Rios Libres Filmmaker Returns to Chile Seeking Answers – Interview with James Q Martin

In 2010, photographer, James Q Martin and I joined forces to begin Rios Libres, a non-profit dedicated to keeping Chilean Patagonia wild. Reading about a proposal to place five major dams on the Baker and Pascua, two pristine rivers in the heart of Patagonia, inspired us to take action. We headed to Chile with an outstanding team, traveled from source to sea on the Baker, and immersed ourselves in the landscape so we could arm ourselves with the knowledge needed to join the fight to protect Patagonia’s wildlands and the people who depend on them.

The Chilean government has volleyed this proposal around for years and most recently, in April 2012, the Supreme Court  voted 3-2 in favor of HidroAysen and against appeals filed by opponents.  This decision was a setback, but it was not a green light for dam construction.  Now, appeals from local and international environmental groups continue, legal actions from affected communities mount, and movement on the analysis of the power line needed to transport energy from the dams has halted.

Q (as James Q Martin is called) arrived in Santiago on the heels of this landmark decision from the Supreme Court. Since 79 percent of Chileans oppose the project and support alternative energy options, Q found himself in the thick of some of the largest protests the country has ever seen. Amidst the chaos, Q documented protests, interviewed experts, and visited some of the most remote reaches of Chile to create our latest, solution-based film, Streams of Consequence.

In between his numerous trips, I took a few minutes to capture Q’s thoughts and feelings about his time in Chile.

Chris Kassar: Tell me about the weeks before heading to Chile. 

James Q Martin: The weeks leading to the departure were very difficult. I was in Alaska on an ice climbing expedition with limited communications to the outside world. Prior to my departure, a social uprising occurred in the Aysén Region, the heart of the area threatened by the dams. This region is very removed from main cities and population in Chile.  The protesters closed the roads; they stopped food, gas, diesel and flights. All major supplies to the already remote areas were shut down. The people united and stood their ground, gaining international attention, and convinced the government to help with their needs and demands. The social movement had ten major demands to improve the quality of life of the people in the region; one of them was in opposition of the construction of the proposed dams.

Because of the unrest and uncertainty, we considered postponing or canceling my trip down to Chile, but then we decided it would be a huge opportunity. In the end, I flew to Santiago for the International Day of Rivers awareness campaign and found myself in one of the largest protests against HidroAysén.

CK: Tell me how it felt to arrive amidst protests and be there for further protests. 

JQM: Within my first week in Chile, I was in three major protests. Right after the Supreme Court announced that they would uphold the decision to build the dams, I was literally  sprayed with tear gas by urban tanks. That was a powerful and intense experience … really hard to put into words. It was awesome to see people unite and stand up for what they feel is right. I think in the U.S., for the most part, we are complacent.  We’ve had the “Occupy” movement and, but it was inspiring to see people from two years old to 70 years old occupying the streets and letting the government know that they won’t just stand by and be controlled.

CK: Why did Rios Libres decide it was time to go down there again? Why was it important to get back there and why now? 

JQM: Our first project followed the Baker River from its glacial source to the ocean. We got to understand a free-flowing river and an intact ecosystem and to see why this place should be protected. It was important to go back this time and answer the questions we didn’t answer in the first film. What does a sustainable energy model look like for Chile?  How do the Chileans feel about the current situation? And, what we learned is that people want alternatives to mega-hydro, they want to gain energy independence via a responsible energy model. Chile has one of the highest potentials for alternative energy in the world. They could gain their energy independence without hydro and do it at half the cost using responsible energy like solar, geo-thermal & tidal.

CK: Tell me about the process of getting the footage we see in Streams of Consequence. 

JQM: The whole situation in Patagonia was challenging because of the social movement.  There were lines that took hours for gas, but most of the time, gas stations where completely closed.

Supplies in towns were limited–no sugar, no meat, only some staples. We literally had to carry 180 liters of diesel in the truck and ten days of food. We were never able to get gasoline, which meant we couldn’t get to some places that required boat travel like proposed dam site 1 on the Pascua and Bernardo’s ranch.

To get the footage required help from a local in every region. These people helped me with on-the-ground logistics and to anticipate problems. Although parts of Chile are modern, many places are very remote so it required a team of Chileans and Americans to help me behind the scenes. I couldn’t have done it without help from people like Fernanda Bozzolo and Cucho Olivares.

Because of money constraints, I wasn’t able to bring a cameraman and had to do all the camera work myself.  I used two cameras with a very simple and small system. I taught friends how to record video and my buddy, Heath Stephens how to turn the camera on and off. Every day there was a new challenge and most days were 16-20 hour days.  In every sense of the word, I just went for it!

