One often overlooked aspect of protecting a watershed is making sure that governmental entities are engaged with the local communities in adopting effective strategies to handle new threats to the watershed. Oftentimes a lack of local input results in government actions that do nothing to resolve a problem but instead put people’s health or livelihoods at risk. A good example in Futaleufú is the recent detection of an invasive species called the Didymosphenia Geminata
Didymo is an invasive algae native to the northern hemisphere, and can form large mats at the bottoms of slow-moving rivers and lakes. Due to the constantly-changing flow of water, which scrubs algae off the rocks, didymo blooms cannot establish themselves in the Futaleufú River. However, its presence was cause for immediate alarm on the part of the Chilean government.
The government’s initial knee-jerk response to the didymo – closing the river down indefinitely – would have been disastrous for the region without addressing the root causes of the didymo. But a momentous effort by Robert Currie Ortiz, a long time outfitter in the watershed, succeeded in changing the government’s stance. They helped organize workshops with international experts on the didymo, who educated government officials and other authorities about how to prevent it from spreading, and lobbied congressmen and regulatory officials to take swift action.
With the help of Senator Antonio Horvath, they were able to engage Chile’s Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG), obtaining a governmental response in the form of a new education campaign to teach people how to treat gear and clothing before and after entering rivers or lakes. This new nationwide campaign consists of installing billboards, passing out fliers, and putting up large displays at major ports of entry (like Chile’s main airport in Santiago). The alternatives to this campaign – closure of the river, prohibited community access to the spots they used to fish, and the possibility of injecting toxic chemicals at great expense to both the municipality and the ecosystem – would have been much worse for the watershed.
The Futaleufú Riverkeeper continues working to engage officials in pursuing long-term strategies to address certain problems, including invasive species. Even a well-meaning government can trample on the rights of the citizens when it lacks the right information and knowledge about how best to address a new problem.