Colombia River Stories


Chocó’s rubbish and the rights of nature

When the level of the Atrato drops, layers of rubbish are revealed, embedded in the river banks around Quibdó.  I saw mattresses and furniture, clothes, building materials, and countless plastic bottles and bags.  I travelled further down river to areas where gold-mining dredgers and diggers were absent. Aside from the heavily-sedimented water, the Atrato looked beautiful and the jungle met the edge of the water.  Discarded plastics, though, floated alongside the boat.  Downstream from Quibdó, rubbish gathered along the banks, tangled in plants and trees.

Nearly every person I talked to in Chocó said rubbish in the river was a major problem.  They spoke with sadness about the damage they themselves were doing to the Atrato.  While the miners and their finance largely came from outside the region – with support from armed groups – local people said that they bore responsibility for the rubbish.

There are caveats.  Weak governance allows irresponsible businesses to flout regulations and pollute the river, and lack of infrastructure means that some riverine communities have no system of waste disposal.  Both factors reflect the state’s abandonment of the region – the poorest in Colombia.

With no refuse collection, for example, communities continue with the long-held practice of using the river to dispose of waste.  In the not too distant past, this waste was almost exclusively organic and harmlessly decomposed in the river.  As the region increasingly shifted from subsistence livelihoods to a market economy – with attached growing urbanisation – this brought more consumer goods and plastic packaging.  Such waste pollutes the river, and poisons Chocó’s rich biodiversity.  Even where refuse collection does exist, though, some people choose not to use it.  Using the river to dispose of waste is a deeply engrained social practice.

During my time in Chocó, I saw several initiatives that aimed to encourage a cultural change by educating people about the effects of dumping rubbish in the river.  The T-622 ruling of the Colombian Constitutional Court and the legal rights of the Atrato are an important educational tool.  One initiative was led by students at the local university, who were campaigning to raise awareness of the environmental damage caused by the rubbish.  I agreed to go litter-picking with them one morning.

Their enthusiasm for improving the community was infectious.  We took a walk into one of the informal barrios in the city, equipped with a pair of welly-boots, gloves and surgical masks.  We went to collect rubbish around one of the many small streams that feeds into the Atrato.

The densely populated neighbourhood used the stream to dump its rubbish.  The low-water level showed years-worth of rubbish, partly-buried in the banks.  The smell was awful.  I could see waste water from the surrounding houses also draining into the stream.  Although the barrio had refuse-collection, the scale of the task was immense – and dangerous.  At one point, I found hospital waste among the rubbish.  There were many families living around the stream, and I could see young children playing nearby.

I lasted just a few hours before giving-up and going back to my apartment.  I felt nauseous for the rest of the day and wondered how the community had allowed such a hazard to develop.  I was reluctant to judge them, especially from my own position of privilege.  Structural factors matter.  These families face poverty and racism, lack of access to sanitation, education and health, and many have been affected by the armed conflict.  Indeed, it’s possible that some had been displaced to Quibdó.

A friend explained that when the river level is high, the water covers and sweeps away rubbish into the Atrato and down towards the Caribbean Sea – ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  She said that education was needed to make people aware of the damage they were doing; that the traditional practice of disposing of waste in the river was no longer acceptable.  Another friend suggested that the situation was emblematic of the loss of hope; that poverty and violence had broken the spirit of the community, damaging self-care and care for the environment.  Perhaps this was the case for some, but that should be tempered by resolve of the students and other volunteers to clean-up the river.

The experience also forced me to reflect about our lifestyles back in Scotland.  Fly-tipping and littering is certainly not unique to Chocó.  Travelling by train between Dumbarton and Glasgow, for example, I’m often struck by the volume of discarded packaging and plastic bottles that litter the tracks. As council budgets have tightened, with litter-picking services cut, our lack of care for the environment has become more visible. Government education campaigns and fines seem to have little effect.

I wondered also to what extent the ‘hiding’ of rubbish facilitates our own wasteful consumer culture.  Our waste is taken away in wheelie-bins, much of it ending-up in landfill sites we never see.  Our conscience is soothed by recycling, while single-use plastics pollute the land and the ocean.  We are not confronted by the reality of a rubbish dump next to our homes.

