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Defense of the Atrato River



Moving Forward with the Implementation of the Atrato River Sentence

The landmark T-622 ruling passed by the Colombian Constitutional Court in 2016 granted legal rights to the Atrato River and acknowledged the biocultural rights of peoples living in the Atrato River basin. However, translating the decision of the court into concrete changes for the Atrato communities— in the face of complex socio-environmental conflicts and ongoing violence— has required a sustained effort by grassroots Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and rural organizations across the Chocó Bioregion.

The Community Guardians of the Atrato explain their 

responsibilities and roles.


Consejos Comunitarios del río Quito


Leading this important effort to implement the decision of the court, are the 14 Guardianes del Atrato, (Guardians of the Atrato), representing 7 different grassroots organizations (FISCH, ASCOBA, COCOMACIA, COCOMOPOCA, Community Councils of the Quito River, the Roundtable for Dialogue and Permanent Accords of the Indigenous Peoples of Chocó, and the Social and Environmental Roundtable of the Carmen of Atrato Community), 43 municipalities, and more than 300 communities. Each of the 14 guardians is supported by a community base, building a broad coalition of community activists working to guarantee that the T-622 decision is implemented, and that its implementation is informed by the concerns and needs of the region. The court ordered the creation of a committee of guardians that is made up of both community representatives and institutional actors. The specific mission of the Community Guardians includes: 

  • Facilitating communication between the Atrato riverine communities and the public entities implicated in the sentence 

  • Dissemination of information to the inhabitants of the basin about the legal sentence and its implications for protecting the river 

  • Engaging in advocacy work with decision-makers to encourage proper implementation of the court ruling 

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Community voices discussing the impacts and implementation of T-622 

Maryury Mosquera, a Guardian of the Atrato River and a member of the Technical Secretary of the Commission of Guardians, explains the strategy that communities used to mold the court orders to create a collegial body of regional guardians rather than one single representative that would interact with the guardian determined on the part of the state.

Maryury shares the difficulties that the Community Guardians have faced when attempting to work with institutional actors in the implementation of the court orders because the latter are not accustomed to treating community leaders and members like colleagues, "tú a tú".

Padre Sterlin Londoño explains the implications of the legal sentence for the riverine communities and social organizations. In particular, the way it provoked two kinds off dialogues inside the organizations regarding derecho propio (the

communty´s own rights) and the need to democratize decision-making spaces to include the river's problems. He talks about spirituality rather than religion and the relations between beings - the being (ser) of people and the being of the river.

Specifically, the Guardians are collaborating with the Ministry of the Environment, but there are more than 20 other government actors that are also implicated in the legal decision, including the Ministries of Health and Agriculture at the federal level, and various other municipal, regional, and regulatory agencies. While the Ministry of Environment has been cooperative in the past, progress on implementing the sentence on the part of other government actors has largely been slow. In addition to ordering the organization of a commission of Guardians, the court also ordered that all entities involved make a plan for the decontamination of the river as well as ordering the National Police to create a plan to eradicate and neutralize illegal mining. While the Guardians have been making progress on the implementation of the sentence with the accompaniment of the University of Antioquia, Liliana Estupiñán, director of the Free University's Peace and Constitutional Studies Group, raises questions about how hard the implicated institutional entities are working to fulfill their legal responsibilities (El Nuevo Siglo 2020).  

The previous Minister of Environment, elected in 2018, was very willing to engage in dialogue with the communities of Chocó. One major achievement from the dialogue between the government and Atrato communities was the establishment of a decontamination plan for the river, which was formulated three years after the initial court order. 

The Voice of the Atrato River


Take a tour of the Atrato River

Basin and hear the voices of the river and riverine community guardians.

Work in 2019 to design a decontamination plan for the basin Maryury Mosquera
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Maryury talks about how impactful it was for 30 representatives of the Ministry of Environment to visit communities in Chocó for the first time in the history of these communities. She shares details about the work in 2019 to build a decontamination plan for the basin that was done with and from community perspectives. She also highlights how it has been difficult for municipal actors to understand that they are implicated in the court orders as defendants, and that the protection of the Atrato River needs to become part of their municipal development, territorial ordinance, and governance plans.

Representatives of the Ministry of Environment travel along the Atrato River with Community Guardians of the river and local youth leaders to engage in environmental education workshops that work towards the decontamination and recovery of the basin.

However, a new Minister of Environment has taken office, and the future of dialogues with Chocoano residents is uncertain. In the same vein, the decontamination plan mentioned above was established under the previous Minister of the Environment, and for the Guardians it is unclear how well the new Minister’s administration will uphold the plan, since it is scheduled to take decades and requires prolonged implementation. Overall, the experience of the communities has made clear how complicated it can be to work with government authorities that are part of this complex legal ruling. One example is illustrated by the challenge of involving municipal authorities that carry a large part of the responsibility for implementing the court’s decisions. Other specific challenges cited by the Guardians have also included convincing state actors that Atrato basin residents are worthy of being listened to, as well as convincing all actors that they have a shared responsibility in the implementation of the ruling.

