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The Kaiak Crew Explores Hydropower Politics in Southern Brazil
Posted on May 29, 2015

Grandeur of Iguacu, Brazil, with Ben Stookesberry and Pedro Oliva on the island in the middle. P: Korbulic

Over the course of the last two months, Pedro OlivaChris Korbulic, and Ben Stookesberry traveled more than 5,000 miles through South America to film and document a landmark whitewater kayaking expedition. From the legendary waterfalls of southern Brazil, through the high Andes in Argentina, to the mighty rivers of Chilean Patagonia, their expedition was unlike anything else they’d ever attempted before. The mission was for ten episodes of their seventh season of Kaiak—the world’s only syndicated whitewater kayaking show—bringing them to a crazy expedition milestone of having completed over 100 episodes of the show since its inception in 2010. This is the first of three reports recapping their trip south from the waterfall nation of Brazil to the wild rivers of Patagonia. —LYA Editor

Estrelas. Starry night near Prudentopolis, Brazil. P: Korbulic

Words by Ben Stookesberry, Images by Chris Korbulic, Ben Stookesberry and Pedro Oliva

Two weeks after beginning the trip in São Paulo, Pedro Oliva, Chris Korbulic and I are still in Brazil. It’s been a slow start to a kayaking expedition set to explore and film rivers at the southern tip of the continent, 8,000 kilometers south. But ask anyone who has experienced this end of Brazil, sandwiched between the subtropical Atlantic, Argentina, and Paraguay, and they’ll tell you there are plenty of good reasons to delay departure. But it’s not the world-famous beaches of Brazil’s southern Atlantic coast that have our mouths watering.

This is actually my first time in southern Brazil, and I guess my mind was too cluttered with the general overload of logistics that is implicit in a two-month expedition to really consider what this first leg of the journey would mean. But here on the banks of the Rio Iguaçu, the story to be told is stark and clear: waterfalls. From the world-famous, and often crowded, Iguaçu Falls, to the other relatively unknown falls that we have seen along the way, in places like Novo Benedito, Santa Catarina and Prudentópolis, Paraná, there must be thousands of waterfalls in this small portion of Brazil.


For the most part, we are concerned with only the big and tall variety, of which there is no shortage here. Geologists say that this area, called the Paraná Plateau, is the largest and most ancient volcanic plateau on Earth. Two hundred million years ago, the super-continent Gondwanaland started to break up into Africa, Madagascar, India, Australia, Antarctica, and South America, causing fissures in the earth, which opened up and spewed out apocalyptic volumes of volcanic rock that ended up covering an area twice the size of Texas and which is, on average, more than 2,000 feet thick. Today, the rain-fed subtropical rivers of the region run off the top of these sheets of ancient lava flows to produce countless spectacular waterfalls. If you’re still trying to figure out what I am talking about, try thinking about the Columbia River Plateau that covers parts of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, which is also known for its waterfalls but is four times smaller than the flood basalts we find here.

Even if you’re not a geology nerd like me, there is no denying the spectacle and power of these falling waters. There is also no denying that every year there are fewer and fewer of these waterfalls. And the truth is that we are completely to blame. The biggest example is Guaíra Falls on the Paraná River. Once the world’s largest waterfall by volume and over 350 feet tall, it was dynamited and then flooded by Itaipu Dam in 1975 to create one of the world’s largest hydroelectric facilities, which generates 25 times more electricity than Hoover Dam. Today, backroom deals forged by corrupt politics and public pandering are set to dam and divert the river.


The good news is that today, 75 percent of Brazil’s electricity is now generated by hydropower. The bad news is that we have almost no idea what the net effect of eliminating billions of gallons of falling water per second will do to the ecosystem, and every other ecosystem where the same process is occurring. Incidentally, Pedro has initiated a project with the scientific institutions in Brazil to study and monitor this very question, and try to develop a specific language to express the importance of waterfalls in our world beyond tourism and microclimates.

But I digress. We are here to use our kayaks to get as close to these waterfalls as possible and ultimately have the opportunity to descend one of these “giants.” But there are plenty of challenges. We were reminded of the risks the first day of our trip when a fellow professional kayaker in the region landed on a hidden rock off a 13-meter falls and fractured three vertebrae. Luckily he will recover, but the lesson is clear. There is no way to eliminate the risks of what we are doing. So we will look a lot, act a little, and try our best to resist temptation and not get arrested at Iguaçu.

Sunset over the Rio Parana P: Stookesberry


Author: - Friday, May 29th, 2015

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