CK: Describe your favorite moment(s) of shooting.  

JQM: Spending time with Juan Pablo Orrego, the President of the Santiago-based NGO, Ecosistemas, was one my favorite moments because of his understanding of the issues, his generosity, and his passion for the project and for helping move the world in a more sustainable direction.  His overall understanding of humanity was amazing…. Being able to glean some of that from him was incredible.

Oh, and it was pretty cool acting as a tourist and sneaking cameras into mega-mining projects.

CK: Describe your least favorite moment(s). 

JQM: Media management was the hardest thing. Typically, I’d spend 12 – 15 hours on the go and shooting. Then, I’d sit down and work on my computer for as much as 4 hours backing up everything. To run my laptop, I was either using solar power or praying the locals would keep the generator on for just a bit longer. There was over 60 hours of footage, 50,000 stills, and no one else who could sort through it all. I definitely fell asleep at my computer more than once, but it was worth it.

CK: Tell me what it was like to go to some of the most remote places in Chile. 

JQM: It was special to visit the Pascua River, one of the other rivers slated for damming. It is not an easy place to get to and getting to visit with the people that live there, on the land, was very special. Getting there required a lot of logistical planning. For example, we had 300 L of fuel with us in the truck at all times because of the social uprising and because there is not much gas available en route to the Pascua.  It was super sad to see the illegal construction that has already occurred on the Pascua, including test holes and backfill, tunnels.

Traveling around the Atacama Desert—one of the driest spots on Earth—was very cool.  One of the coldest mornings of my life was in the Atacama, colder than Alaska or any part of Patagonia.  The Atacama was vast, open, and beautiful with tons of solar potential.  We were very curious about the reality of solar there and wondered if it could be done in a way that would keep the solar from damaging the beauty of the area.  We found that there is enough already disturbed open land next to the mines that would be perfect for solar. Additionally, there are huge tracks of land that were disturbed to increase border protection and these would be great places to install solar since the land is already disturbed.

CK: Tell me about your interactions with people down there.  

JQM: One of the coolest human experiences was with Hernan Guelet Vera, the Pascua pioneer. He was awesome. He did not like me and told me I was a “sheep in wolves clothing” because he thought I worked for HidroAysén. Finally, we were able to break the ice by taking his boat up to the proposed dam sight. We spent a solid day together and seemed he found a respect for what I was doing. During our interview, when I asked him if he would stay or go if the dams were built, he broke down and said that the Pascua was his Mother. He said that he wouldn’t leave if the dam was built.  The entire time he acted as if he was indifferent about the subject, so it was especially powerful when he finally opened up and revealed how he felt.

I also loved interacting with the 5-year member of the Arratia family  because he reminded me of loved ones at home. He took me around, showed me his ranch and his lifestyle and I taught him to skip rocks.  It was very special to connect with him and to see his connection to the land. We only communicated with hand gestures, but it was powerful, too.

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CK: Tell us about any unexpected adventures that happened during the making of the film. 

JQM: The Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) was pretty wild. We were with Patagonia Adventure Expeditions and a group of Chilean scientists who are looking at climate change on the Colonia glacier.  We woke up to what sounded like a bomb going off on the glacier. The water level had changed and icebergs the size of sky-scrapers were floating in the water.  One iceberg separated from itself and shot hundreds of feet into the air and then crash into the glacier lake. The GLOF relocated our boat 15 feet up an embankment and broke one of our ropes. We thought we might be looking at a helicopter rescue or 5-day hike out, but eventually the water subsided. This also left our trucks stranded due to the flooding of the valley. The GLOF gave us a visceral understanding of climate change impacts and the power of nature. It also left us wondering what would happen to a dam built downstream of this.

CK: What do you hope people come away with after seeing the film?  

JQM: I hope that people see that this issue goes beyond Chile. Patagonia is one of the last intact ecosystems left in the world and if destroyed, it will affect all of us. The issue of energy production is a global one. As global stewards, we must begin making changes in our daily lives and calling for changes on a larger scale. By using less, by producing power closer to the source and by demanding a shift to alternative energy, we can make a difference.

CK: What’s next for Rios Libres? 

JQM: We hope to use the media and information we gained in Chile over the past few years, to incite action. We hope to show the film in over 200 venues in the US alone.  Then, we’d like to translate the film into Spanish and distribute it in Chile. We hope that we can take Rios Libres to the next level and continue to spread the message globally.

For more information go to:

To find out where Streams of Consequence plays next visit:

Keep an eye out for the release of the Streams of Consequence trailer in the next few weeks.

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