As a result of decades of community activism and grassroots organizing, the Guardians are skilled coalition builders who are creating opportunities for alliances and dialogues across disparate institutions and sectors in the face of continued mining and the presence of other extractive industries and violent pressures. As mentioned above, the Guardians assume, as one of their core missions, the communication and dissemination of the directives of the rights of nature ruling to inhabitants of the Atrato through pedagogical initiatives, cultural events, and artistic practices.

Use of remote sensing to detect, map, and monitor illicit gold mining in Choco, Colombia.

At the 2020 GEO Indigenous Summit, Richard Teeuw from the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth presented work on remote sensing of mechanized mining in Chocó. He explained how to use Sentinel-1 radar imagery, which is freely available to detect lang cover features through cloud cover, one of the usual obstacles to the implementation of remote sensing in certain regions of Colombia.

Below we mention some of these initiatives, events, and projects organized by the Atrato Community Guardians and their partner organizations:

Circuito Cultural (2017)

In 2017, the Atrato Guardians organized a collective space of reflection about the Atrato River and the implications of the T-622 court ruling in Bogotá, Colombia. Between November and December of that year, they organized numerous talks, audio-visual exhibits, publications, local cuisine exhibits, and music performances from the Chocó region as a means to build solidarity between various communities in Colombia. All the activities also contributed to a broader dialogue about the effects of the implementation of the legal rights of the river.

The Cultural Circuit was the first activity that the Guardians organized to inform communities about the Atrato River legal sentence.

Humanitarian Trips (2018)

In 2018, together with the Defensoría del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman), the Guardians organized a series of visits to communities and municipal governments to discuss the responsibilities that various authorities have in the implementation of the court ruling that established the legal rights of the Atrato River.


International Tour to Raise Awareness about the Atrato River (2018-2019)

Between 2018 and 2019, the Atrato Guardians organized a tour across UK, Belgium, and France to raise awareness about their work and the implications of granting legal rights to the river. 

Bernardino Mosquera, one of the Guardians of the Atrato River, talks about the importance of the legal sentence, the role of the Guardians, and the international tour that some of the Guardians participated in. He ends by discussing the challenges and obstacles that the communities face in their efforts to recover 

their territories.

Diploma Course (2018-2019)

The subgroup United Nations Women, the NGO Tierra Digna, and Claretiana University created a course entitled, “Women, biodiversity, and peacebuilding in Chocó.” It resulted in the publication of the book, Risas, Sueños y Lamentos del Río, where men and women living in the watershed narrate their lived experiences and reflections about the transformations of the Atrato and Baudó Rivers.

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Atrato Fest (2019)

This was a festival held in the city of Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, to celebrate the Atrato River through music and art, communicating the river’s importance to local communities.


San Pacho (2019)

The Atrato River was honored at the yearly San Pacho festivities held in Quibdó. The Collegiate Body of Guardians led a program to educate people about the sentence. They participated in masses, held workshops in schools, and developed a campaign called “#UnTratoConElAtrato” (#APactWithTheAtrato). Here is a link to the event:

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Pedagogical work with local schools

The Committee of Guardians has been working closely with local schools to organize events with students aimed at recovering and strengthening collective memory about the impacts ofextractivism and violence in the region. These activities have also aimed to motivate youth involvement in the care of the Atrato watershed and the development of a sense of collective responsibility for the river. Here is a link to these pedagogical projects:


Diocese of Quibdó + Young Guardians:

For several years, the Diocese of Quibdó, and Father Sterlin more specifically, have been working with the local youth of the Atrato river to create the Young Guardians program. This effort has developed several creative initiatives to raise awareness about the court’s resolution and the changes in the river through musical performances, sport tournaments, games, and other activities. The Diocese’s work has been fundamental for the overall education of children and young people in the region and has had notable impacts on their involvement in environmental initiatives. Many of their songs and actions have been recognized by government offices and local groups. Though not directly associated with the Guardianes del río Atrato, this program has helped spread the notion of a collective sense of guardianship for the river basin.


Padre Sterlin from the Diocese of Quibdó talks about the participation of youth in the guardianship of the Atrato and the diverse activities that led to the formation of the Young Guardians group via committees that are based on horizontal forms of leadership. He explains how the Diocese is working to implement the sentence on a local, everyday scale.

Young Guardians of the Atrato RiverPadre Sterling Londoño
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Defense of the Atrato River


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