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The Atrato River: An Afro-Colombian cultural heritage of resistance

20 June 2023

If our territory is polluted it’s a threat to us and the connection we have with the environment. Everything in areas that are contaminated dies. When that happens part of our life dies.

For Afro-Colombian communities, territory is everything. It is the history we have lived; it is the culture of our people; it is the inexhaustible resistance of our ‘mayores’ and ‘mayoras’; it is the memory of the fear and terror of the war; but it is also the love for the river, the marshes, the forests and, in general, all the natural resources, since in these natural ecosystems is where we develop our lives and where we want the lives of our children to develop. 

That is why the Atrato River holds such profound significance for Afro-Colombian communities. The river is not only the place where we make our homes and grow our crops, it is also the place where our strength and courage make sense. It is ‘a place of coexistence, domestic work, and recreation, and it is the communication channel that maintains the ties of extended kinship and strengthens exchanges between communities’. In the river our ancestral practices, traditions and customs are still alive. 

In the municipality of Carmen del Darien in Chocó, adults take children from early childhood onwards to interact with the river. They learn to swim and walk along the riverbank. Thus, the connection between land and water is always present – an amphibious understanding of life, culture and nurture. Children play along the river with the fallen leaves of the trees, they see their mothers washing clothes with the river’s water, and, ultimately, they learn that the river is their home and their refuge. For them the Atrato River is joy and fun, and they have a relationship of trust with it that is built at an early age. They are afraid of many things but never of water, which represents love and the space where they develop their ancestral culture.  

As the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognized in its landmark 2016 decision, declaring the Atrato River as an autonomous entity subject of rights started from a basic premise: ‘the Earth does not belong to human beings but, on the contrary, human beings and all other species belong to the Earth… The Atrato River constitutes an important factor of cultural identity in the Chocó Province.’ Therefore, caring for the river is also caring for our cultural heritage and the identity that defines us as Afro-Colombians.

Photo: Boys jump into the Atrato River, in the village of Campo Alegre, Vigía del Fuerte, Antioquia, Colombia. located on the banks of the Atrato River. 19 March 2023. Credit: David Ochoa.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Angélica Ricaurte Villalobos

Regional Adviser for South America

Minority Rights Group