Peru’s River Maranon will soon be changed forever if government damming plans are executed. No better reason to pull out the paddle.
By Paul Chapman
I read a lot of kayaking blogs and articles so I hear a lot about amazing rivers that are being lost to dams. I read so much about them that it has stopped making me angry and instead has made me, unfortunately, apathetic.
I was apathetic when I first read about Peru’s Rio Maranon – just another unheard-of river, in a faraway place, being dammed and destroyed. More than 20 hydroelectric dams are scheduled for construction on the Maranon in coming years, developments predicted to destroy much of the river’s recreational, ecological, cultural and agricultural value.
The Rio Maranon, a relatively little-known river, is also the main source of the Amazon.
I was looking for my next holiday when I read about the Maranon at SierraRios.org, a company started by James ‘Rocky’ Contos to help preserve rivers in Latin America. Rocky is an avid kayak and raft explorer, having paddled nearly every river in Mexico and claiming 100 of the country’s first descents.
I emailed Rocky to ask about hiring a raft and tapping his expertise to plan a Maranon trip. As luck would have it, he was already organising a crew for its first large group descent and was looking for another kayaker. Two weeks later my dad had also booked a place on Rocky’s raft team, and my apathy for the plight of unheard-of, faraway rivers was starting to be once again replaced with passion.
Lesson One: Beer is good
We met the group in Mirafloras, on the Pacific coast just south of the centre of Lima, in a hostel filled with rafts, kayaks and camping gear. Our team for the Upper Section totalled 19 people, including Rocky as trip leader, two local Peruvian kayakers/raft guides, a bunch of guides and kayakers from around the world (all American), and my dad and I – the two Australians.
A truck, a car, a bus, many nerve-wracking mountain passes and 4300 metres of acclimatisation headaches later, our first taste of the river was a blast. Class 3-4 rapids through deep, high-alpine gorges, the water up high was clean and cool, untouched by agriculture and flowing wild and free.
Five rafts, two inflatable kayaks and 12 kayaks, we travelled down sweeping valleys and under mountains that told me we were moving through a land of giants. We camped on large sandy beaches and cooked up a mixture of local and American-style camp food. This was the first time I’d done a long trip supported by rafts, and the cold beer and camp chairs did a good job of convincing me it would not be the last.
Lesson Two: Light bulbs are attractive
The Americans on our team said the Maranon was a like the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, but meeting dam survey crews en route put an end to the comparison. One environmental engineer we met had come from California to Peru to promote solar and wind energy as sustainable energy sources, but a lack of support from the Peruvian government saw her turn to hydroelectricity work. It was hydro or coal power, she said, and the river was the lesser of two evils.
Ironically, very little of the energy produced from the Maranon dams will be used in Peru. In 2010 Alan Garcia, the then president of Peru, signed a pact with Brazil to provide thousands of megawatts of hydropower for export. Damming the Maranon was in the national interest, Garcia said.
One group of people we met on the river told us that although they were against mining in the area (which has already had a large environmental impact, polluting some of the creeks that villagers were using for drinking water and agriculture) they were in favour of the dams, as it meant they would get light bulbs in their homes.
When we asked them if they knew about the impacts of the dams – land areas flooded and water levels reduced and regulated – they said they were unaware of these issues.
Continuing downriver there were big fun wave trains and plenty of surf spots for kayakers to play on. The rapids started to pick up in size as the gorge narrowed and we had one an epic day of portaging. A 400-metre, Class 5 rapid forced us to carry all gear around it and then feed the boats through it (or to it). Boats flipped in holes, got stuck in rocky sections and threatened to get wrapped around ancient Andes boulders, but we finally made it through, and with light fading, into camp.
Lesson Three: Avoid the Chicha
It’s hard to explain the grandness of the Maranon and the mountains surrounding it. Cacti cling to rocky riverbanks and a dry, desert landscape climbs up to snow-capped mountains. Coming from Australia, the land was truly other-worldly, but on occasion reminded my dad and me of parts of northern Australia.
Just as we became accustomed to our new world, the tight gorge opened into a wide valley, changing both the scenery and style of our trip. Crops, fruit and agriculture suddenly populated the view, from valleys around us to impossibly high mountain farms. After recovering from the surprise of seeing a bunch of gringos on a river they considered stupidly dangerous, local farmers brought us bananas, mangos and exotic tropical fruits.
Whole villages came out to see the spectacle of our plastic and rubber flotilla. Beer, Inca Cola, Coke and Chicha (a type of Peruvian moonshine that can really knock your socks off) flowed freely in our direction, and although my Spanish is limited to “Hi, I’m Paul” and “Yes, I’ll have a drink,” I felt as though our new friends would have had us stay for as long as we’d like. I lost dad at one stage only to find him holding a baby and having his photo taken with a family that wanted to adopt him.
Lesson Four: Bring guns
Locals told us about living on the river. Most local farmers grew quinoa and other grains high in the mountains during the wet season and walked six hours down to the river to grow fruit trees and coca plants in the dry. Many of them hadn’t been further than Cajarmarca, the largest town in the area, and most of us had seen more of their country than they had.
When the Spanish first arrived in Peru in 1532 it was in Cajarmarca where they started their conquest. The discovery of Inca ruler Atahualpa and his empire of gold and resources was irresistible to the invaders, and with only 150 men to Atahualpa’s 4000 (but with considerably more armour, horses and guns – an old story), the Spanish rule of Peru was spawned. Ruins from Incan times still punctuate the Maranon landscape, and it’s unknown what will be lost when the river is dammed.
Lesson Five: Make the connection
Just as we were forgetting that travelling downriver was a holiday and not our daily lifestyle, we arrived in Balsas, where my journey ended, and where local roads were being sealed to make way for mining and damming traffic.
Before arriving at the Rio Maranon I had been excited about paddling some good white-water, but it was the landscape and the people (and eating guineapig) that formed what are now my most valued memories. I don’t know what will happen to this river or the rest of the Amazon basin, but there is a growing local opposition to the dams and more people are starting to hear about the Rio Maranon.
Back home now, the river again feels again like a faraway, exotic place, but it’s hard to continue to feel apathetic about its plight. My holiday/adventure/experience made the Maranon personal to me, and that’s a connection a lot of Australians could use when it comes to environmental issues.
The more people that enter into wilderness areas both in Australia and around the world, the less apathetic we will be when it comes to losing what we have. Sierra Rios will continue running rafting trips on endangered rivers around the world and I hope that in the future more paddlers from Australia can join Rocky and his journeys.
As Australian’s, we know from the 1980’s fight to save our Franklin River in Tasmania that decisions can be over turned. The Franklin River wouldn’t exist as it does now if small groups of people hadn’t travelled from all around Australia to float down the river, stand up and say this is worth saving. They argued that natural and recreational values should be considered alongside economical values and eventually the government agreed. The world is a smaller place now and we now travel all over the world to seek adventure so why not, next time your feet start to itch, travel to a place that by merely being there shows governments what you value.