18 October 2019, The Tablet

Working with the 'river guardians' of Colombia to protect vital natural resources

by Mark Camburn

On the eve of the Amazon Synod, SCIAF welcomed two river Guardians from the Atrato River in Colombia to Scotland.

Working with the 'river guardians' of Colombia to protect vital natural resources

SCIAF have been working with indigenous people in Choco, Colombia

This week, Pope Francis has convened a synod in the Vatican to highlight major climate, social, and religious issues faced by those in the Amazon region. The synod aims to discuss important environmental changes surrounding protecting our common home – particularly for indigenous communities. SCIAF have been working with indigenous people in Choco, Colombia, where it has become crucial for locals to protect and make sustainable use of their land and natural resources.

While Chocó is not part of the Amazon Biome, it has many similarities. Chocó is a richly biodiverse rainforest ecosystem, dominated by large rivers and thick forest cover. Just like the Amazon, Chocó is culturally diverse too, with a largely indigenous and afro-Colombian population. Like the Amazon, the Chocó region is rich in natural and mineral resources, and communities face an ongoing battle to protect their land and resources from outside interests. In Colombia, this means living within the midst of an ongoing internal armed conflict.

The river Atrato and the Chocó region face many challenges, including environmental and social devastation, two issues that the Amazon Synod is discussing. Communities living along the river have suffered decades of civil war and the ineffective application of land laws. Against this background, Colombian government policy has seen large swathes of Colombia promised under concessions to international mining companies for development, often with no consent from local communities. While no mining companies have started to exploit the mining concessions they have been granted, in Chocó, many fear this is just a matter of time. In the meantime, the Atrato river is being destroyed by illegal gold mining, and communities are losing their traditional livelihoods as the region’s resources are depleted and degraded. On top of this, the continuing presence of illegal armed actors across the region makes community life precarious.

For community leaders, many are targeted for speaking out about the plight of their communities – Colombia remains the world’s most dangerous country to be a human rights defender. As a result, many communities across Chocó have been forced to migrate to the larger cities and towns in search of safety and financial security.

We have worked in Chocó since 2006, identifying it as the poorest region of Colombia, and one of the regions most affect by the conflict. Today, it is the focal point of our Colombia Country Strategy. Through our local partners, we work with local Indigenous, afro-Colombian, and Mestizo rural communities and their organisations, strengthening their capacity to defend, protect, and make sustainable use of their natural resources. We have worked to help communities gain legal rights and full access to their ancestral territories, develop plans for the sustainable use of their resources, and implement livelihood projects within their territories. We also work to ensure local voices are heard loud and clear within Chocó, and at National and International level, by strengthening leadership skills, helping new leaders find their voice, and adding our voice to the demands and campaigns of local organisations and partners.

One such initiative was the River Atrato court ruling from 2016. By working with local communities and organisations, we became aware of the importance of the Atrato River to all the communities within its river basin. This has allowed our partners to bring a ground-breaking case to court in Colombia, where the voice of local communities was crucial to ensuring a positive result. The court ruled in favour of the Atrato River, granting the river the right to be protected, maintained, conserved and restored alongside the biocultural rights of its riverine communities. The Atrato river is the third river in the world to be recognised in this way.

At an international level, SCIAF and others are supporting calls for a global treaty on business and human rights, currently being negotiated at the UN in Geneva. This could ensure that large companies are held to account for their impact on people and the planet, with better protection for those who defend their rights and greater access to justice for communities when things go wrong. It is vital that the UK government constructively participates in these talks and gets behind calls for a treaty.

The River Guardians, who visited Scotland last week, are tasked with being the “voice” of the river. They came to raise awareness of the ruling, and the challenges they are facing trying to enforce the implementation of its different components. They met with SCIAF’s Bishop President Joseph Toal and representatives from the Scottish Government to spread their message as widely as possible.

We are helping the Guardians tell their story by collaborating with the Universities of Glasgow, Nottingham and Portsmouth who, together with the riverine communities, are developing innovative approaches to monitor the health of the river and highlight the changes it has suffered.


Mark Camburn is SCIAF’s International Programme Officer for Latin America. 



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