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Chile’s rivers are in danger of exploitation. Here’s how Chileans are saving them.

Photo: Veronica Hartwig

Garrett Martin

The Chilean people follow a passionate philosophy — if you love something, you have a duty to protect it. The country’s environmental efforts have slowly become a symbol for conservation and environmentalism worldwide — from recently establishing 10 million acres of protected land to banning plastic bags in 100-plus coastal cities to creating environmental courts that remove the politics the would allow companies to pollute.

Of course, Chile does have its flaws as well. The country’s Water Code privatizes water rights, meaning companies can obtain the rights to any river and exploit it for their own financial benefit. This has opened the road to mega hydroelectric damming, something communities and environmental groups have been fighting against for decades. Not only is the damming extremely harmful, but it opens the way to mining, logging, and other extractive industries, further damaging the environment. It’s all part of an economic model that represents an old way of thinking about our planet and our limited natural resources, one that jeopardizes a country as beautiful and wild as Chile.

The Chilean people have worked tirelessly against these companies, fighting to reform the water code and develop other more sustainable policies. Environmental organizations are scattered everywhere, working to protect individual rivers up and down the country. The problem is that these organizations are always fighting an uphill battle. They are small groups, with little funding, which makes it difficult to stand up to these massive corporations.

But something in Chile is changing. It’s no longer seen as many small environmental organizations, but a collective movement fighting to protect the country as a whole. A number of these groups have joined together to form an organization called the “Red por los Ríos Libres” (Free-Flowing Rivers Network). Instead of working separately, dozens of organizations and leaders are collaborating together to fight against these corporations.

Camila Badilla, one of the members of the Chilean Free-Flowing Rivers Network and director of Fundación Hualo, talks about the how the group was formed “to protect our rivers so they flow freely to the sea, so that water is treated as public good, and out of concern for the future of our watersheds and their communities.” The first gathering of the Network was held along the banks of the Achibueno River in August 2016 and has since continued to attract NGOs, academics, and other people who recognize that despite political differences, the threats are always the same at the national level. “No rivers are more important than others,” says Camila. “They are the veins that nourish our lands; if we intervene in one of them, we alter the larger ecosystem we recognize as the entire country.”

It’s rare that you have an alliance formed on this scale. Similar efforts in the U.S. in the 1960s helped usher in important pieces of legislation, like the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Since its enactment 50 years ago, the Act has protected 12,709 miles of rivers. This is something the groups in Chile are hoping to replicate, in a country that boasts some of the most wild and scenic rivers in the world.

The movement in Chile is a testament to the importance of coalition-building and how everyone can make a difference if they work together. These groups may not have millions of funding dollars to fight their environmental issues, and often they don’t have major cities located next to the places that are threatened, making it harder to raise awareness. What they do have is passion. A passion that runs through the rivers of Chile and serves as the lifeblood of the country. A passion to protect the land not just for themselves, but for everyone.

Learn more about Red por los Ríos Libres here.

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