The struggle for human rights in Chocó, Colombia

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

One in three human rights defenders killed in 2017 was Colombian. SCIAF and our partners Caritas Colombia, Tierra Digna, the Diocese of Quibdó, Diocese of Apartadó, and Diocese of Istmina-Tadó, have been working with communities along the River Atrato, Colombia since 2006 to defend their human rights.

 Our partners at the University of Glasgow, Mo Hume and Allan Gillies, talk about the struggle for human rights in Chocó, Colombia.

The river is life

For communities living along the River Atrato, ‘the river is life’. Rivers play a central role in the cultural, economic and social life of the people of Chocó, as a means of transport, a source of livelihood and an actor in daily life.  However, gold mining, linked to Colombia’s long-running internal conflict, has caused devastating social and environmental damage along the River Atrato.

We are all Guardians of the Atrato

Bernandino Mosquera, a human rights defender and community leader from the Atrato, came to Glasgow in February 2018.  He travelled as part of a delegation of Colombian ruman rights defenders and academics to raise awareness about the Colombian Constitutional Court Ruling, T-622.  This landmark ruling recognised the River Atrato as a bearer of rights.

It also identified the rights of communities to physical, cultural and spiritual survival, guaranteeing their traditional livelihoods on the Atrato. Together, SCIAF and our partners helped achieve the Constitutional Court Ruling T-622.

Founded on the idea of a sustainable socio-environment, this new paradigm of rights in Colombia has been expressed as ‘bio-cultural’ rights: demanding the river’s ‘protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration’ and the safeguarding of the rights of communities. The ruling calls on the Colombian state to ensure these rights are enforced, as well as empowering local people to manage their river and participate in the implementation of T-622.

River rights

As part of this process, Bernandino was elected to be one of 14 ‘guardians’ of the Atrato.  Together with a representative of the state, he will represent the communities in pressuring for the full implementation of the ruling.  

T-622 ‘Denounces the complete abandonment of the state in terms of basic infrastructure in the region.’

Bernandino and the other guardians face major challenges. The Atrato’s abundant precious metal deposits have made the river a target for a range of different groups. They look to exploit the Atrato for financial gain, through both legal and illegal means. In recent decades, alluvial gold mining has become closely interwoven with the internal conflict. 

Armed groups have sought control of lucrative mining operations.  This mining has not only devastated the river itself, but the social fabric of river communities. Toxic metals used in mining, aggressive dredging and widespread deforestation have had deeply damaging effects on traditional farming and fishing, while different armed groups control and terrorise communities - especially those who attempt to stand up for their rights.

‘The humanitarian crisis has worsened.’

The historic 2016 peace accord with the FARC – the largest guerrilla group in Colombia – promised to bring the country’s internal conflict to a close.  While some progress has been made with the implementation of the accord, the security situation in Chocó has worsened.  Violence has increased as the remaining armed groups have moved to capture territory vacated by the FARC.  The Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman has signalled the region’s ‘particular vulnerability due to location on areas of strategic interest for legal and illegal actors’. These interests include control of lucrative gold mining operations along the Atrato.

Not only is Chocó Colombia’s poorest department, it has been one of the most affected by the armed conflict. In this ethnically diverse region, almost 60% of inhabitants live below the poverty line and 34% in extreme poverty. This is more than six times the poverty level of the country’s capital Bogotá.

Social organisations and human rights defenders have characterised the situation in Chocó as an ongoing ‘humanitarian crisis’.  

The crisis is manifest in ongoing violent confrontations between different armed groups over territory and resources, continued displacement of communities due to the violence, and the lack of access to sustainable livelihoods for many of the department’s inhabitants.

Local community organisations have responded to the crisis by renewing calls for dialogue between different groups in the conflict - a process that has been frustratingly slow and difficult process.

Human rights defenders and community leaders face daily threats in their struggle to bring the case of the Atrato to world attention.

The number of human rights defenders targeted across Colombia has risen dramatically, with 330 social leaders killed in Colombia between 1st January 2016 and 26th July 2018. To put this into context, every third human rights defender killed in the world in 2017 was Colombian.  In Chocó, violence increased. In December 2017 and the Prosecutor’s Office declared that homicide rates increased by as much as 230% in 2017, the first year following the peace agreement.

Building lasting peace

Progressive legislation, such as T-622, and ‘historic peace accords’ are only meaningful if implemented. The thousands of displaced citizens in Chocó and throughout Colombia are a violent manifestation of the record of non-implementation in Colombia. T-622.  Together with the peace process, it provides a unique opportunity to build the scaffolding of peace - the rule of law, and recognition of and respect for bio-cultural rights.

Without the inclusion of historically excluded communities in the political process, the danger of non-implementation, the persistence of conflict and the production of new problems are high. The guardians of the Atrato and human rights defenders like Bernandino confront these risks, as they seek the physical, cultural and spiritual survival of their communities.

How we are helping

Together, SCIAF and our partners helped achieve the Constitutional Court Ruling T-622. We believe this ruling could have a transformational effect on the communities we work with in Chocó, and for other communities in Colombia and around the world who are affected by alluvial gold mining.

SCIAF played a central role in building links between UK experts at the Universities of Glasgow, Nottingham and Portsmouth with communities, organisations, and local academic and scientific institutions in Chocó. We continue to work with our partners in Colombia and the UK to ensure proper implementation of the court ruling.

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