Death by water : the rise and fall of Los Saltos del Guairá

Niland, Richard (2017) Death by water : the rise and fall of Los Saltos del Guairá. Environmental History, 23 (1). pp. 1-26. ISSN 1930-8892 (

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Los Saltos del Guairá, known in English as the Guayra Falls, and in Portuguese as Sete Quedas (Seven Falls), were once the most powerful waterfalls on earth, regarded by those who saw them as “worthy of description by Homer and Virgil.” Located on the Paraná on the Brazil-Paraguay border and endowed over time with near-legendary status, the spectacular falls vanished in October 1982, submerged by rising river levels extending behind the vast reservoir created by the Itaipú Dam, a vast hydroelectric project developed by Brazil and Paraguay throughout the 1970s. Itaipú has been well documented, whereas the importance of los Saltos del Guairá in the literature and history of Latin America remains scantly documented outside of Paraguay and Brazil, thereby concealing one of the most drastic environmental transformations brought about by technological intervention. By examining the rich history of the falls as recorded by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, travellers and explorers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and politicians and engineers in the twentieth century, this article explores in detail the evolving place of los Saltos del Guairá in the literature and politics of the environment of Latin America and the circumstances leading to their final disappearance in 1982.


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