BY CONOR MIHELL
Developers are poised to dam Ecuador's Rio Jondachi, a classic jungle river that attracts more than 1,500 rafters and kayakers annually to the South American nation. The 18-megawatt project is proposed by a state-owned utility. According to Matt Terry, the executive director of the Quito-based Ecuadorian Rivers Institute, damming the Jondachi River would destroy a burgeoning tourist industry worth $1 million (US) annually and compromise the region's unique biological diversity. With ERI in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to raise legal fees to mount an opposition, we contacted Terry to learn more about the Rio Jondachi.
CanoeKayak.com: When was the Rio Jondachi first discovered by whitewater boaters?
The Lower Jondachi River was first paddled by a group led by John Wasson in 1991. Ecuadorian paddler, Gynner Coronel, who started the rafting company Ríos Ecuador in Tena, completed the first descent of the Upper Jondachi River in 1995. As soon as word got out about the run, it put Ecuador on the map as an international paddling destination. (It’s pictured on the cover to the guidebook to paddling here.)
What makes it such a great whitewater river?
Drop after drop of high-quality rapids with polished granite boulders and cool, refreshing, crystal-clear water passing through a lush, tropical jungle corridor with easy access and just the right length for a good day-trip make the Upper Jondachi a classic South American paddling destination.
Just how important is the Jondachi River in the local tourism economy?
Through an online survey completed by more than 200 paddlers, the ERI found that 87 percent of respondents stated that the prospect of paddling the Jondachi River influenced their decision to travel to Ecuador, and 99 per cent of the respondents recommended going to Ecuador to paddle the Upper Jondachi. The results of the ERI's economic evaluation show that Upper Jondachi paddlers alone contribute over $1.1 million dollars (US) per year to the local economies in tourism revenues, with an average stay of 21 days and spending an average of $101 (US) per day, primarily in the areas of Tena and Baeza.
What is the timeline on the development proposal?
The start of construction on the project is imminent, and it could be completed in less than two years. It is presumed that the project developer is waiting for a final determination on their application to receive carbon credits from the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, which only provides funding to projects that have not yet started construction.
What are some of the concerns you have with the proposal?
The proposed La Merced de Jondachi hydroelectric project is a high cost, high-risk development that offers very little benefit and eliminates a proven tourism attraction that provides sustainable revenues to the local economy. The project will dewater a significant section of one of the few remaining free-flowing river corridors, which provides ecological connectivity through a critical transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon in the UNESCO Sumaco Biosphere Reserve.
The project is designed to operate with an exaggerated flow which does not exist under normal river conditions, and has not taken recreational uses of the river into consideration for the determination of its environmental instream flow, as required by Ecuadorian regulations. Meanwhile, there are much better alternatives available to provide more renewable energy at a lower cost without affecting existing river users.
So what are the alternatives?
Ecuador is strategically positioned along an active subduction zone that has more active volcanoes than any other country in the world. However, despite more than 500 MW of geothermal power identified in a preliminary survey, they have not developed any geothermal projects which use the earth's heat to generate electricity.
The ERI is not opposed to hydroelectric development in general, and uses objective criteria to evaluate hydroelectric projects to assess their proposed design and impacts, and supports the responsible development of hydroelectric projects in acceptable locations, which demonstrate sound planning, decision-making and best management practices.
Ecuador has over 2,000 rivers, and less than 1 per cent of these rivers are used for paddlesports tourism. Since tourism is Ecuador's third largest economy and offers sustainable revenue for their future, it should be in their interests to protect and preserve the rivers that are tourism destinations.
Are locals opposed to this development?
Many local businesses, river guides and community members are opposed to the development of a hydro project on the Jondachi River. However, the perceived or assumed risk of repercussions from speaking out against a government project has limited the expressed opposition to the project at the local level.
Why has ERI decided to take legal action?
The ERI believes in pursuing appropriate channels of action to demonstrate valid concerns to competent government authorities who have the power to make changes in project development and policy. The ERI has strong arguments to stop the development of the La Merced de Jondachi hydroelectric project by revealing deficiencies in the project design, irregularities in the permitting process, and by presenting better alternatives for renewable energy development, which do not eliminate proven tourism destinations.
Tell us about your Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.
The ERI has launched a global fundraising campaign on the Indiegogo platform to raise money for a legal opposition to this poorly conceived hydroelectric project which threatens the future of whitewater paddling on the world-famous Upper Jondachi River in Ecuador. We're trying to reach our goal of raising $5,000 to cover the legal fees to stop the proposed hydro project on the Upper Jondachi River and we have about another three weeks to raise about $2,000 to reach our goal.
Seems like contentious hydroelectric projects are popping up on favorite whitewater rivers across Latin America (and around the world, really). What makes you so passionate about tackling this one?
The Jondachi River is the crown jewel of whitewater paddling in Ecuador. After losing key sections of the Topo and Papallacta Rivers to hydro development, we do not want to lose another high-quality paddling destination to a poorly conceived hydroelectric project. Around the world, we are losing incredible whitewater rivers at an unprecedented rate. It is urgent for the paddling community to complete a global inventory of rivers with exceptional resource values that should be protected and preserved for the benefit of present and future generations. An "International Wild and Scenic" protection policy needs to be developed from an appropriate platform, such as UNESCO, to provide a framework and incentives for the designation and management of these protected river corridors by host countries around the world.