To stand at the site of a dam construction project elicits conflicting emotions: a sense of awe at the engineering feat man undertakes; as well as an overwhelming sense of despair knowing that the ground you are standing on will one day be enough concrete and rebar to tame a river from free flowing greatness to lake.
And then there is the deja vu – having stood on the river side, or beneath the machinery, or looked upstream one last time to bid farewell to many sections of rivers: the Bio Bio, San Pedro, Penas Blancas, Toro, Balsa, Reventazon, Toachi, Topo, and now the first of several sections of the Quijos River.
The Coca-Sinclair Project, Quijos River, Ecuador is the poster child project for the Chinese-Ecuadorian partnership. This project encompasses the most downstream section of the Quijos – a river that begins on the glacier of Antisana and finishes over the 500-foot drop of San Rafael Falls (at which time it changes name and becomes the Coca River, turning east and heading towards the Napo and on to the Amazon). This section of river is known to paddlers as the Bon-Bon to Salado section of the Quijos.
There has been no international outcry opposing this project. There will be no large impact on indigenous land, no relocation of cities, and in fact many environmental organizations have given this project their blessing. The politics of the Coca-Sinclair project make it untouchable. To understand the inside politics of a project that never even received a positive environmental impact study, it would be necessary to study the history of the World Bank, or reference material on “economic hitmen.” The same playbook is being used for Coca Sinclair.
The greatest direct impact the public will witness will be the loss of San Rafael Falls – as it stands between the dam and the power plant. On a rare high-water day the 500-foot landmark will recapture its glory, but typically no more than a trickle will wet the lava flow walls. And from this point, it will be possible to follow the transmission lines upstream all the way past the river’s birthplace of Antisana Volcano – marking the points where future dams could be put into place.
And what is a paddler–for whom there is the perception that the river is nothing more than a playground for the international boating community, to do? It is important to demonstrate that for one, battles must be carefully chosen. Advocates like Matt Terry of Ecuadorian Rivers Institute work hard to collect data, bring awareness of the environmental issues at stake, and even work with the project managers themselves to find compromise between the construction and the paddling community. Support organizations such as ERI in their efforts.
Paddlers can also demonstrate the economic viability of whitewater tourism. Support the businesses on the river – and in the towns; be good stewards; make an international paddling trip a goal.
The rivers available today may be gone tomorrow.