The Grand Canyon of the Amazon Under Attack

Veteran River Guide Stefanie Wessel Talks About Paddling with a Purpose on Peru’s Rio Marañon

She may be heading back to Vernal, Utah for her third season of guiding in Dinosaur National Monument for OARS, but veteran river guide Stefanie Wessel also has another adventure ahead of her this summer. In July, she’ll be joining Paddling with Purpose’s 3-week river expedition on Peru’s Marañon River—“the so-called Grand Canyon of the Amazon”—to make a documentary film that will raise awareness about the river and its current threats. We talked to Stefanie to find out more about the project and why she’s so passionate about rivers…

OARS. River Guide Stefanie Wessel

What role do rivers play in your life?

Rivers sustain me financially and spiritually. I feel so lucky to call the river my home for so much of the year. The prep for a trip can be hard work and grueling, but the moment we push off of that boat ramp, it’s peaceful. It’s perfect. And there is nothing quite like getting to float down 5, 40, or 300 miles of river. My boat becomes my home.

You’ve gotten involved with Paddling with Purpose’s campaign to save the Rio Marañon in Peru.  What makes this river so special?

The Rio Marañon is like another Grand Canyon. It’s high desert like the Colorado River in Arizona and Utah, it’s got amazing geology, plant life, and maybe most importantly, indigenous communities living along its far stretches. The more I learn about the Marañon, the more I’m entranced.

How is the Rio Marañon under threat?

In 2011, former Peruvian President Alan Garcia approved construction of 20 dams on the Marañon, saying it was “in the national interest.” Since then, one project in particular has been moving full-steam ahead—the dam called Chadin II.  Damming the Rio Marañon means inundating villages where people live sustainably, and endangering not just the livelihoods of people upstream of the dam, but also those of the indigenous and small farmers who live off the river below it. Also, it’s the hydrological source of the Amazon River, meaning it’s the biggest contributor to the Amazon’s final flow through the rainforest. If you cut it and its nutrients off, you endanger the entire Amazon basin.

Río Marañón, Peru | Photo: Gato Montes

Photo: Gato Montes

Why are you so passionate about protecting this river and why should other people care?

It’s not just about recreation. The fact of the matter is that big hydropower projects no longer make economic, environmental, or human sense. Any big corporation or government that tells you hydropower is clean is not giving you all of the facts. Big construction and mining companies and politicians with nefarious intentions are the only ones who are benefiting from big hydro projects anymore. If we can successfully beat a dam project at the source of one of the most important river systems in the world—the Amazon—maybe we can set a precedent.  There are so many bad dam projects to fight, and it’s admittedly overwhelming to know where to start. But here we have an opportunity to keep a major river free-flowing, and to stop gross injustices and violations of the human rights of the indigenous Peruvians.

You recently launched an IndieGoGo campaign that will help fund a documentary about the river and launch a media campaign in Peru. Why a film?

If you haven’t seen DamNation, go watch it now. Getting to see a river and its canyons in Technicolor makes it so much more real. Getting to hear the voices and look into the eyes of the people who will be affected is profound. We are primarily distributing the film for a Peruvian audience, but we will release it with English subtitles so that everyone who contributes, who is following our fight, can see what we document. And hopefully it’s not all that Peruvians are left with, but if so, at least we’ll have documented a small part of the river before it’s gone.

What’s your goal for the IndieGoGo campaign?

My goal on IndieGoGo is $5000, but I’m secretly hoping that I can raise two or three times as much. We can’t keep up the kind of non-stop advocacy needed if we don’t have support. Help us continue the conversation. That’s all I’m asking.

Besides making a donation toward the film project, what else can people do to help?

I hope that if you can’t make a donation, you go learn more about your local river through a conservation group like American Rivers or International Rivers. Learn about water policy in our country and around the world so that you can have an informed conversation about it. And keep coming on rafting trips so that an industry that respects the river, and people like me, can keep fighting!


Find out more about Stefanie’s IndieGoGo campaign or make a donation at: Paddling with Purpose to save the Rio Marañon in Peru.

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