top of page

Defense of the Atrato River



To better understand the Atrato River rights of nature case and its significance for the country and local communities, it is necessary to situate the legal sentence in the context of the various socio-environmental conflicts in the region of Chocó, especially the long history of extractivism, colonization, slavery, and subsequent forms of structural violence.

Chocó Biogeográfico


El Chocó biogeográfico is a subregion with an approximate area of 170,000 km2 that includes a variety of different kinds of habitats and terrains. This area starts in Panamá, then crosses the whole Colombian Pacific Coast, and finishes in Cabo Pasado, in the Manabí Province in Ecuador.

Chocó is an ecological region that extends beyond human created political boundaries through the flows of rivers and watersheds and the connectivity of ecosystems. The region known as Chocó is located in the Pacific Coastal region of Colombia, and is one of the top 10 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Chocó experiences some of the highest rainfall in the world, and is home to over 200 mammals, 600 birds, 100 reptiles, and 120 amphibians within the unique pluvial rainforests (IUCN 2009). Unlike other regions of Colombia, such as the Caribbean coast which has lost more than 95% of its forest to cattle ranching and monocrop agriculture, the Pacific region still had 77% forest cover at the end of the twentieth century (Leal and Ausdal 2013). The greater forest cover in Chocó, relative to other parts of the country, is related to the unique extractive economies that have developed in the region over the last 400 years.

Historical Formation of Extractivism: Colonization and Slavery in Chocó (1600-1851)


1779 colonial map of the Pacific Coast from the Port of San Buenaventura until Panama and the courses of the San Juan and Atrato Rivers (Williams 1999).


In 1782, when the center of Chocó had a population of 17,898 inhabitants, only 359 were white. The rest of the population included 7,088 slaves, 6,552 indigenous people and 3,899 freed slaves.

An extractive economy in Chocó emerged during the 1600s when Spanish colonists began to exploit the mineral wealth of the region, utilizing the labor of enslaved persons forcibly brought to the area from the continent of Africa. It is important to highlight that prior to the arrival of the European slave trade, the various indigenous groups living in the Atrato region had already experienced colonization at the hands of the Spanish. By the 1680s, the Citará peoples had rebelled against the colonists and their increasing demands, and it was the defeat of these rebel leaders that marked a pacification and the permanent Spanish settlement of Chocó. Through the early 1800s, the Pacific Coast was the center of gold production for the Viceroyalty of New Granada to build the wealth of Spain and also enrich the individual owners of Chocó’s mines and slave gangs, the merchants who traded with them, and the royal officials and priests who served there. This process marks the beginning of the enduring legacy of extracting minerals from soils and watersheds and extracting labor from enslaved African and indigenous bodies in Chocó. 







Click here to see the reference materials used in the research for this topic.



Learn more about our public engaged, participatory research process.



Find out ways to support local efforts and community-led processes and initiatives.


In 2014, big dredging machines and excavators had already caused a loss of 19,000 hectares of vegetation cover in Chocó.

Afro-descendent and indigenous groups, of course, also resisted colonial rule. Supported by the relative geographic isolation of the region, these groups formed independent villages and communities in the Atrato watershed beginning in the 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, they engaged in small scale mining, utilizing abandoned colonial mining plots, as well as trade in forest products, such as latex from Castilla Elastica trees and vegetable ivory (tagua), in addition to subsistence agriculture in the small areas of fertile land. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, these Afro-Colombian populations and indigenous communities achieved a relatively equitable and autonomous rural society, supported by the pluvial forest. They carried out their own mining using artisanal methods that cause minimal disruption to the environment. Local communities successfully resisted efforts from the Andean centers to claim land titles and to monopolize and scale up the forest economy. During the same period, the focus of larger scale mechanized gold mining had shifted away from the region towards areas of Brazil. Around the turn of the 20th century, however, local and foreign merchants and entrepreneurs began to request formal mining rights to carry out mechanized and dredge mining as they speculated about a resurgence of the gold mining industry in Chocó. This transformed the region into the “El Dorado of modern times,” subjecting it to increased attention on the part of large corporations and illegal actors (Asher 2009).

Impacts of Transnational Extractivism and Armed Conflict

Watch this short video on the cultural importance of gold in Chocó: The Gold - One Part Per Million.


In a study performed on trace elements and sediment in fish in the Atrato River, toxic elements generate a Pollution Load Index (PLI) and a Potential Ecological Risk Index (RI) that categorized 54% of the sediments as polluted, and 90% as moderately polluted.

Unlike the colonial mines, these modern mining rights included the riverbed, opening the door to a new type of extraction that would prove to be far more environmentally and socially harmful. Large companies, such as the Chocó Pacific Mining Company, that was formed from the US Granger Mining Company, along with the British Anglo Colombian Gold Development, began incorporating dredges into their mining operations to more efficiently extract gold from riverbeds, using mercury and cyanide. By 2010, the mercury pollution from mechanized gold mining placed Colombia as the world’s worst mercury polluter per capita (UNITO 2010). The residents of Chocó bear the brunt of this pollution. Mechanized and chemical-based mining methods disrupt ecological processes in addition to polluting the soil and rivers with toxic byproducts.

Communities in Chocó face mercury and cyanide contamination from industrial mining activities, which has turned the Atrato River into the most polluted river in Colombia. Though a clean-up was promised back in 2016, a clean-up operation plan was only recently formulated.


