Op-ed: Don’t Dam The Grand Canyon of Peru

The biggest tributary to the Amazon is facing massive dam threats, but it's not too late save the Marañón River

Six thousand feet below, the Marañón River Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon and collects all the water that flows off the east slope of the Andes Mountains in Peru.
The Marañón River Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon and collects all the water that flows off the east slope of the Andes Mountains in Peru. The river is barely visible 6,000 feet below where this photo was taken.

by Gary Wockner

Our first glimpse of the Marañón River came when we were 6,000 feet above it. We had just driven from the town of Celendin, Peru up to the lip of the canyon and looked down a couple miles into the gorge below. The thin, chalky-blue line of the Marañón slithered through the bottom of the canyon. A collective "wow" came from the mouths of the 12 people in our minibus – the canyon was deep, immense, and the river looked like a tiny thread below. Two hours later, after having driven down the endless switchbacks of the one-lane road, we arrived at the river. A six-night trip awaited us, during which we would learn about the threats of hydroelectric dams to this beautiful and pristine place.

"I believe all rivers are sacred." – Bruno Monteferri, standing at the site of the proposed Chadin II Dam, is Director of Conservamos por Naturaleza and is the Marañón River Waterkeeper.

They call it "The Grand Canyon of Peru," or sometimes "The Grand Canyon of South America." It drains the entire Peruvian portion of the east slope of the Andes Mountains and is the largest tributary to the Amazon River. As our minibus unloaded, we gawked at the amazing scenery and stumbled around on the cobbled rocks at water's edge. After a couple hours unpacking the trucks and packing up the dry bags, we slipped into the water with four rafts and three kayaks. Our guides were seasoned Peruvian rafters and our hosts were the new Marañón River Waterkeeper organization which is an affiliate of the international Waterkeeper Alliance.

"The Marañón is a beautiful river – we need your help to save it." — Leonardo Gonzalez, trip leader and renowned Peruvian adventure traveler who hosted a TV show for five years highlighting extraordinary outdoor trips throughout the country.

Peru is home to many rivers which provide whitewater adventure opportunities for hundreds of thousands of rafters and kayakers every year, but the Marañón River currently has almost no commercial rafting activity. On our seven-day trip, we didn’t see any other paddlers. The river offers Class I-IV rafting in the summer’s dry season. The weather was exceptionally dry prior to our arrival in June and the river was flowing at about 6,000 cfs. During the rainy season in March and April, the river can swell to over 30,000 cfs and is considered to be un-runnable. Being an undammed Andes mountain river, the Marañón is ecologically pristine with massive sandbars, sediment-filled tributaries, driftwood on the banks, migrating fish and wildlife, and little human activity.

[RELATED: 6 Reasons to Paddle the Marañón River]

However, hydroelectric dam-building corporations have had their eyes on this river for decades.

Proposed dam sites on the Marañón River. Image: Sierra Rios
Proposed dam sites on the Marañón River. Image: Sierra Rios

Of the twenty dam sites that have been identified on the Marañón over the last three decades, seven are serious proposals; four are in the permitting process with the Peruvian government. At least three hydroelectric corporations are proposing the different dams. On the third day of our trip, we paddled through the Chadin II dam site, a proposal that has been put forward by the Odebrecht Corporation, a multi-national construction conglomerate based in Brazil. The project has been delayed at this particular dam site because Odebrecht is embroiled in a massive corruption scandal that has put its CEO in prison and has forced the company to stall many of its efforts, including, for the time being, the Chadin II dam proposal. The proposed Chadin II dam would be over 500 feet high and drown dozens of miles of the river canyon including the small village of Mendan.

The Chadin II dam site would flood the small farming village of Mendan. Villagers have emblazoned anti-dam graffiti across many of their homes.
The Chadin II dam site would flood the small farming village of Mendan. Villagers have emblazoned anti-dam graffiti across many of their homes.

The last ten years have seen an increasingly contested debate about dams and hydroelectricity in Peru. While the hydroelectric corporations and some factions of the government argue that more electricity is needed, the facts appear to be different. Peru currently meets all of its electric needs with its present system, and the arguments for more electricity are being pushed by the multi-national hydroelectric corporations that hope to sell the electricity to neighboring countries or to the mining industry.

Anti-dam activists also argue that the hydroelectric corporations are running roughshod over the government’s permitting and political processes. The corporations have been accused of paying off local villagers, paying people to attend public meetings to speak in support of the dams, trespassing on private land in the villages, and creating a hostile situation where villagers and dam opponents are increasingly harassed and threatened when they speak out. Importantly, anti-dam activists argue that if Peru really needs more electricity, it should focus on wind and solar, instead of damming and destroying its wild and pristine rivers like the Marañón.

"Protecting this river should be a part of the national pride of Peru." – Enrique Ortiz, Program Director, Andes Amazon Fund

The battle to protect the Marañón River has been alive for several years, mostly due to the work and funding of International Rivers and one their grantees, Sierra Rios. Most recently, the newly launched Marañón River Waterkeeper is developing a complementary campaign to other anti-dam efforts. Much work needs to be done – legal, financial, research, education, advocacy, international media outreach, and organizing the Peruvian people – so there are plenty of opportunities to engage to protect the river.

