Photos and story by Christian Martin
A sliver of moonlight slowly edged between the canyon rims toward our gravel bar. Boats readied, we eased into the current and continued our descent of Peru's Marañon River under a blue-tinged glow. A flat-water section stretched ahead of us, the first for over 10 days. After almost continuous Class II-IV water, including a long day of lining and portaging rafts through the impressively scary Class V Wasson's landslide, it was a brief and welcome change of pace.
During our 30-day, 385-mile journey in July 2015, we experienced not only amazing whitewater but also beautiful riverside camps, hot springs, side-canyons, and articulate and impassioned locals. As we traveled, we were keenly aware of the Marañon's contested future – up to 20 dams, responding to large mining demands, are proposed along its length that would make descents like our impossible. As the main source of the Amazon River, impacts from development on the Marañon could have very widespread effects.
We hoped to do more than simply run the river. As we descended, we recorded our experience. We took photographs and video that will be released in documentary format in 2016 to raise awareness of the river's plight (see the trailer below). We utilized the skills of our team and collected geological data and water samples to analyze for plastics and heavy metal content and other water quality indicators. We invited two Peruvian scientists along to collect invertebrate samples – the first time independent data had been collected in such a fashion along a significant length of the Marañon River. We wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to the sum of knowledge that will help decide the future of the river.
The upper Marañon is home to many isolated villages. Locals told us that almost all residents oppose plans to dam the river. Dam companies and their representatives are viewed with suspicion. Locals rely on the river for their livelihoods. They have lived on the banks of the Marañon for generations. Those who live along the river say, "sin agua, su muere" (without water, we die).
The Marañon is a violently contested resource. On December 28, 2015, local activist and leader Hitler Gonzalez was shot and killed, apparently in relation to his staunch opposition to the dam projects on the Marañon. In 2012, five anti-dam and anti-mine locals were killed in the town of Celendin. A clash on the banks of the Marañon in 2009 between local Awajun tribe members and the government resulted in more deaths (read more on the protest and fallout HERE). Representatives of the dam companies have been detained and threatened by locals as they attempt to survey and ready proposed dam sites. The threat to local communities is real and locals are responding.
In October 2015, Odebrecht, a Brazilian company responsible for three mega-dam projects on the Marañon, announced it was postponing its plans. Its office in Balsas has been temporarily closed. It is widely believed the consistent and strong opposition by local communities and the work of international actors, such as American Rocky Contos (of SierraRios), have played a part in Odebrecht's back-pedal. This pause in proceedings is a huge success for those opposed to the dam projects.
At present, the Marañon continues to flow free. Information is accumulating. Awareness is spreading. Our project hopes to enable future data collection to continue recording and discovering the wonders of the Marañon. Each time the river is run, more information can be gathered that will further paint a picture of why the Marañon River is so special. By embarking on a trip down the Marañon, you can play a significant part in the future of a majestic river!
— Help this international group of paddlers complete their film, CONFLUIR, a Study of Rio Marañón, by visiting their crowdfunding page — only 12 days remain in their campaign. The footage showcases the river’s beauty with a captivating story to capture “the Grand Canyon of South America, The Serpent of Gold, and the principle tributary of the Amazon River … one of the last free-flowing connections between the nutrient-rich Andes Mountains and the globally-significant Amazon Biome.”
— To learn more and support the future of the Marañon River, visit SierraRios the
Marañon Project, and MARAÑÓN WATERKEEPER, a new nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for the people and ecosystems of the Marañón.
— Read more on the paddling and eco-politics of Peru’s Rio Maranon in our list of Most Threatened Paddling Classics, as well as a tale of paddling alongside the imperiled river with activist-paddler Zacarias Cumbia C'hamik, plus an op-ed on calling to save the Grand Canyon of Peru.