In Colombia’s central Andes lies one of its most powerful rivers, the Rio Samana – referred to by Colombians as the “jewel of the Magdalena Valley.”

The Samana River Valley receives over five meters of rainfall each year – five times more rainfall than Seattle. With this amount of water and tropical sun, the Samana is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, with complex geology and a historical wealth of cultural heritage. Over its long journey to its confluence with the Rio Magdalena, the Rio Samana passes through five unique ecosystems, and all are still intact and interconnected.

However, the river is at risk.

Virgin Unite, wildlife conservation, samana river

A region of beauty threatened by industry

With post-conflict Colombia's growing population and potential for economic growth, the Colombian government is pushing hard for hydroelectric power, both domestically and as an international export. Relatively cheap construction costs and inadequate environmental laws makes Colombia’s rivers an easy, profitable target. All around, nearby rivers are either dammed or are currently in the process of entering dam construction. In this region of central Colombia, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a river that has not been impacted by dams. In fact, the Rio Samana may be the last large, clean, free-flowing river in this region.

Upon completing the first descent by kayak of the Rio Samana Norte, while savoring my memory of the experience, I was informed by the friendly locals of the imminent construction of a dam on the river. It was like discovering heaven, only to be informed it would be irrevocably changed the next day.

After a lifetime of river trips that have profoundly transformed and inspired me, I have seen some of my favorite places on Earth dramatically transformed by development – glaciers gone, tailings ponds contaminating the water system, and countless dams. I can’t believe how these places, that had for time immemorial remained unchanged, have been transformed so fast.

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How dams and mining affect the waterways

The Samana River, due to the shape of its watershed, has the potential to generate electricity and refill reservoirs quickly. Because of the presence of nearby hydro station, the connectivity to the main national grid is convenient and easy. It is therefore at risk for damming, and therefore, mining.

Mining is inextricably linked to the dams, as the banks along the Rio Samana hold the largest limestone deposit in Colombia, necessary for the cement construction of the dams. Colombia’s cement industry giant, the Argos Groups, and their energy company, Celsia, plan to build a 130-meter-tall concrete arch dam. While Argos, already well established in the region with one of the biggest cement factories in Rio Claro, is currently mining the rest of the limestone deposit to produce more cement than ever.

But they are not the only companies interested in the limestone, and the Colombian government has already sold over 60 per cent of this limestone deposit to mining concession. Two other large dam project are in the advanced-licensing stage. Countless other small run-of-the-river projects are also being pushed forward.

However, this watershed must not be sacrificed in such manners. Geological studies discovered potential geological faults in the limestone, creating potential siphons for the reservoirs and making it less efficient, if not useless. Biological studies on fish revealed the importance of the river for many endangered migratory fish species, particularly given its prime spawning grounds.

Virgin Unite, wildlife conservation, samana river

Protection is a public affair

Conservation efforts have been made – lawsuits, bills, pressure on the companies – but they have been largely futile given a lack of government enforcement. However, conversation doesn’t have to be a succession of legal battles – it can also be socially uplifting and an amazing opportunity to grow as a community. From the companies that want to exploit the region, we learned how important natural resources are for the country and for the people.

The more we learned, the more we realised that the most powerful tool to save this watershed is to highlight the beauty and importance of the watershed itself to visitors and residents alike. Our foundation, Yumana, and our local adventure company, Expedition Colombia, expose visitors to this incredible place. Their mere presence here is a statement against its destruction. We believe that by transforming this region into a hot spot of ecotourism and adventure tourism, while making sure that its development is generated by community efforts, we set a great example for Colombia’s future development.

Tourism is the second-fastest growing industry in Colombia, right after natural resources exploitation. Although tourism might not be as lucrative, it’s more sustainable. That is the idea we want to share – that it’s possible to interact with the river in a way that everybody wins, not only one company.

So far it’s working: Since bringing more people down the river, local community members have understood its value. Traditional gold miners have become river guides, loggers have started leading tours into the dense forest, and hunters have put down their guns to lead wildlife safari photography tours.

It’s a new era for the people of the Samana, along with a new way to interact with the land and a promising reconstruction of the social networks of the valley.

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