It’s been a huge year; certainly one of the most trying of my life. The Paddling with Purpose project grew astronomically, so much so that I haven’t used this space for several months. The project has outgrown this website and is finding new platforms from which it will speak and I am happy to reclaim this blog space as my own.
The past 12 months presented far more challenges than I could have anticipated, growing to a team of close to 40 people all over the world, diving into the realms of film and documentary production, 3 months on back to back river expeditions including a challenging 42 day descent starting at 4000m elevation, and managing an expanding budget to make the most of the energy everyone has put in so far. All this however, seemed trivial when overshadowed by the death of Jhuliño on the river in June; this event has added a sombre colour to all the months that have followed.
Having been back in Australia for 3 months now for the fist time in almost 2 years, it has been great to escape the craziness of South America to something more familiar, to see family and friends and have time to re-assess things. It turns out the comforts of home and a familiar face are really quite nice after so long being away. It’s funny how after so much time continuously paddling and travelling, doing exactly what I wanted to do; I actually started to miss weekends. That excitement that would build when you jump in a car with friends on a Friday night, eager for a new adventure, a new destination. You can’t have a weekend without the week in between; you don’t have holidays if you’re living it all the time; funny how I missed the very routine of domestic life that made me so eager to escape in the first place.
While at home, it has been difficult to decide what I want to do with my time; whether I want to continue working in this space to do what I can to protect the source of the Amazon, or find a ‘real’ job, get paid an income and enjoy the comfortable security of that life. As tempting as this is, there is always a nagging voice “If I don’t do it, who will?” or “Will I be happy knowing that I had an opportunity to do something more, but didn’t?”, the answer seems to come up no again and again. I can’t seem to keep my mind from slipping back to the Marañon and thinking about ways we might be able to help protect it; any small thing we can do would be positive. Another factor is that there didn’t seem to be too many ‘real’ jobs on offer that sound as cool as heading back to Peru and saving arguably the most important river in the world, even if it does mean I’ll be living like a dirtbag for another couple of years.
Time marches on; and things seem to flow into one another. Recent events remind me how real this fight is. On Monday, Hitler Ananías Rojas Gonzales was gunned down walking on his way home in the riverside district of Cortegana, Peru. A staunch opponent to the dams being constructed on the Marañon, there is speculation that this may have played a role in his death. Paraphrasing the wise words of my friend and often advisor, Bruno Monteferri:
“ The Peruvian government must immediately investigate and take appropriate action; so that the population of Peru and internationally knows what is happening in the Marañon River; we must not let the people who are risking their lives fighting to defend the river go through this alone. We call on all people to join this campaign so that the voices of the local people are heard.
No matter whether your opinions are in favour of the dams or against them, we must ensure there is a dialogue between all parties and respect all fundamental rights.
The destiny and future of the Marañon River must not depend only on economic interests and short-term vision & planning by the Peruvian Government; it must be the result of a comprehensive assessment and participatory process which will guarantee respect of the law and the rights of everyone involved.”
I cannot walk away from this project now; it would be a shame to waste the momentum we have built up; there is an opportunity to take this further and do something that may create an ongoing change in this battle; more than just a once-off documentary and expedition. I can see something that I can do, that I can influence, therefore I must take it as far as I can.
In the past weeks, we have gained approval to start a Waterkeeper for the Marañon River. This will give a more formalised structure to work in, with the main goal being to employ several Peruvians on a full-time basis; with the goal to support and represent the river & local people on a national and international level. By creating more transparency, creating a greater opportunity for dialogue within Peru; and by ensuring that all parties involved know that there are many eyes watching this issue, we hope to make sure that resolution is found through legal & democratic means, avoiding unnecessary and tragic loss of life.
As we progress La Serpiente de Oro documentary, there will be significant opportunity for exposure; this will be an excellent platform from which to launch the Marañon River Waterkeeper, and begin the substantial fundraising that will be required to build this into a strong organisation. It will be a hard road, but the least we can do is try; if failure comes our way, we will know we did all we could and be able to learn from the multitude of lessons. As part of the fundraising strategy we are developing partnerships with world class rafting companies in order to deliver high-end raft journeys down the river; building a larger community around this issue will be critical to the success of the Marañon River Waterkeeper, making the river accessible for anyone and providing alternate, non-destructive income streams for the people living there is key.
Looking back I realise there is an important element I have not written about, the Remando Juntos expedition in July was in most ways a huge success, we shot piles of film and photos (around 3.8TB to be exact), delivered informative presentations to several of the riverside villages and had a group of almost 20 people see the canyons of the Marañon River for the first time. Franco is busy editing this footage to create the documentary, ‘La Serpiente de Oro’ and the Remando Juntos team continues to run a social media campaign in Peru. On paper, there are a lot of ticks, but in my mind I can’t help but feel it failed in the most fundamental way. It failed to deliver the simplest thing; something that I take for given on any river journey. Something that normally seems to flow as easily as the water between the banks of this enormous river; a strong sense of community, togetherness and good energy between a group of people enjoying an incredible journey. I feel responsible for this; as the person that pulled it all together; it was my role to set the rules and the basis on which everything else was built. I simply was not up to the task of bringing everyone together and creating the communal space that was needed. Don’t get me wrong, I think overall the experience will be positive for all involved and I hope that everyone is proud of the incredible things we achieved; filming a documentary and delivering presentations in remote Peru villages whilst relying on the daily flows and ebbs of nature is no mean feat; we did good. Keeping our itinerary and taking advantage of last-minute opportunities; keeping a host of electrical devices charged on remote riverside beaches; lugging a generator and projector up hills into tiny villages to share information; looking back they are all really incredible feats. It is just sad we couldn’t pull together more, and create that warm, fuzzy space which i’m sure made us all fall in love with river journeys and the people who we share these with. Maybe we were just too focused on achieving the tangible outcomes, and missed some of the most fundamental human elements; or maybe that is just the price we had to pay for success in other areas.
After July’s expedition, I was spent; mentally and physically tired after several very demanding months on the river; that sealed my decision to head home for some time out. At that time I was not sure what else I might be able to give to this project; it has taken a long time to build back up the this. I am happy to realise there is still something left in me, still energy to keep moving forward and that in 2016 I will keep growing, learning and keep paddling with purpose; this year however it will have much more structure and balance.
The year ahead will certainly be an interesting one; one thing is sure, there will be many mistakes and subsequent lessons. Such is life treading in unchartered territory. There is no failing; getting back up trying again and learning from the lesson presented.