Waterways, Persons & Rights

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The free-flowing Baker River in Chile’s Patagonia region. Permits for a major hydroelectric project on the waterway were revoked in 2014 amid protests. LOUIS VEST/FLICKR

Dams in Patagonia are the gift that keep on giving, in terms of awakening activism and forcing raised awareness of the value of waterways. I first mentioned my experience in Chile here. I came back to the idea a few more times. Thanks to Jens Benohr and Patrick Lynch for this reminder, and for letting us all know where this seems headed from a legal point of view:

Should Rivers Have Rights? A Growing Movement Says It’s About Time

Inspired by indigenous views of nature, a movement to grant a form of legal “personhood” to rivers is gaining some ground — a key step, advocates say, in reversing centuries of damage inflicted upon the world’s waterways.

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A Chilean energy company is seeking permits to restart the building of an unfinished dam along the San Pedro River. CARLOS LASTRA

Chile is a land of rivers. Along its narrow 3,000-mile length, thousands of rivers and wetlands bring freshwater and nutrients down from the Andes Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Together, these river systems drain 101 major watersheds that support both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, ranging from arid lands in the north to blue whale nurseries off of Patagonia in the south.

Chile’s second-longest river, the 240-mile Biobío, once tumbled fast and wild through deep gorges and spectacular scenery on its way from the Andes to the sea. The Biobío was one of the world’s great whitewater rafting venues — until the 1990s, when the first of three large hydroelectric dams was built across the river. Over the past two decades, the Biobío dams have flooded more than 13,000 acres, displaced hundreds of families of the indigenous Mapuche people, turned long stretches of this once-unruly river into placid reservoirs, and caused abrupt fluctuations in water levels that have wrecked nesting habitat for native birds and disrupted the river’s natural rhythms. Continue reading