By: Monti Aguirre, Latin America Program Director (with Brent Milliken, Latin American Program Director)
The global COVID-19 crisis has shed a light on the deep-seated inequities in the way our rivers and the people who depend on them are treated. With the exposure created by this crisis comes an opportunity. As International Rivers adapts to current circumstances, we are strengthening our support network to partners and communities facing immediate challenges, while working toward solutions that re-imagine a healthier future for our rivers.
We are grounding this work in the direct experience of our long-time partners and those facing increased threats. The following blog series, “Crisis to Opportunities,” is written from our regional campaign staff in the Mekong, Salween, Congo, Amazon and Patagonia, and Ganges/Brahmaputra river basins. For each region, we seek to answer two questions: What are the impacts and challenges we currently face? And what solutions are arising?
Photo: A member of the Munduruku tribe of Brazil stands over a dam construction site on the Teles Pires River that has devastated indigenous territories and the surrounding ecosystem| Photo by: Caio Mota/Forum.
What are the impacts we are seeing on rivers in the Amazon basin now with pandemic?
In the Brazilian Amazon, illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to intensify attacks on territories of indigenous peoples and other communities, sacking natural resources and spreading the virus to vulnerable groups. Such illegal acts have been stimulated by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s systematic dismantling of public agencies responsible for protecting indigenous peoples and the environment. Ricardo Salles, known as Bolsonaro’s ‘anti-minister’ of the environment, firmly believes the ‘distraction’ caused by the COVID-19 pandemia provides an opportunity to further undermine the country’s environmental legislation. An example is an attempt to steam roll legislation in Congress that would facilitate concessions of large private land titles to ranchers and speculators that have illegally-deforested public lands.
This video from our allies at Transparency International Brazil contains footage from a closed door meeting (later ordered to be released by the Supreme Court) that shows Brazil’s Environmental Minister, Ricardo Salles, making plans to use the pandemic as a smokescreen to deregulate environmental safeguards, without scrutiny from the press or discussion in Congress.
Since taking office, Bolsonaro has refused to demarcate indigenous lands, in direct violation of the Federal Constitution of 1988. Meanwhile, the government is attempting to open up indigenous lands to hydroelectric dams, mining and agribusiness, while pushing ahead with destructive projects such as the Castanheira dam on the Arinos River in the Tapajós basin – an enormously expensive project that would produce a mere 140MW of electricity. The project would provoke disastrous consequences for fish biodiversity and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples.
In Peru, the lack of social systems in place has meant that vulnerable communities lack water and health provisions, especially in marginalized urban areas and in rural communities. Migration from Ecuador has spread the virus through the Santiago and Morona rivers, territories of the Wampis Indigenous Nation. Overall, indigenous peoples have closed down their borders and in some communities, people have opted to remain isolated in forest areas. Some communities have also seen a return to subsistence farming.
One of our partners from the Peruvian Kunkama Women’s Federation has relayed to us messages from her community, that they need access to medical assistance and to communications technology such as a computer, mobile phones, and internet. We have been able to assist them in securing small grants for this type of Covid-relief.
What are the impacts we are seeing in Chile and Patagonia now with pandemic?
Chile has suffered a tremendous drought in the past 12 years, and if the situation continues to be handled as it is currently, the Canyon of Maipo will inevitably dry up. Despite water scarcity, climate change, and the pandemic, dams and water diversion projects are still moving forward. Ongoing construction of the projects exploits the river ecosystems and has brought disease to local communities.
In the Maipo River Canyon, the Alto Maipo Hydroproject Complex consists of two dams — Las Lajas and Alfalfal 2. As construction of the dams has progressed and trucks continue to enter the area, a small town in the Canyon where many of our partners live has seen a fierce outbreak of the virus.
Two water highway projects that would divert water from the southern regions and transport it via pipelines to the northern regions of the country are also under construction. Both of these two projects would exacerbate an already disrupted water cycle for the development of large scale agriculture and urban water access. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted failures of many governments to care for people and life on the planet, and the failure of the model of economic development.
What are the solutions arising?
On an immediate short-term basis, it is important to denounce the negligence of governments and intensify support for local movements that are mobilized to protect their lives, livelihoods and rights. Through partners such as Fundo Socioambiental CASA in Brazil, as well as Thousand Currents and Global Greengrants Fund, it’s possible to ensure funds reach the communities on the ground that need our support.
At the same time, In many parts of the world, nature is getting a break, and this is very evident when it comes to water quality in our rivers.
In Peru, the Rímac river has improved in different areas of Lima, as well as the Chillón river, previously flooded with garbage. According to the National Water Authority (ANA), construction waste in these channels has dropped by 80%. The same has occurred in the Huatanay River, in Cusco and in the Pachachaca, in Apurímac.
In Arequipa, images have also shown the Chili River with the recovery of flora and fauna, a rebirth of its natural habitat. The crystalline waters and the appearance of the Andean hummingbird and of the songbill show recovery.
We hope that this moment, which has exposed the grave flaws in our current systems but also given us a glimpse of what ecological recovery could look like, inspires greater social change. Solutions are for the most part, long term — but the time to act is now.
Diverse coalitions and movements throughout South America have come together around a long-term vision for permanent river protection. Under this vision, certain rivers or stretches of rivers that are critical to human and wildlife would remain free-flowing, and free of pollution. Movements, communities and regional organizations would be able to use the laws and policies governing river protection to stand up for the rights of rivers.
How are we working together with partners to achieve this? We are currently collaborating with partners in Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia to draft, put forward, and create public momentum around these permanent river protection policies. Each national context varies. Across them, we are working in coalitions that bring together water policy experts, scientists, activists, and local and indigenous communities. Together we are examining the existing water and environmental laws and looking for ways to improve them, writing permanent river protection laws, reviewing scientific and technical information related to rivers, and raising public awareness and support. Central to our approach is collecting and highlighting the knowledge of rivers held by indigenous and local communities, and channeling this into messages directed to the general public and decision-makers.
As the saying goes, ‘We should never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Meaning that we now have an opportunity to do things we thought we couldn’t do before. A different approach needs to be taken, something radically new and different, based on principles of social justice and caring for Mother Earth. It is time to restore desecrated places and care for sacred places. For, as Wendell Berry wrote, “there are no unsacred places.”