River reconnection: counter-mapping the Guargualla River to bring upstream and downstream waters closer together

My name is Sebastián, I was born in Riobamba, a small city in the country of Ecuador. For several years I have been working with rural communities that I have connected through water. When I was a child, I lived with my father near the countryside, the land and the water. We saw lush grasslands around our snow-capped mountain, Chimborazo. But when I was 10 years old, I left that world and began to live among the grey asphalt of the city.

After a few years I obtained the title of agronomist and my first job was in the government institution in charge of water management, the National Ministry of Water. There I got to know many peasant and indigenous organisations, their forms of water management and their problems. But I also fell in love with their stories and understood their struggles and loss of memory.

These water disconnections and reconnections are often between individuals and social groups, as happens around the Guarguallá River. Although I live close to the river, I had never had any contact with it or the communities around it. But that changed a few months ago when Riverhood and River Commons researchers asked me to approach the communities in their watershed to make contact with their leaders, to map their differences and express their hopes.

We found many outstretched arms and several open doors that welcomed us without hesitation. In the lower basin, several irrigation communities coexist, while in the upper basin there is an organisation of mountain guardians called “cuidadores del páramo”. They are geographically close, they are related to the river and they say they know each other, but they don’t have a close community relationship.
The construction of the map was an opportunity to bring them together around the same canvas, sharing the same images. These would give shape to the traces of small streams, endless grasslands “pajonales”, lush landscapes and constant threats. But this collective construction was also the moment to express their needs and demonstrate their emotional distances, which exceeded the kilometres that separated them.

What’s more, these reunions were not just about people, but also about communities, researchers, activists, academics and artists, who were able to get to know each other and establish relationships as a result of these friendly spaces. These relationships, mediated by a sensitivity to water injustices, are also scenarios that, since that moment, have sought to be strengthened through exchanges and collaborations to build deep and supportive ties.

Last October, the new links created by Ecuador’s rivers aroused interest in taking their problems to new, distant lands. The cordial communication gave shape to an enveloping daily schedule that would take me to the canals, rivers, cities, nature and people of the Netherlands to explore possibilities and provoke new initiatives.

I now understand that counter-mapping was not only a methodological exercise and an instrument of rebellion and resistance, but also a way of thinking about building new bridges and creating spaces to reconnect the distant communities of the “paramo” and the “happy communities” of Licto, who enjoy the benefits of irrigating their land with the well-tended waters of the Guarguallá River.

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