Video by Melisa Valenzuela and Frederick Gillingham, 2019.

Diversity of mining practices in Chocó 


Gold mining has long taken place in the region even before Spanish colonization. The method used by indigenous and later Afro-descendants through the centuries is called artisanal or traditional mining. In this type of mining, people pan the soil for flakes. There is relatively little environmental impact since the amount of dirt turned over is very small.

Watch Women of Gold: Women in Traditional Mining Practices, Chocó. Women plan an important role in small-scale gold mining and among gold mining communities.

Mechanized mining, used by medium and large-scale operations, has much greater environmental impacts because: 


  • Large amounts of soil need to be turned over, leading to sedimentation of the river, disruption of navigability and flow, and flooding in some areas. 


  • This type of mining sometimes uses mercury to turn the small flakes of gold into larger, more manageable balls. As part of efforts to dispose of the chemical, the miners heat up the mercury, which releases methyl mercury into the atmosphere. 


  • Sedimentation and pollution from the fuel, oil, and mercury of the machinery negatively affects the fish populations in the river, which in turn negatively affects the food security and fishing industries of local communities. 

  • The sedimented water cannot be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, or preparing food.  


Risks of Mercury (Hg) Exposure


When gold is found in small quantities rather than large deposits, it requires amalgamation to separate it from soils. Mercury (Hg) is commonly used because it loosely binds gold and then easily releases it. In the process, Hg contaminates tailings of mining which are dumped back into waterways. Hg is lost in the thermal decomposition of the amalgam releasing it to the air. It is lost to the land during gold smelting itself. Miners are exposed to high levels of Hg vapors and the vapors also expose others in the area. The U.S. Environmetnal Protection Agency has found Hg levels in air in community marketplaces adjacent to gold mining operations at or above limits considered safe for workers. Inhalation of mercury can cause toxic effects of the nervous, respiratory, digestive, and immune systems. It can also affect the kidneys and in high enough concentrations cause death. Elemental mercury is converted by aquatic organisms into methylmercury, a form that is particularly toxic to humans. Methylmercury bioaccumulates in fish as larger fish consume smaller fish. Studies performed in Colombia have found high levels of mercury in some fish suggesting that those who consume fish regularly may be at increased risk of elevated Hg exposure.


Colombia produces more palm oil than any other country in Latin America and is considered the fourth-largest producer worldwide. The expansion of African oil palm is linked to land grabbing and other violent dynamics of the armed conflict.

Between 1996 and 1997, multiple operations carried out by the Colombian military and paramilitary groups forced the displacement of thousands of Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and campesinos. Years later, it was revealed that these operations were intended to displace people from their homes in order to open the door for companies like Union of Oil Palm Growers in Urabá (Urapalma SA) to plant large areas of oil palm, replacing traditional agricultural crops in Chocó.  Like in many parts of the country, armed conflict in the region has long been one of the main causes of forced displacement.  By 2016, more than 50 years of armed conflict in Colombia had led to close to 7 million internally displaced people and 350,000 Colombian refugees, living mainly in Ecuador (Spindler 2016). 

Padre Sterlin Londoño from the Diocese of Quibdó in Chocó shares the humanitarian crisis that communities and members of the diocese lived during the late 1990s due to the armed conflict. By 2000, displacement was so great that the diocese did not want to continue doing a census because they realized how alone they were becoming. A priest was assassinated during this time, and FISCH (Interethnic and Solidarity Forum of Chocó) organized as a community response to the crisis. The Diocese of Quibdó was awarded the national peace prize in 2005 for their work and co-labor where "priests accompanied social leaders and social leaders accompanied the priests" in Father Sterlin´s words.

Impacts of humanitarian crisis on the Diocese and communitiesPadre Sterling Londoño
00:00 / 02:46

Environmental activist and tourism entrepreneur Juana Perea was assassinated on October 28, 2020 in Nuquí, Chocó. She opposed the construction of the Tribugá Port in defense of Chocó's mangroves and biodiversity.

Affordances of the 1991 Constitution: Seeding New Tools for Community Activists


At an international level, Colombia’s 1991 Constitution is considered to be one of the most progressive in its support for environmental protection; however, the environmental provisions within the Constitution sit alongside traditional pro-development provisions, creating tension between these conflicting interests. The intensification of mechanized and dredge mining in Chocó since the 1990s is an example of these tensions. After the hard-fought efforts of Afro-Colombian social movements with the support of indigenous and campesino organizations, the Colombian government passed Law 70 in 1993, which grants Afro-descendants “the right to own collective property within their ancestral territories” (Ruíz 2003). According to the advocacy coalition ABColombia, in 2019

there were 70 consejos comunitarios mayores (governing bodies of Afro-descendant collective territories), covering 96% of the land in the department of Chocó. Despite the progressive frameworks to protect the environment in the Constitution that describe territory as a fundamental right for the majority of Afro-descendants in Chocó, industrial and illegal mining has intensified over the last twenty years. 

Resistance and healing through 

traditional agricultural practices

During the in-situ visit that the Constitutional Court made to Chocó before deciding on the outcome of the case, a member of the Interethnic Solidarity Forum (FISCH) explains traditional agricultural practices that are used by Afro-Colombian communities to recover degraded riverine areas. She emphasizes a polyculture model, rotational practices, and fruit trees mixed with rice, corn and medicinal plants, for example.

Defense of the Atrato River


bottom of page