One of the biggest needs of the campaign is to get more attention for the river in media and in funding circles. To achieve that, the Marañón River Waterkeeper has joined with a Lima-based adventure travel company to launch the Marañón Experience, which offers raft trips down the river that can be customized to fit the needs of media, guests, funders, and policymakers. Additional high-priority work involves engaging with the Peruvian government on behalf of the river and the Peruvian people. As one of our trip-mates, Enrique Ortiz, noted on our trip: "Peru needs to have a plan. Right now the hydroelectric corporations have a plan, but Peru doesn't have a plan for the benefit of the environment and the people of Peru."

Outreach efforts to Peruvian officials are ongoing and more will begin soon, including an action alert on the Waterkeeper's website that reaches out to the Peruvian government asking the Minister of the Environment to launch a "Strategic Environmental Assessment" that would halt the dams while a planning process moves forward.

The Andes rise in the background around every turn along the Maranon River.
The Andes rise in the background around every turn along the Marañón River.

Another of the exciting opportunities to protect the Marañón River and the landscape surrounding it involves creating a National Protected Area that encompasses both sides of the river. The proposal, which is being pushed forward by regional conservation organizations, would protect about 250,000 acres – 175,000 on the western side of the river in the province of Cajamarcas, and 75,000 acres on the eastern side of the river in the province of Amazonos. While the proposal would not specifically stop the dams, it could create a regional conservation area and potentially become a new eco-tourist zone in Peru to highlight the biodiversity, rivers, waterfalls, wildlife, Inca ruins, and adventure-travel opportunities. Most tourists who visit Peru head south towards Machu Piccu, and such a designation could bring more resources to the region. This new northern National Protected Area would help bring a recreational economy and public attention to the region that could help stop the dams and protect the river.


Caption: "I think we're in a moment in history where humans really have to change the way we're living on the planet." – Bruno Monteferri

In the last five years, activists and conservation groups are making a bigger commitment to the protection of the Marañón. Accompanying us on our trip was a photographer from World Wildlife Fund, which is creating a campaign to support Marañón protection. Funding organizations including Global Greengrants Fund have stepped in to support International Rivers' campaigns and actions. Peruvian organizations including Forum Solidaridad and Ecodess have engaged. Earthrights International and other legal firms are helping to address and support the rights of activists and landowners, as well as the enforcement of Peruvian environmental laws in Peruvian and Latin American courts. In addition, the Wildlife Conservation Society has been engaged in wildlife studies in and along the river that can help support the science to argue against dams being built.

The battle is being fought on multiple fronts. During our raft trip, Bruno Monteferri told our group, "I believe all rivers are sacred. But we need to tell an economic and a political story too." Likewise, Enrique Ortiz focused on the biological diversity as well as the cultural symbolism of the river when he told us, "This area should become a national priority for protecting biodiversity, and protecting this river should be a part of the national pride of Peru."


Caption: Linlin Rapid, Class IV. Guide Leonardo is yelling "Forward!" Video: Enrique Ortiz.

As we near the end of our trip and approach the village of Pueblo Malleta, the river begins to widen out with more sand and gravel bars spreading out the flow of water.

The Maranon offers peace and solitude amidst the massive mountains. Cat Ebeling, afternoon yoga at Magdalena Beach.
The Maranon offers peace and solitude amidst the massive mountains. Cat Ebeling, afternoon yoga at Magdalena Beach.
Along the bends of the river, oasis spring up where farmers have planted small fields including palm trees with coconuts hanging on the branches. We hear and see a few irrigation sprinklers that suck water out of the river and spray fields of mangos and coca. Pueblo Malleta is the end of much of the mountain-canyon portion of the Marañón. Downstream, the river slips into the Amazon jungle and serves more farming villages, but it is also threatened by proposed hydroelectric dams that would stair-step all the way to the Amazon River.

The good news about the Marañón is that no dams have yet been built, and thus the timing is right to increase pressure on the dam-building corporations and the Peruvian government. Additionally, at the same time that the dam companies are stalling their efforts, the mining companies – and their need for electricity – are also slowing down due to the drop in copper prices. Furthermore, the regional governments that straddle the river – Cajamarcas and Amazonas – have diverse opinions about the dams, with opposition increasing as more people are educated and organized. Finally, Peru's adventure travel economy is increasing, and the Marañón is being opened for more rafting experiences.

We believe victory is possible – we can save the Marañón!

Resources:

— Book a raft trip – visit the Maranon Experience website or SierraRios.org

— Take action to reach out to the government – visit Maranon River Waterkeeper website.

Gary Wockner, PhD is an international environmental activist and writer, and a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance Board of Directors. He also consults and volunteers for Global Greengrants Fund and International Rivers. Contact: Gary@GaryWockner.com

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