By recognising the rights of the Atrato river, the Colombian Constitutional Court sought to rebalance the relationship between people and the natural environment; to acknowledge that human rights (in this case specifically, those of the local communities) are fundamentally interwoven with the rights of nature.  This paradigm partly stems from the knowledge systems of Chocó’s Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities themselves – making the Atrato’s rubbish problem all the more difficult to reconcile.  As we all face a climate emergency, though, this perspective challenges us to question the implications of our consumer lifestyles and recalibrate of our relationship with the environment.

Allan Gillies - September 2019

What does it mean for a river to have ‘rights’?

I have been a river scientist for more than two decades. My training and development have been strongly rooted in techno-scientific ways of seeing, encountering and interacting with the world - building upon a positivist epistemology that centres on scientific verification of natural phenomena.  The notion of a river bearing ‘rights’ jars with this world-view; raising new ontological and metaphysical questions about what a river is, how we interact with the natural world, and the protections that a river could and should have.

What does it mean to give rights to a river (or any environmental entity)?  Is it beneficial and achievable?  What are the legal and philosophical arguments to support this position?

Debates around animal rights may provide us with some insights into these questions. This is an area of legal contention, where ideas of animal welfare contrast with more progressive conceptions of animal rights.  For example, Favre (2005) draws a sharp distinction between the two concepts:

Animal welfare has as an initial premise that humans have an ethical, moral or religious based obligation to treat animals well, to not inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on animals. [ . . . ] Animal rights has a different premise: that animals are beings with a moral, ethical status just like human beings, and that as a result they should have not just protection of the law (welfare) but be a part of the legal system with rights of their own.

It seems to me that this provides a useful analogue for questions around river rights and broader issues of environmental and bio-cultural rights.  If we replace the word ‘animal’ with the word ‘river’ in the above quote, it gets to the core of the questions around river rights.

Under the dominant approach in the West, our legal and political systems are orientated towards the promotion of river ‘welfare’ – underpinned by the notion that we must avoid inflicting unnecessary (interesting word!) damage or suffering on the environment – but it certainly doesn’t go as far as rights.  The idea that rivers will be protected through the promotion or legislation of improved welfare clearly isn’t working. The deteriorating state of the world’s rivers provide clear evidence of this failure.

Moreover, the addition of the word ‘unnecessary’ in Favre’s definition of welfare is telling as it offers a caveat that can be (and regularly is) used to circumnavigate or de-prioritise a river’s welfare needs in the face of political and economic pressure to exploit its resources or to control and constrain its natural function. Where welfare is concerned, human beings are firmly in control and the river remains exposed to exploitation and harm at the whim of our demands.

However, it may be argued that moving to a system that recognises river rights would require a change to our assumptions around the metaphysical status of a river: to instead rationalise and advocate for it as a sentient entity.  On the topic of animal rights, for example, Passantino (2008) states that ‘a sentient being, by virtue of its characteristics, has the capability of experiencing suffering, both at physical and psychological levels, regardless of the species to which it belongs.’

So, can/does a river have the characteristics of a sentient being?  How do we determine whether or not it is suffering and how can the legal system advocate for it?

I’d be very comfortable arguing that we can demonstrate a river’s suffering in a physical sense through the lens of river health, which benefits from a well-established set of theoretical and methodological frameworks. But, demonstrating ‘psychological/emotional suffering’ would be much more difficult.  The frameworks for seeing or understanding such ‘suffering’ don’t exist for those of us who are engaged in working and interacting with rivers.

Of course, these sorts of issues are deeply interwoven with one’s cultural and spiritual understanding of what a river is.  Is it a living and breathing entity (I naturally turn to James Lovelock’s ideas of Gaia here) or is it nothing more than a physical phenomenon – the result of forces and reactions but devoid of the characteristics of a living entity?

Despite what my scientific training might tell me, I now recognise that the answer to this question is not universally agreed.  There are different views along the spectrum between the two positions – all valid in their own ways.

For example, the Whanganui River in New Zealand is viewed by the Maori as a living ancestor, by virtue of which it is considered sentient.  It has been granted the same legal rights as a human being on the basis that it can experience pain and suffering.  This legal protection is thus deeply grounded in the cultural understandings and knowledge systems of the Maori.

So, I wonder, how do riverine communities in Chocó understand the Atrato river?  How do their views compare to those of Colombian policymakers and officials?  Is the Atrato sentient in the minds of the communities that co-exist with it?  Is the concept of bio-cultural rights helpful and realistic or should we be aiming for improved river welfare?

Tied to our Western, techno-scientific epistemology, I think many of us would struggle to characterise rivers as sentient beings.  These epistemological constraints may in-turn limit the new discourse of environmental rights and its implementation.

