Canción del Atrato: a journey of water, dispossession and resistance
A recent global trend acknowledges that rivers have legal personality and rights. But who can speak for the river? And how? In this video, Maitreyi, Alyssa, Aminjon, Pablo, Iqbal, and Folasade, MSc students in water management and governance at IHE Delft, give voice to the Atrato river and its people.
Rivers have always had a voice. Across various cultures and traditions, rivers have been given voices through poems and songs. They are also incorporated in cultural identities. They are considered sacred and life-giving beings. We, as humans have heard their voices in the form of floods and times of drought. The following is the story of the Atrato River and of how it is trying to get its voice back.
The Atrato River in the Chocó region of Colombia has been weaved into the daily routines of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that live along it. Some of them belong to the Pueblo “Embera Dobida”, which translates as river man. Throughout the last decades, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities around the Atrato have realized that their struggle for survival coincides with a fight for the rights of their surrounding nature.
The need for such rights date to 16th century: the process of slavery in Latin America began in 1518 and lasted until 1880. Cartagena, a city in the Colombian Caribbean, became the main port and center of slave trade in South America since it was the site of arrival and distribution of the enslaved men and women brought from Africa (Maya Restrepo, 2000). Most of the enslaved population, however, was sent to work in gold mines which were located on the Pacific coastal region (Ng’weno, 2012; Wade, 2012). After the abolition of slavery, the majority of the Afro-descendant population continued to be the target of multiple discriminations. Authors such as Appelbaum (2003) and Wade (2012) have explained how during the nineteenth and twentieth century, Colombians mapped racial hierarchy onto the country’s different regions by developing a racialized discourse that associated certain regions with progress and “whiteness” while some other regions characterized as “black” or “indigenous” were associated with disorder and danger. Located mainly in the Pacific coast, Afro-descendants have been historically marginalized in terms of infrastructural investment, socioeconomic development and political power (Wade, 2009, 2012).
During the 1980s, rural communities from the Pacific coast established temporary alliances with indigenous groups and negotiated collective rights, mobilizing around ancestral black identity. Soon after, and in a context of Latin American recognition of multiculturalism, a new law promised land titles for black communities in the Pacific coastal region (Appelbaum, 2003; Escobar, 2003; Restrepo, 2013). These communities have mobilized mainly around land titling processes, recognizing themselves as an ethnic group. However, they were particularly affected during the war and have been resisting displacement from their ancestral lands since the mid-1990s (Escobar, 2003).
Despite recent peace processes with paramilitary forces and the Farc guerrillas, big-scale illegal gold mining in the biodiverse Chocó region by new paramilitary groups is an entrenched problem that affects the water quality of the Atrato and security of the local communities. Years of persistent environmental and socio-economic threats have driven these communities to take charge and voice their concerns. Against this background, Tierra Digna and the Quibdó Diocese played an instrumental role in mediating between the communities and the legal system. It was in May 2017, wherein their struggles culminated into a unique decision.
In May 2017, the highest court of Colombia i.e., the constitutional court, used an eco-centric approach to human rights to recognize Rio Atrato as a ‘legal entity’ possessing environmental rights. By acknowledging the interconnectedness between the communities and their environment, the constitutional court mandated that the river was to be protected alongside the biocultural rights of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. This was indeed, a watershed moment for the local communities. The court’s decision acknowledged the largely ignored Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities within the process of decision-making and provided them with direct channels with which to engage with a state they mistrust.
The problem in this arena of river rights is the practicability of such rights. In the case of Colombia, seven men and seven women belonging to the local communities have been appointed as the ‘guardians’ or the legal representatives who can defend the river’s rights. Very often the mission of the guardians is challenged by a lack of access to funding and state support. More importantly, the guardians themselves face underlying threats that are common place for environmental activists in Colombia. By standing for the rights of the river, environmental activists challenge the illegal and sometimes legal mining activities that degrade the river. However, it is noteworthy to mention that mining in the Chocó has a two sided story. In one way, it negatively impacts the local communities by degrading water quality and leading to forced displacement, while on the other hand, it becomes the only livelihood opportunity in the region. This complexity challenges the capacity of the guardians to work within the communities and represent them, for it places in them in a potentially vulnerable position.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that there has been a limited time frame to see how the guardians implement the rights of the river, much of which will be defined through their active engagement in the legal system. By giving a river rights, viz. a legal voice, there is immense potential for the application of a legal pathway that is inspired other countries and communities. In fact, the legal voice of the Atrato has attracted global attention and has elevated the voices of the local communities. It is considered as a torchlight to fight the complex situation of the Chocó region. In this documentary we tried to explore the ‘voices’ of the Atrato River and its people. By reinforcing the idea that rivers have always had a voice, this documentary attempts to sing the story of the Chocó people and their river.
Appelbaum, N. (2003). Muddied Waters: Race, Region, and Local History in Colombia, 1846–1948. Durham , NC: Duke University Pres.
Escobar, A. (2003). Displacement, development, and modernity in the Colombian Pacific. International Social Science Journal, 175, 157-167.
Maya Restrepo, L. A. (2000). Geografía humana de Colombia : los afrocolombianos (Human Geography in Colombia: the Afrocolombians). In J. Arocha & W. Villa (Eds.), Geografía humana de Colombia (Human Geography in Colombia). Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia ICANH.
Ng’weno, B. (2012). Beyond citizenship as we know it: race and ethnicity in Afro-Colombian struggles for citizenship equality. In K. Dixon & J. Burdick (Eds.), Comparative perspectives on Afro-Latin America. Gainsville: University Press of Florida.
Restrepo, E. (2013). Etnización de la negridad: la invención de las ‘comunidades negras’ como grupo étnico en Colombia (Ethnization of Blackness: The Invention of ‘Black Communities’ as an Ethnic Group in Colombia). Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca.
Wade, P. (2009). Defining Blackness in Colombia. Journal de la Société des Américanistes, 95(1), 165-184.
Wade, P. (2012). Afro-Colombian social movements In K. Dixon & J. Burdick (Eds.), Comparative perspectives on Afro-Latin America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.