Communities from the River Atrato

Indigenous communities who rely on the River Atrato in Colombia are facing the devastating effects of the climate emergency

By United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

ABColombia, SCIAF & Atrato River Guardians

Deforestation and SiltingUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Forestry and sewage waste fills the river basins due to a lack of sewage systems and landfills near the Atrato river. Chocó has historically homed communities that extract precious metals through artisanal mining methods. However, following the 1990s, these methods gradually changed.

Intensive machinery and toxic chemical elements, such as mercury, are used in the region today. Currently, the Atrato River basin hosts multiple illegal and medium-scale mining exploitation projects that lack environmental licenses.  

Bebarama y BebaraUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Global economics and the armed conflict have facilitated an increase in illegal gold mining. Mining methods, and by-products of sediment and mercury, have altered the river’s course, increased water turbidity and released toxins into the environment.

This has poisoned fish and destroyed agricultural land, reducing communities’ access to sustainable food sources, income and bio-cultural practices. The communities have few choices: accept illegal mining and territory destruction to access income, or take legal action. 

Panning for GoldUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

The communities working with Colombian NGO Tierra Digna (now, Siembra) undertook studies, collated data, and submitted evidence to the Court that mechanised mining activities contributed to an exponential increase of problems in the region.

The evidence demonstrates systematic violations of communities fundamental rights. An example of this was when 37 children died after drinking poisoned water, and 64 children suffered the poisoning effects. Diseases like diarrhoea, dengue and malaria had all also increased.

Rio Quito Mechanised Mining PlatformUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

In the absence of an adequate Government response to the dire humanitarian situation, Tierra Digna/Siembra sought a legal decision. The Court found state authorities responsible for violations of the right to life, health, water, food security, a healthy environment.

The cultural and territorial rights of the ethnic communities had also been violated. The landmark judgement T-622 gave biocultural rights to the Atrato River and its tributaries, recognising the interdependency between nature, natural resources and the ethnic communities.  

Travelling to CommunityUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Biocultural rights are the precondition for the rights of ethnic and Indigenous communities to exercise territorial autonomy in accordance with their own laws and customs, including the right to administer the natural resources in their territories.

The Court pronounced the Atrato River itself as legal subject with specific rights regarding its protection, conservation, maintenance, and rehabilitation. The court’s decision is hugely important for protecting communities, biodiversity and addressing climate change.

Embera WomanUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

14 elected community members and the Colombian Environment Minister were named as Guardians of the Atrato, overseeing the ruling’s Comprehensive Climate Change Plan (CCCP) implementation. The implementation is bureaucratic and slow, initially excluding the communities' voices.

The communities joined forces with national and international advisers including NGOs, academic institutions and lawyers to form cooperative groups, achieving progressive results in biodiversity restoration and inbuilding resilience.

SlideUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

The groups provide tools through citizen science projects, gathering data to persuade authorities to act such as satellite monitoring to track mining-induced deforestation and river ecosystem damage. 

During the pandemic, there was a rapid increase in mining activities, violence against communities and control of their movements by armed groups protecting the mining operations. Data was sent to a Monitoring Committee regarding the Ministry of Defence's lack of action.

Tributary AtratoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

“What we have achieved has been to convince the Colombian government that the environmental action plans must be designed by the communities... The greatest threats we suffer is that the Court order related to the dismantling of illegal mining in has not been implemented.”  

Recognising the historic knowledge of river communities, implementation programmes should be designed with the Atrato Guardians. Many challenges still confront communities, but these first steps set precedence for other world regions.

CHildren RIver AtratoUnited Nations Climate Change Conference COP26

Respect for, protection, promotion and fulfilment of human rights, and those who defend them, must be an essential and non-negotiable part of negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP26.

Human rights and the environment are inextricably linked. Choco is key to tackling climate change, but only if it is preserved. Communities are crucial to protecting the Chocó ecosystem and fighting climate change.

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