Deep in the tropical Choco region of northeastern Colombia flows the mighty, majestic, and filthy Atrato River. Boat propellers become entangled in plastic bags floating downstream from the river port of Quibdo. The gold mines spew their mercury into the Rio Quito and other tributaries of the 750 kilometer long river.
“The sentence T-622 of the Constitutional Court? Everyone knows her here, explains José Adan Palacios, who carries passengers and bananas on his wooden boat. But she didn’t change anything. Pollution continues, whether through mining, deforestation or garbage cans. » In 2016, the Constitutional Court recognized the Atrato River as a subject of law. A first. The decision set a precedent in Colombia. Several rivers and the entire Amazon – which covers 42% of Colombian territory – are now subject to law.
Maryuri Mosquera, 39, is an agricultural engineer and “guardian” of Atrato. The Constitutional Court ruling designated seven local organizations as legal representatives of the river, each of which designated two guardians of the river. Maryuri and her colleagues are therefore responsible for ensuring that the court’s decision is implemented. “It’s a bit of a disproportionate task”, he admits with a sigh. Magistrates have ordered the Colombian state to reclaim the river, put an end to illegal extraction, ensure food security for local populations and carry out the necessary toxicological and epidemiological tests. “To do all this you need money and you need political will”continues Mariyuri. Two rare commodities in this poor and neglected region of Choco. The communities living on the banks of the Atrato – half a million people – are of Indian or Afro origin.
“We do not eat oil or copper”
The Atrato has its source at more than 3,000 meters above sea level, on the western slope of the Andes mountain range. “The water here is crystal clear”, observes Ramon Cartagena, known as “Moncho”, pointing to the La Calera waterfall that falls from the verdant mountain. Ten kilometers below, the water of the stream, which has become Atrato, has become greyish. “We came for a family picnic and fishing, continues “Moncho”. Today we don’t want to dip our hands in the river water and even less get wet in it. » « Moncho” worked for sixteen years in the El Roble copper mine, the only one authorized on the Atrato. The operation passed into Canadian hands in 2013. “Water is essential. We do not eat oil or copperRamon said with a sigh. But the mine is the only employer in the region. » He became guardian of the river “out of civic duty”, received death threats. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists.
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