Voices from the River Atrato

A collection of stories from indigenous people who live alongside the River Atrato in Colombia, and who are experiencing the effects of the climate crisis.

By United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Tributary of the river AtratoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

The Chocó Biographical Region in Colombia, is one of the most important tropical regions and richest gene banks on earth, with immense biodiversity, endemic species, 9 biomes, 55 different ecosystems, forests, mangroves and jungles making it a key carbon store.

Heavy rainfall supports over 50 sub-basins, most importantly the Atrato River, one of the largest in America. Flowing into the Caribbean Sea it forms a complex deltaic system, host to diverse migrant species; it is known for being the nesting and birth place of sea turtles.

Flooding in ChocoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Choco, one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, is also an area of intense conflict for control of illicit economies. It is impacted by climate change, and experiences disasters such as flooding.

It has little access to drinking water or waste removal and is prone to diseases including Dengue fever and malaria. Historically neglected by the Colombian state, it is one of the poorest regions of the country and lacks the resources to manage climate change impacts. 

Fishing in San MarinoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Choco is an ancestrally important region, inhabited by 5 indigenous tribes, and Afro-Colombian communities, who immigrated when they overcame slavery. 93% of the population are Afro-Colombian or Indigenous living on collectively owned territory. 

They depend on the river Atrato for their livelihoods and cultural pratices.  Conflict has ravaged Choco since the 1990s, with paramilitary groups and the Colombian Security Forces forcibly displacing and massacring communities to further their own economic interest.

Hamlet JiguamiandoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

"My community was displaced in 1997 by violence [when] I was 17. We all had to leave, driven out by paramilitaries and the army... They attacked because our territory is rich in natural resources. So, we went to the neighbouring department of Antioquia.

"We had to walk for two weeks through the jungle, with pregnant women giving birth. The oldest people died...we were so tired.” 


Since the Peace Accords in 2016 and 2021 over 400 defenders of the community, land, environment and human rights have been killed in Colombia.

Destruction of RIver by Mechanised MiningUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Whilst conflict and land grabs are prevalent along the whole 650km of the Atrato, environmental disasters vary, from deforestation to the impacts of coca growing, and changing climate causing increased flooding.

Whilst conflict and land grabs are prevalent along the whole 650km of the Atrato, environmental disasters vary, from deforestation to the impacts of coca growing, and changing climate causing increased flooding.

AnimalUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

“When I was young, by 2 or 3 years old we knew how to swim and were always in the river... There was an immense variety of fish in the river. There were lots of trees, and we saw animals all the time - deer, jaguars, sheep, leopards, armadillos...

"Now that there is deforestation and mining... There are chemicals in the water... drinking the water gives people diarrhoea so we must use filters or boil it. The rivers are vital to my people. If the river dies – if it becomes polluted beyond repair – then I die with it."

Pounding Rice JiguamiandoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Choco, in spite of the armed conflict, exclusion and racial discrimination, is characterised by its tenacious people demanding structural changes, creating human rights networks, vindicating their way of life and their culture.

For years, urgent warnings from the community were met with indifference by the Colombian government. Now, we face a desperate environmental and humanitarian crisis due to toxic river contamination, erosion, waste accumulation, deforestation, biodiversity loss and armed conflict

Credits: Story

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