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Colombia: The Atrato River, a landmark for biocultural rights among Afro-descendants

20 June 2023

El Atrato is a mirror that bewitches: to approach it is to have an encounter with oneself and with the world, with the simplest and the deepest.  

— Viviana Gonzales, lawyer who led legal action for the rights of the Atrato River

The Atrato River is located in north-western Colombia, 750 kilometres in length and mostly navigable, and is in an area characterized by an exuberant fauna and flora. The existence of many endemic species stands out, and the resident population boasts a cultural heritage of importance for all humanity. The conditions in this region make the river a primary resource for trade and transport of food products, guaranteeing the food security of communities that live here.  

This is a complex territory where indigenous, Afro-descendant and mestizo communities reside, and where lives are intertwined in efforts to overcome the difficulties caused by the indifference of the Colombian government. These communities have a historical legacy whereby their knowledge has allowed them to live in harmony with nature and establish ways of relating to the river that differ from those of the majority population in Colombia.

Maria, whose livelihood comes from fishing in the Atrato, is helped by one of her daughters. Fish are becoming increasingly scarce due to the pollution of the river caused by global warming and illegal gold mining. Credit: Livia Saavedra.

Faced with the challenges of environmental degradation, civil war and drug violence, a lawsuit was brought by representatives of the Atrato. The case represented the result of a collective process involving local inhabitants with the support of civil society. As a result, in 2016 the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered the protection of this region, given its natural and cultural diversity. In addition, the court urged the state to adopt decisions to curb pollution and illegal mining of alluvial gold, which is practised in this territory (Judgment T-622 of 2016).

The claims of the communities follow on from an invisibility, namely the absence of the state for many decades and systematic violations of their rights, in addition to their having been victims of the armed conflict that has affected Colombia. The humanitarian and environmental crisis has led the Afro-descendant inhabitants of the Chocó region, and the Atrato River communities in particular, to consider this deterioration as a reflection of the discrimination they face, a scourge that has caused displacement, among other consequences.  

The Atrato River region is a space where communities in the past and present have committed themselves to the protection of life in all its forms and, with daily work, have contributed through forest and river guardianship to the planetary fight against climate change. In addition, the Afro-descendant collectives that make up the Atrato River Guardians are keepers of traditional knowledge (saberes ancestrales) that generate valuable scientific knowledge. As Audrey Mena, an Afro-descendant Chocóana explains, the Guardians of the Atrato themselves propose that ancestral science is the result of cultural processes that testify to and identify with a continuous dialogue with the territory.  

A vital relationship between river and people is held together by a profound Afro-descendant cultural legacy, which has made possible the region’s great cultural and ecological value for all humanity. This has been recognized by the Colombian Constitutional Court when it safeguarded the river’s rights – the first example of a declaration of the rights of nature in Colombian history. That the campaign for this landmark legal ruling was spearheaded by Afro-descendant communities in the deprived region of Chocó, in western Colombia, is further testament to the strength, resilience and vision of marginalized communities in this country seeking to draw on their ancestral cultures and beliefs to ensure the protection and restoration of Atrato’s waters. 

It is a profound and innovative decision, celebrated in popular song:  

Majestic Atrato River
You who have endured so much
Give your children courage to keep on fighting. 

— Tanguí Chirimía music group

Given the historical process of marginalization and oppression experienced by the Black riparian communities of Atrato, and bearing in mind the historic lawsuit filed by the Atrato representatives, it is indeed a landmark that the Constitutional Court should have declared the existence of serious violations of the fundamental rights to life, health, water, food security, a healthy environment, culture and territory among the ethnic communities that inhabit the Atrato River basin and its tributaries. These violations result from the conduct of different state bodies that have for years, decades or even longer, provided no adequate, articulated, coordinated or effective institutional response in the face of the multiple historical, socio-cultural, environmental and humanitarian problems that affect the region and that, in recent years, have been aggravated by intensive illegal mining activities operating in this area. 

As such, the declaration of the rights of the Atrato River is underpinned by the aim of safeguarding the biocultural rights of Afro-descendant communities. These include the rights of ethnic minorities to administer and exercise guardianship autonomously over their territories, considering their own laws, customs, natural resources and cultural practices, closely informed by the habitat, colonial history and memory. The traditions and the way of life of Afro-descendant communities in Atrato reflect the special relationship many Afro-Colombian communities have with the environment and biodiversity. As noted, these rights result from the recognition of the deep and intrinsic connection that exists between nature, its resources and the cultures of those who inhabit the Atrato River area, which are interdependent and cannot be understood in isolation.

Sunset on the Atrato River in the village of El Carmen del Darién, Chocó, Colombia. Credit: Livia Saavedra.

The fact that the environment continues to deteriorate and the communities’ health problems increase, demonstrates a lack of political will to tackle this crisis.

It must be emphasized in this case that the protection of the Atrato River’s waters and its guardians must be a joint effort that engages with all the actors involved. Given the great value of the Atrato River ecosystem, the court declared that the Atrato River is a subject of rights, in particular the rights of protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration by the state and the ethnic communities that inhabit its region. A commission of Guardians of the Atrato River and a panel of experts have been established to monitor compliance with the Constitutional Court’s orders. The panel of experts will also supervise, accompany and advise the work of the members of the commission. 

As can be seen, this is a novel decision that transcends the analysis of ecosystem problems towards an integrated vision of environmental, social and cultural values. We hope that its fulfilment will mean that the dignity of the communities will be respected and enhanced, while our natural and cultural heritage is protected. This case stands out for its approach to biocultural rights and for the respect it shows for the role played by Afro-descendant people in the protection of ecosystems. 

However, the orders issued in this ruling, which urge key institutions to take concrete action to address the damage in the area, such as ecosystem restoration and eradication of illegal mining, have not been implemented as there has not yet been an allocation of sufficient economic resources. In addition, lack of institutional coordination has prevented the effective implementation of the ruling or monitoring of its compliance.  

A process of high-level dialogue has been agreed, leading to the creation of comprehensive action plans. However, it has not yet been possible to control the mining activities that are harming the river. The fact that the environment continues to deteriorate and the communities’ health problems increase, demonstrates a lack of political will to tackle this crisis. In the face of this reality, the river communities cry out for urgent action:

If you hear the voice of the river
You will feel the depth of his word.

Milton Velásquez Mena, Council Leader of Atrato

We are grateful to members of the Universidad del Rosario for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Sunset on the Atrato River in the village of El Carmen del Darién, Chocó, Colombia. Credit: Livia Saavedra.

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


Gloria Amparo Rodríguez