But, the more I spend time with rivers (20 years and counting), the more I experience their pain and suffering as something tangible. The more I experience their ‘heartbeat’ in their natural ebb and flow, and their personality in the ways that they erode, flood and re-work landscapes.  The more I am able to accommodate them as sentient entities worthy of the protection of rights.

Nick Mount - June 2019


Favre, S. 2005. Judicial Recognition of the Interest of Animals - A New Tort, 2005 Mich. St. L. Rev. 333.

Passantino, A. 2008. Companion animals: an examination of their legal classification in Italy and the impact on their welfare. J. Anim. Law, IV, 59-92.

'The river is life'

For communities living along the Río Atrato, ‘the river is life’. Rivers play a central role in the cultural, economic and social life of the people of Chocó, as a means of transport, a source of livelihood and an actor in daily life.  However, gold mining, linked to Colombia’s long-running internal conflict, has caused devastating social and environmental damage along the Atrato.

We are all Guardians of the Atrato

Bernandino Mosquera, a human rights defender and community leader from the Atrato, came to Glasgow in February 2018.  He travelled as part of a delegation of Colombian human rights defenders and academics to raise awareness about the Colombian Constitutional Court Ruling, T-622.  This landmark ruling recognised the Atrato river as a bearer of rights.

It also identified the rights of communities to physical, cultural and spiritual survival, guaranteeing their traditional livelihoods on the Atrato. Local communities worked with national and international development organisations to help achieve the Constitutional Court Ruling T-622.

Founded on the idea of a sustainable socio-environment, this new paradigm of rights in Colombia has been expressed as ‘bio-cultural’ rights: demanding the river’s ‘protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration’ and the safeguarding of the rights of communities. The ruling calls on the Colombian state to ensure these rights are enforced, as well as empowering local people to manage their river and participate in the implementation of T-622.

As part of this process, Bernandino was elected to be one of 14 ‘guardians’ of the Atrato.  Drawn from local people, the Guardians will represent the communities in pressuring for the full implementation of the ruling.

T-622 ‘Denounces the complete abandonment of the state in terms of basic infrastructure in the region.’

Bernandino and the other guardians face major challenges. The Atrato’s abundant precious metal deposits have made the river a target for a range of different groups. They look to exploit the Atrato for financial gain, through both legal and illegal means. In recent decades, alluvial gold mining has become closely interwoven with the internal conflict.

Armed groups have sought control of lucrative mining operations.  This mining has not only devastated the river itself, but the social fabric of river communities. Toxic metals used in mining, aggressive dredging and widespread deforestation have had deeply damaging effects on traditional farming and fishing, while different armed groups control and terrorise communities - especially those who attempt to stand up for their rights.

‘The humanitarian crisis has worsened’

The historic 2016 peace accord with the FARC – the largest guerrilla group in Colombia – promised to bring the country’s internal conflict to a close.  While some progress has been made with the implementation of the accord, the security situation in Chocó has worsened.  Violence has increased as the remaining armed groups have moved to capture territory vacated by the FARC.  The Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman has signalled the region’s ‘particular vulnerability due to location on areas of strategic interest for legal and illegal actors’. These interests include control of lucrative gold mining operations along the Atrato.

Not only is Chocó Colombia’s poorest department, it has been one of the most affected by the armed conflict. In this ethnically diverse region, almost 60% of inhabitants live below the poverty line and 34% in extreme poverty. This is more than six times the poverty level of the country’s capital Bogotá.

Social organisations and human rights defenders have characterised the situation in Chocó as an ongoing ‘humanitarian crisis’. The crisis is manifest in ongoing violent confrontations between different armed groups over territory and resources, continued displacement of communities due to the violence, and the lack of access to sustainable livelihoods for many of the department’s inhabitants.

Local community organisations have responded to the crisis by renewing calls for dialogue between different groups in the conflict - a process that has been frustratingly slow and difficult process. Human rights defenders and community leaders face daily threats in their struggle to bring the case of the Atrato to world attention.

The number of human rights defenders targeted across Colombia has risen dramatically, with 330 social leaders killed in Colombia between 1st January 2016 and 26th July 2018. To put this into context, every third human rights defender killed in the world in 2017 was Colombian.  In Chocó, violence increased. In December 2017 and the Prosecutor’s Office declared that homicide rates increased by as much as 230% in 2017, the first year following the peace agreement.

