Colombia River Stories


The research responds to the landmark Colombian Constitutional Court Ruling T- 622, which recognises the River Atrato in Chocó as a bearer of rights and calls on both communities and the state to be its 'Guardians'. Chocó is Colombia’s poorest and most ethnically diverse department. Social organisations have declared an ongoing ‘humanitarian crisis’ in the region, which is manifest in continued violent confrontations between different armed actors over territory and resources, displacement of communities and the lack of access to sustainable livelihood systems for many of the department’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous inhabitants Riverine communities have been deeply affected by widespread, illegal alluvial gold mining, which interacts with political conflict and is a key factor in driving the crisis.  

The project will co-produce a series of ‘river stories’ with local communities that bring together data from the natural and social sciences. The ‘stories’ will help provide evidence to Indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian descendants living along the Atrato to support their demands to enforce the river’s rights. Project team members will work with local social organisations, the Ministry for Environment and Development, international NGOs and specialist networks to improve the processes of sustainable peace building in Colombia.

Principle Investigator

Dr Mo Hume


Dr Neil Burnside (Glasgow), Dr Nick Mount (Nottingham) and Dr Richard Teeuw (Portsmouth)

Post Doctoral Research Fellow

Dr Allan Gillies (Glasgow)


ESRC (Newton Caldas)

Project Dates

August 2018 - August 2020


Colombia has experienced one of the most protracted civil conflicts in the world. Despite the 2016 peace agreement between the Government and the FARC-EP, conflict in Chocó, Colombia’s poorest region, has worsened (UMAIC, 2017). To understand why conflict persists in Chocó, and the possibilities for sustainable peace, it is necessary to consider the central role that Chocó’s rivers play. Rivers not only offer substantive benefits to Chocó’s communities (e.g. transport, food), they are also woven into their cultural identifies and livelihoods. It is generally acknowledged that the illegal exploitation of rivers by armed actors through alluvial gold mining, and the impact this has on communities’ cultural identify and sustainable livelihoods, is a primary factor that fuels the wider conflict ecosystem. However, it is a factor that has received little attention and that remains poorly understood.

This project explores who and what actors and drivers of conflict in Chocó are, how they have developed with respect to alluvial gold mining, and the extent to which ‘river stories’ that integrate the perspectives of communities and the river itself, may inform more inclusive strategies for building sustainable peace.

Our approach is founded upon peace and reconciliation processes around the world that foreground the telling and curation of testimony and stories as central to revealing how complex conflict ecosystems function and where interventions can maximise opportunities for peace. Stories enable different conflict actors to explain their actions to one-another and support a collective transition from narrow understandings of conflict, and the interrelationships that sustain it, to more expansive and inclusive ones through which roadmaps to sustainable peace can ultimately be plotted. They allow the voices of marginalised and silenced groups to be heard.  However, the agency of Chocó’s rivers in relation to the conflict means that the river’s stories must also be voiced and articulated alongside those of human actors. This necessitates a novel, transdisciplinary coalition of researchers and methods from the social and natural sciences that combine Latin American traditions of community co-production and popular education with scientific methods for environmental reconstruction and monitoring.