Navigating Chile’s San Pedro River, a National Geographic explorer tackled the Class III and Class IV rapids and came face to face with the region’s locals—members of the ostracized and indigenous Mapuche community.
The river runs from Lake Rinihue to Punaco in the center of the country and is at the forefront of a battle between conservation and energy growth. Currently, development groups are working to build dams along the river and harness the power of its flowing water, something that has been attempted before but faced serious protests from indigenous groups and environmentalists.
Jens Benöhr and his team moved down the much-disputed river in kayaks, descending through the corridor to document the seldom-explored area and interview members of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, about their relationship with the water and the country they live in.
“All places are sacred to the Mapuche world,” Mario Neihual, a Mapuche who lives in the region, told Benöhr. “Every place that you see, to a certain extent, has a level of sacredness, including rivers. Everything that has to do with water is sacred.”
In mapudungun, the Mapuche language, the word mapuche means “people of the land.” Indigenous groups who together form the Mapuche people have lived in southern regions of South America for thousands of years and can now be found in southern Chile and Argentina. They fought for their land fiercely over the course of several centuries, in literal battles during periods of European colonization and also in modern times as they staunchly oppose agriculture and forestry companies hoping to make use of the area’s resources.
Benöhr asked Jorge Weke, the werkén, or spokesperson, of the Koz Koz Mapuche Parliament, about the significance of water for his people. Weke said that they see water as a representation of life itself.
“Water for us is the veins of Mother Earth,” Weke told Benöhr. “We cannot cut our body's veins, just like we cannot cut or intervene in the veins of Mother Earth to build hydroelectric plants.”
Recently, policymakers in Chile’s congress and the Ministry of Energy have reopened discussions around damming the free-flowing river, which makes it one of the most at-risk rivers in Chile, according to Benöhr.
“We have a unique and atrocious water rights system, where water belongs to companies and not the people,” he said.
Benöhr said the ministry recently proposed a national energy plan that centers hydroelectric reservoirs as one of the main energy sources for the country. The government has restarted projects that were halted, partly because they didn’t evaluate the environmental and sociological impacts of the projects in the areas where they were being installed.
Colbún, a Chilean energy company belonging mainly to the Matte economic group, owned by one of the richest families in the country, is preparing to ask for environmental permission to restart the building of the dam that is part of the Central Hidroeléctrica San Pedro project.
Construction of the project originally began in 2009 but was stopped shortly thereafter, when the Network of Environmental Organizations of Panguipulli made the double request for administrative invalidation and revocation of the environmental permissions of the project. Benöhr said there were omissions and flaws in the project’s environmental impact study, the impact on the river’s ecosystem and nearby communities wasn’t taken into consideration, and the project hadn’t taken into account the nearby Liquiñe-Ofqui geological fault, making it dangerous to drill into the rock.
Weke said the Mapuche’s councils, acting as custodians of nature, defended against settlers centuries ago. They are doing similar work now as investors and hydroelectric companies have attempted to build infrastructure projects on their lands, and Benöhr said the main source of opposition to the Central Hidroeléctrica San Pedro project comes from Mapuche people, who are partnering with Chilean environmental activists.
“A large amount of land has been taken from us through different laws and titles that have been given to the settlers,” he said. “We want to recover everything the Mapuche people have and we do not want intervention, which in this case is just as much about investment projects as it is about mining companies or fish farms, forestry companies and hydroelectric companies.”
Weke told Benöhr there is an energy in a place, called a ngen, that gives permission for them to enter. The Mapuche take that permission seriously, performing a ceremony to acquire it and believing that you can cause harm to you and your family if you offend the ngen. Their ceremonies honor and show affection for the ngen, and the new hydroelectric dam was slated to be built on top of their ceremonial grounds.
“We’ll probably have to stop many times to see how the rapids are,” he said during the expedition, noting how much snow had melted from last winter and the effect of torrential rains on the river’s water levels. “But it is very beautiful. The air is exquisite.”
Benöhr is hopeful that progress can be made between the Mapuche and the greater Chilean society. Since some non-indigenous Chileans share the Mapuche's vision of protected rivers and a strong human-environment connection, there is space for reconciliation between the two often-separated groups.