Ecuador’s Jondachi River: Threatened Paddling Classics #8

Chandra Brown

A whitewater paradise in the Amazon rainforest

World¹s Most Endangered Paddling Runs As a fledgling river guide, I used to search, sometimes desperately, for butterflies. They seemed to come at the times I needed them most: looking for the bubble line at the top of Lava, sitting in the crowded eddy above Pillow Rock, sweating in my drysuit before the third canyon of Alaska’s Six Mile Creek. I’ve placed an unfair burden on butterflies, but they don’t seem to mind the pressure. They’ve shown up with unbelievable consistency throughout my boating career, their well-timed appearances serving as admittedly superstitious affirmations that it’s going to be okay.

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The first time I paddled the Jondachi was in 2010. I’d never seen anything like it before: butterflies. Everywhere.

Emily Shanblatt, Upper Jondachi Race
Emily Shanblatt, Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis

 

I lived in Ecuador for only that one year, and I was busy teaching at a university in the Andean highlands. In my free time I would travel to the jungle town of Tena to go kayaking on the waters that tumble playfully from the Andes to the Amazon Basin. In the four years that have passed since my tenure in Ecuador, a lot has happened to those same rivers: myriad hydroelectric dams, rampant illegal gravel and gold mining, unprecedented deforestation in riparian zones, devastating contamination from oil exploration…the list goes on. And to top it off, a new 18 mega-watt dam, La Merced de Jondachi, has been proposed on the Upper Jondachi River.

The confluence of the Pano and Tena Rivers in the town of Tena, Ecuador. Volcán Sumaco keeping watch on the horizon.
The confluence of the Pano and Tena Rivers in the town of Tena, Ecuador. Volcán Sumaco keeping watch on the horizon. Photo by AZ Andis

Sometime in 2010, I was asked by a local guide outfit to work as a safety boater on a Class III trip, the Jatunyacu River. (It should be noted that I am not, in any way, a superlative kayaker. I laughed when they first asked me. But then I did it anyway. It’s Ecuador — why not?) The thirteen year-old younger brother of my raft guide friend was kayaking along with the trip. He was just learning, and he swam every time he tipped over, which was often.

Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis
Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis

I gave him the nose plug off my helmet at the takeout.

Talented young Froilan Andi from the community of Cando powers through the Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis
Talented young Froilan Andi from the community of Cando powers through the Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis

This January, I returned to Ecuador after four years away and watched as that same kid — now a handsome young man and capable paddler — competed in the Class V Upper Jondachi Race at the first-ever Jondachi Fest. If the dam goes in as planned, there won’t be a second Upper Jondachi Race, as the Upper Jondachi River will be de-watered.

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Local Tena talent Diego Robles, Brayan Robles, and Jonathan Ramirez at the Jondachi Race afterparty. Photo by AZ Andis

The Jondachi is special. Ask any Tena paddler what their favorite run is, where they cut their teeth, where they go with their friends, where they suggest recently arrived foreign kayakers go: the Upper Jondachi. Kayaking is young in Ecuador. Truly, it’s in its infancy. To lose the Jondachi to a dam would be to lose a great teacher.

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Sixty people on the river makes for a crowded run as paddlers near the lip of “Wafflemaker” (Río Hollín) during the second day of Jondachi Fest. Photo by West Howland

To lose the Jondachi would be a blow to the developing identity of this burgeoning whitewater community. It would compromise a $1-million-per-year river tourism industry. It would indicate the loss of crucial ecological connectivity between the Andes and the Amazon.

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Edwin Caza warms up on the Río Urcusiqui, en route to starting line of the Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis

In 2008, in an inspiring political statement, Ecuador built into its national constitution an acknowledgement of the rights of nature (personified as pachamama in the indigenous Quechua). In theory, the new law granted legal standing to natural entities such as rivers. Not five years later, the same government all but overtly outlawed citizen protest against environmental injustice. And now, a government-run energy company, which has never owned or operated a hydroelectric dam, is attempting to dam the Jondachi despite widespread local opposition. Ecuador is a place of contradiction, of beautiful chaos, of uniquely abundant natural resources and unregulated environmental exploitation.

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Pre-race briefing at the proposed dam site and starting line of the Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by West Howland

In 2014, the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute presented official opposition to the La Merced de Jondachi hydro project, a process that has effectively stalled any legal construction at the dam site. With this opposition, the ERI also offered a solution: consideration of recreational river use and tourism as economically viable alternatives to hydro. Specifically, the ERI is promoting the Jondachi-Hollin-Misahaulli-Napo Ecological Corridor as a model for watershed protection, essentially the unprecedented Ecuadorian equivalent of “wild and scenic” designation.

Lucho Granizo takes flight during the Upper Jondachi Race.
Lucho Granizo takes flight during the Upper Jondachi Race. Photo by AZ Andis

In coming months, the ERI will continue advocating for the proposed Ecological Corridor. As long as the Jondachi remains unobstructed, it will continue to beckon thousands of visitors to its waters each year. And as long as it’s allowed to flow freely, the local and international paddling communities will continue to celebrate with future incarnations of Jondachi Fest.

Río Hollín
After an afternoon downpour, raindrops sparkle above the Río Hollín. Photo by AZ Andis

Paddling the Jondachi this January, there was no shortage of butterflies. By my estimation, employing that familiar and colorful living barometer, the cause is not yet lost.

–For more information on the Jondachi dam and the ERIs proposed Ecological Corridor, visit the ERI’s website. 

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This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other runs, and stay tuned as more are released:

#9 – Yukon’s Peel Watershed: A canoe-tripping haven

#10 – Colorado’s Yampa River: A desert rafting classic

Rafters on the Lower Jondachi during the second day of Jondachi Fest. Photo by West Howland
Rafters on the Lower Jondachi during the second day of Jondachi Fest. Photo by West Howland