Video: Why Ecuador’s Rio Piatua Matters

Gold mining and hydroelectric development threaten one of Ecuador's premier paddling destinations

Film by Mike McKay

Need to mix up a quick batch of quality whitewater? Try this simple recipe. Take equal parts crystal blue waters and sculpted granite boulders. Add the gradient found on the eastern flank of the Andes Mountains and stir in the biodiversity from the western edge of the Amazon Rainforest. The result? The Piatua River, world-renowned for its lush jungle scenery and Class III-IV day trips.

Matt Terry, executive director of the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute (ERI), describes the Piatua as one of the best runs left in the country. “An intermediate paddler on a guided trip could do a section of the river and more advanced paddlers can do the whole thing,” he explains. The river is typically accessed from the whitewater hub of Tena, along with other popular runs like the Jondachi River.

Both the Jondachi and Piatua are being considered for hydroelectric development and both have hosted paddler festivals to draw attention to their recreational value. While the Jondachi has received more press attention over the years, the Piatua is equally endangered. The Tena area has seen a recent uptick in illegal logging and gold mining operations and now the government is considering granting official mining concessions along the Piatua in addition to building a hydroelectric dam.

Terry says the Piatua “has only been open with road access for ten years, and that makes development more likely. But right now there's still hope for managing it.”

The Ecuadorian government has at times been a leader in conservation efforts, at least on paper. In 2008, landmark “rights of nature” language was added to the Ecuadorian constitution, meaning that lawsuits could theoretically be filed on behalf of natural entities like rivers or forests. There are additional laws on the books that mandate minimum flows in rivers and require recreation to be considered when determining what those minimum flows should be.

But Terry says despite these laudable pieces of legislation, the story on the ground has been one that caters all too often to development and leaves environmental conservation as an afterthought. Facing budgetary shortfalls, the government issued 300 new mining concessions over a recent two-year period in a country the size of Colorado. Many of the mining companies are small and as such are less susceptible to international pressures to meet certain environmental and human rights standards.

At the same time, however, the Ecuadorian government has recognized that recreation, including rafting and kayaking, is an important piece of the country’s tourism draw. As ERI works to defer the mining concessions and protect rivers from dams, Terry says the most important thing international paddlers can do is book a trip to Tena.

“We need to validate that resource is important as destination,” he says. “Come down and enjoy the Piatua.”

If you go…

Most paddlers fly into Quito and bus to Tena (5 hours). Tena offers a number of services for boaters, including Boof Sessions, La Posada, and Welcome Break hostels. Small World Adventures and Endless River Adventures provide excellent guiding services.

–Learn more about the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute on Facebook or donate on their website.

More background on ERI, threats to the Jondachi and Piatua and impetus for first Piatua Libre festival.

–Watch Mike McKay’s film about the Jondachi River.