant.
The project represents how deficient and outdated our environmental institutionalism is. A dam of 56 meters and a reservoir extending 12.5 km that intend to cut off the natural flow of the river, without considering the various social and environmental impacts. Approved with limited studies in the year 2008, it was again entered into environmental impact assessment in order to make adjustments to the project, due to geological-structural instabilities. The project is located in an area of extreme geological instability, affected periodically by landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes, due to its position over the active Llecué fault line (related to events such as the Riñihuazo of 1960). Taking just the flood zone of the dam as the area of influence does not consider the impacts that the project would cause both upstream and downstream. Similarly, it is not in line with the touristic vocation of the territory or its regional development strategy, and, by the same token, citizen participation in the approval process has been practically suppressed.
Today, 5 years later, and after being rejected and withdrawn on repeated occasions, the project continues insisting on entering into environmental impact assessment. It is unfortunate to see how the deficiencies of our institutionalism keep the citizenry in latent resistance. Nevertheless, the citizen voices from mountain to sea still have much to say.
The expedition was the masterly close to a project that began years before. With environmental education workshops and local explorations, we las Bestias were forging bonds and friendships with the inhabitants of the territory. The day of the encounter with the power plant, we invited environmental leaders of the region to go rafting down the San Pedro River. Their connection with the place was immediate, and the surprise upon coming across the infrastructure of the abandoned dam left all of us in shock. There were minutes of silence and reflection. Years of resistance and triumphs by citizens, they still keep that pile of cement in its place, with no one to answer for it.
The expedition team at Lake Riñihue. Photo: Carlos LastraThe expedition team at Lake Riñihue. Photo: Carlos Lastra
Rights of nature
The San Pedro River, from mountain to sea, is one of the few free rivers that remains between Arica and Puerto Montt. Free of power plants that mutilate its waters, it is home to birds, fish, and several cultural, recreational, and economic activities carried out by us humans. The possibility of society being able to inhabit a territory like this one lies in our hands.
Coming to an agreement together about the place in which we want to live, with local/regional management and governance, will allow free rivers to be more than just a slogan. To think about free rivers is to think about the discussion of the rights of nature and of rivers. What is implied by a river having rights? How can those rights be affected? If rivers are recognized as others with rights, will we be able to guarantee them the right to flow free of dams and pollution? If a person has the right to live in an environment free of contamination, does a river as well? In fact, the former is dependent on the latter, and thus, restoration and remediation become of great value.
The rights of nature should lead us to think that the ecological conditions that make up the natural habitat must be respected and protected. This does not entail putting a stop to fishing or other related human activities; on the contrary, it means creating management policies—such as the integrated management of basins and nature-based solutions—that establish a healthier and more respectful relationship with the flow of the river, its plants, animals, rocks, soil, and the other elements of the landscape through which it circulates. Movements such as ecofeminism, communal economies, and ecospirituality have defended the recognition of nature's rights as inherent to a change in the attitude of human beings and not just as legal measures.
Just two centuries ago, humanity prohibited slavery. In the last decade, various laws have been promoted in order to protect non-human animal species. Apparently, the more we expand our understanding to include others, the more we recognize their importance for humanity and seek their protection. Lately, innumerable international declarations have been signed recognizing the value of the Earth and its various ecosystems. Hence, the legal framework and corresponding regulations for granting rights to nature and rivers are only a matter of time.
Arriving to the ocean. Photo: Erick VigorouxArriving to the ocean. Photo: Erick Vigoroux
From mountain to sea
Heading toward the sea, days of smooth navigation followed. Signs of proximity to civilization became more frequent. There were signs of deforestation, abandoned coal mines, and factories on the shores of the river. Almost like a welcome to Valdivia, it started to rain with an intensity familiar to those who have visited there. The wind coming head-on and the rising tide made the navigation more tortuous. Now in the city, and after loading provisions, Camilo Hornauer—kayaker and mountaineer familiar with the area—joined with us as we headed toward the sea.
Almost as if by magic, upon leaving Valdivia, the rain was replaced by the first rays of sun that we had felt in several days. Wetlands and islets dominated the scene. Fishing boats and recreational water sports began to appear, while flocks of birds resounded all around. A hopeful scene in a city that has fluvial mobility and river-centered life incorporated into its identity. There, Camilo told us that the relationship the inhabitants of the basin have with the river has been key to its protection. In this territory there is a communion worthy of study and admiration that keeps the San Pedro still flowing free and without pollution. In active and cross-disciplinary fashion, organizations, businesses, universities, and municipalities from mountain to sea, committed to the region, have manifested their rejection of the current development model and have promoted strategies of regional and basin management linked with tourism and local economic development. Just 18 kilometers separated us from the end of our expedition, but it was just the beginning of the seed planted by the inhabitants of this territory in each member of the team.
In Bestias del Sur Salvaje, we always seek to use sport as a way to reflect on and examine the problems with our normalized lifestyle. “This earth abounds with little-explored slopes, and it is not necessary to travel to Patagonia in order to have incredible landscapes. What interests us is documenting these unknown rivers, revealing that beauty, but also their dangers," said Jens upon making it to the sea.
Outdoor sport enthusiasts and indigenous peoples share in common the time of contemplation that we spend in nature. And so, the level of attachment and understanding we develop with it is a virtue in times when access to and enjoyment of nature is a question of privilege. As athletes, to recognize the value nature has in our personal lives and society is to stop being an "I" and to understand it as a "we". It is imperative to use the voice given to us by our sports to protect that which gives us life. Living, free, and wild rivers!