Building lasting peace

Progressive legislation, such as T-622, and ‘historic peace accords’ are only meaningful if implemented. The thousands of displaced citizens in Chocó and throughout Colombia are a violent manifestation of the record of non-implementation in Colombia. T-622.  Together with the peace process, it provides a unique opportunity to build the scaffolding of peace - the rule of law, and recognition of and respect for bio-cultural rights.

Without the inclusion of historically excluded communities in the political process, the danger of non-implementation, the persistence of conflict and the production of new problems are high. The guardians of the Atrato and human rights defenders like Bernandino confront these risks, as they seek the physical, cultural and spiritual survival of their communities.

Mo Hume and Allan Gillies, June 2019

Communities monitor river health on the Atrato

A key goal of Colombia River Stories is to work alongside communities to generate data that is of use to them. One of the ways we do this is through our citizen science programme. This element of the research project aims to empower local communities to monitor the ‘health’ of the Río Atrato.  On a visit to Chocó in January, we facilitated a series of workshops that explored the community’s understanding of the Atrato, and discussed how scientific sampling might support their existing knowledge.  Nelly ran short training courses for each town's new river scientists on how to use some basic equipment and take samples.  During our time in Paimadó, though, an additional issue emerged that would reshape this element of the project.

Lack of access to clean, safe drinking water is a principal cause of infant mortality in Chocó. In 2016, the overall infant mortality rate for the region was over 40 per 1000 live births, over double the Colombian national average (UNMAIC, 2017). In Paimadó, community residents reported that local children had taken ill recently.  They wondered if this was due to contamination of the town’s water sources, and asked if we could take samples for testing.  Our citizen science methodology monitors river turbidity, oxygen level, pH, temperature, conductivity and water level.  It was unsuited to the testing requested by the community.  However, we were nevertheless able to help.

Curious to test our hotel’s water quality, Nick had brought coliform counting plates to Chocó.  These plates would now allow us to assist the communities in testing for the sort of bacteria that are most commonly linked to gastrointestinal illness – a major factor in the high rates of infant mortality. Nick and Nelly travelled with a couple of community leaders – Angel and Miguel [pseudonyms] – to the water sources and provided on-the-spot training on how to take samples.  At the end of the visit, we took the samples back to Quibdó to prepare the plates for coliform cultures – keeping them as close to body temperature as possible for 24-36 hours before counting the bacteria.

The results were troubling.  In Europe, the standard for drinking water is zero coliform per 100ml.  The samples from Paimadó showed over 200 for one drinking source and well over 1000 coliforms per ml for the water distribution network.   This represents the equivalent of over 20,000 coliform per 100ml for the first source and more than 100,000 for the other.  We shared the findings with Angel in Quibdó.  He was shocked to see the results. He told us that people tended to avoid drinking from that source anyway mainly due to its location farther from the village, but at times there was no other option. For example, that very week we were unable to access the community’s main drinking source near the river due to heavy rainfall making it inaccessible. If we couldn’t access it to test it, the community couldn’t access it to drink it.  We were unable check if the quality of their main drinking source was better than the one we tested.

When we returned to Paimadó, Angel presented the results of the coliform testing to the community.  He explained the process of taking the sample and how to prepare the counting plate for testing, before interpreting the results.  There were gasps from the group when Angel showed the culture on the projector and discussed the comparison with EU water-quality standards.  He reinforced safety messages, including boiling the water for at least two minutes before consumption.  This was community-led citizen science: from the demand for testing and training to the presentation of results and communication of harm-avoidance messages.

We met with our partners in the Pastoral Social a couple of days later to go over our plans for citizen science.  When we raised the possibility of adding coliform water sampling, they immediately saw the value of this for embedding public health messages in communities.  The Pastoral Social’s public health team told us that diarrhoea remained the biggest single cause of infant mortality in rural communities in Chocó.  They said that communication campaigns around water health had been largely ineffective.  They thought a community-led initiative may have more impact in driving home these messages.  More than this, though, it would put evidence in the hands of communities long-marginalised by central government.

By gathering their own data, communities are able to confirm what they already know and demonstrate it to others with confidence: that neglect from the authorities has denied them access to clean, safe water.  While the route to substantive change is far from simple, having this kind of scientific evidence gives communities an important tool in advocacy, to demand the basic infrastructure that many take for granted.

Colombia River Stories team, March 2019