Environmental disaster on the banks of Atrato River
By Viviana González, attorney at Tierra Digna
In the water of the Atrato River flows the history and memory of the Department of Chocó. The largest river in Colombia, the Atrato carries down its 750 kilometers the identities of the black and indigenous communities that live along its banks. Those river communities have long borne witness to the degradation of their territory and the contamination of its water due to mining and logging operations.
While the Colombian government neglects the problem, the inhabitants of the Atrato River basin have organized to demand the protection of their fundamental rights. They have presented a case before the Constitutional Court, represented by the Center for Social Justice Studies “Tierra Digna.” In support of the case, AIDA filed an amicus brief (in Spanish) with arguments based on international environmental and human rights law.
Last August, the court selected the case for review, and is currently studying the evidence. They have held a public hearing, conducted a site visit, and ordered the technical opinion of several experts.
The affected communities are hopeful their search for justice will come to fruition.
The Department of Chocó has, since pre-Columbian times, been a region flush from gold mining. For the black communities that settled on the banks of the Atrato and San Juan Rivers, gold mining became an industry linked to their identity, culture and daily life. Their practices were artisanal, with low environmental impacts, and were complementary to other activities such as agriculture, hunting and fishing.
However, since the mid-90s, the region has filled with outsiders seeking fortune. They came from Brazil, Peru and other regions of Colombia, such as Antioquia. They began to extract ore in a new way: they use bulldozers and other machinery to remove soil from hills and riverbanks, which is then covered with large quantities of mercury to extract the metal.
Meanwhile, the lush forests of Chocó, guardians of incredible biodiversity and the most expensive woods in the marketplace, have suffered from an insatiable demand. The controls of environmental authorities have been notably absent in the face of devastated riverbeds, overflowing rivers, channels obstructed by fallen trees, mercury pollution, and the loss of flora and fauna. This absence had led to flagrant violations of the right to a healthy and balanced environment.
Rights at risk and an absent State
The Colombian Constitution gives ethnic groups a wide range of rights and special protections, recognizing their value to the natural and cultural heritage of the country and the world. However, the government, while granting certain formal guarantees of protection, enacts policies that openly disrespect them.
To confront the situation of informal mining in Chocó, for example, the government has authorized various mining titles to large companies. In doing so, they have ignored collective titles to existing property and have thrown overboard years of struggle for social and political justice for ethnic populations. This could cause the displacement of these communities, threatening their very survival as social groups.
In addition to not implementing appropriate controls in the region, the government has ignored requests for help from affected communities, and has even criminalized those seeking solutions. It has left the ethnic communities alone to face powerful economic interests.
The problem is not a small one. More than 80 percent of the population of Chocó is of ethnic origin: black and indigenous peoples whose cultural identity, ancestral customs, survival practices and recognition as distinct societal groups are all related to the land on which they live, particularly the Atrato River. They depend upon the river for transportation, food and water, domestic activities, rest and recreation. They depend upon it for their way of life.
The environmental degradation of Chocó directly threatens the fundamental rights to human dignity, health, life, food security, free movement, water, territory, and self-determination as ethnic peoples. This outlook worsens when the government ignores the communities’ basic needs, including health, housing, food, basic sanitation and drinking water. In the past, nature allowed for self-sufficiency, which, because of the severe environmental damage, is no longer possible. The government has justified inaction by arguing that the problem is so great that it is out of their hands.
But the inhabitants of the Atrato River aren’t standing idly by. They have undertaken a collective fight to require the Colombian government to guarantee their rights. They have created the Elder Councils of the Medium and High Atrato: Cocomacia and Cocomopoca, and the Association of Councils of the Lower Atrato.
They carry with them the great hope that the Constitutional Court will curb the passive inaction and complicity of the government, and provide them with a brighter outlook for the future.