Ríos to Rivers students kayaking the upper section of the Biobío River near Lonquimay. Photo: Paul Wilson / Ríos to Rivers

Protecting Chile’s Biobio River Basin’s Biocultural Diversity Through Watersports

Category Protect

Chile’s Biobío River Basin is a thriving ecosystem full of jungle and aquatic plants, animals, birds, and fish. It is also the home of the Mapuche-Pehuenche. This Indigenous community has lived in harmony with the creatures on land and in the waters for generations.

Today, however, the community is facing many threats.

A continuous fight against dam construction in the region and a lack of economic opportunities has forced Indigenous youth to seek jobs elsewhere, and the Mapuche-Pehuenche long for a way to share their culture with the world.

With funding, this project will train Mapuche-Pehuenche women and youth in whitewater rafting skills and create a platform where their ancestral wisdom about the environment can be shared. In a unique opportunity to combine conservation and Indigenous empowerment with watersports, biodiversity and a traditional way of life will be showcased and protected.

Belen Sandoval from the Biobío Basin learning to kayak on a Ríos to Rivers program in 2018. Photo: Beth Wald / Ríos to Rivers

Bringing watersports to the jungle

Directed by one of their own, this project will be led by Fernanda Castro Purrán of the Mapuche Pehuenche. In 2018, Fernanda was introduced to Ríos to Rivers (R2R), an organization created for Indigenous communities to protect rivers worldwide and invest in underserved youth.

This work inspired her to unite her passion for watersports with her community, creating Malen Leubü, an all-woman Indigenous rafting team based in Alto Biobio. In 2019, Fernanda completed an intensive training course and became the first certified Mapuche-Pehuenche raft guide.

Students from Alto Biobío rafting a section of the Biobío River. Photo: Weston Boyles / Ríos to Rivers

Uniting conservation and whitewater rafting

Under Fernanda’s expertise, R2R Chile will train Indigenous women and youth. Opportunities will include whitewater skill-building clinics, safety courses, leadership training, and education on the importance of free-flowing rivers and the ecosystems that depend on them.

With this knowledge, Indigenous women and youth will be able to have careers as whitewater rafting guides that teach participants about the environment while floating on the river. They will also build alliances with other Indigenous women leaders from surrounding river basins to join this movement.

Ralco Dam on the Biobío River. Ralco was the second of three dams built on the Biobío River. Photo: Weston Boyles / Ríos to Rivers

Protecting nature from destructive industries

Three dams have been built in the Biobio Basin, almost decimating the Mapuche-Pehuenche people by damaging the environment, blocking vital fish passages, and cutting off water sources. Fernanda has been a leader in the fight to stop two more proposed dams on the Biobio River and a massive irrigation project that would dewater one of the main tributaries where many Mapuche-Pehuenche people live.

Another scope of this project will be to empower Indigenous women to advocate against destructive extraction activities occurring on their territories. With their traditional wisdom enhanced by environmental training, they can speak about the threats facing their homeland and all the creatures that reside there.

Fernanda Castro Purrán is the first Mapuche Pehuenche person to become a certified raft guide, and she also co-founded a female indigenous rafting team called Malen Leubü (Girls of the River) In this photo, Fernanda is taking her team rafting for the first time as a certified guide. Photo: Weston Boyles / Ríos to Rivers

Empowering Indigenous land stewardship

A crucial part of reversing global biodiversity loss and stabilizing the climate is protecting 50% of the world’s lands and seas. This project helps achieve this goal by investing in Indigenous Tenure.

Caring for more than 80% of the pristine nature left on the planet, Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of climate change. By empowering them with livelihoods in which they can work on their lands, their conservation efforts can not only continue but accelerate.

This is an extraordinary opportunity to support Indigenous women and youth in whitewater sports that ultimately protect the environment and preserve traditional culture. It will keep the Biobío River Basin a flourishing place for both people and nature to call home.