River Conservation

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It’s a small country indeed, but imagine flattening out a crumpled piece of paper, and you begin to appreciate the tremendous land area held in Ecuador.  This Andean nation, whose volcanic spine drops quickly down transitional ranges to Pacific coast and Amazon basin is the most biologically diverse for acre of any country in the world. Cloud forests and wet lowland jungles are fed by a massive rain cycle and melting ice from the towering Antisana and other volcanoes.  The hydrologic resources of Ecuador are now at risk. Speculative surface mining and devastating dam proposals with exaggerated claims of energy output are springing up all over.  Energy development and increased urbanization must address safe drinking water and ecosystem services.

Matt Terry, aka “Mateo”, is a hard-core kayaker with a heart.  Since 1998, he has been scrapping together the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute, a 501(c)(3) based in Colorado but dedicated entirely to preserving the watersheds and wild rivers of Ecuador.  He’s on the inside, living and working in Ecuador.  Since he began kayaking in the region almost 10 years ago, he’s been informally mapping his first descents and inventorying local economies tied to these pristine white-water rivers.  Based in a small office apartment in Tena, capital town of Ecuador’s Napo province, he has succeeded in making river conservation a table item at local, regional and national level meetings. Armed with maps, water samples linked to GPS waypoints, and a degree in microbiology, he injects a sense of humor into meetings as well.  Terry, who once called North Carolina home, carries just enough drawl to accent his popularity.  Bottom line: he’s been successful in eliciting local pride in rivers as a source of fresh water, tranquility and long-term tourism revenue.  Mateo is now attracting international support as he brings campesinos into conversations with regional elected authorities.

This is a multi-faceted story to photograph: as much a social study as a natural history topic.  There are many aspects to watershed protection and river conservation which carry with them provocative images.  In southern Ecuador, there are the effects of mercury poisoning in a rural gold-amalgamation post.  Then there’s Luis, now an injured fisherman who realizes dynamite fishing will not improve his community’s harvest.  As a counterpoint, I’ve shared in the energy of the annual Napo River Festival, which Terry helped organize.  Each year, lowland Quichua and international tourists come together in the annual event to compete in river-based events and celebrate the multiple values of Ecuador’s Napo river region for commerce, culture and conservation.

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