On the impact of illegal gold mining in Colombia and how communities in Chocó are preserving hope and dignity in the face of a humanitarian crisis.
The communities of the Atrato river in Chocó face severe challenges. Chocó is the poorest region in Colombia, with rates of poverty and extreme poverty significantly above the national average. Communities are denied their human rights. They lack access to basic services, such as safe drinking water, sanitation and adequate healthcare. The internal conflict continues to spread fear and violence along the Atrato, with armed groups fighting for control of lucrative illicit economies. This wealth includes alluvial gold mining, which has wrought social and environmental catastrophe on the Atrato river and its communities. In 2017, civil society groups declared a humanitarian crisis in Chocó, stating that the very survival of local communities was at stake.
Over the course of three months of fieldwork in Chocó, I saw how communities along the Atrato are responding to this crisis; how they hold on to dignity and hope in the struggle for their rights and the rights of the Atrato river.
During my time in Chocó, I was based with the local Church – the social mission of the Diocese of Quibdó, Chocó. The Church provides vital support for the predominantly Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities of the Atrato. A history of racism towards Chocó and state-neglect means that the Church plays an important role in education and health provision in remote riverine communities. It has been a prominent human rights defender in Chocó, leading calls for peace and accompanying communities in areas controlled by armed groups, for example. Priests have at times been targeted by armed groups for daring to speak out against the violence.
The Church is also supporting communities as they pressure for the implementation of the Colombian Constitutional Court’s landmark ruling T-622, which declared the Atrato river as a bearer of rights. Our research project also aims to support the communities of the Atrato by working with them to chart the socio-environmental impacts of mining and the conflict. The Church has thus invested their trust in our research, collaborating with the project on advocacy efforts. During my fieldwork, they offered me practical assistance as I conducted interviews with activists and members of the community. More than this, though, the tireless work and spirit of the clergy and support staff kept me going during my time away from home.
Our research frequently touches on difficult subjects, such as violence. I found the fieldwork personally tough at times. There were days when I felt that the situation in Chocó was hopeless; that the communities I spent time with faced overwhelmingly powerful political and economic interests and there was little chance of things improving. People in the Church were far from naïve about these challenges – indeed, I learned much about the region and its history from them. However, they managed to maintain hope that social justice for the people of Chocó was possible. Through their work and acts of kindness, they fought against the injustices so prevalent in the region. Their strong faith was part of this, but also their solidarity and sense of community. The Church made me feel very much part of their community as I sought to make my own small contribution to this struggle for justice.
‘We were poorer then, but happier’
Life along the Atrato has changed much over the past 30 years or so. Riverine communities traditionally practised a mix of subsistence livelihoods, including farming, fishing and – in some areas – panning for gold. People told me that life was hard in the past, but that the land and the river provided all they needed. Their environment was unspoiled, and the region remained untouched by the conflict. As one person put it, ‘we were poorer then, but happier’.
Environmental damage caused by illegal, mechanised mining now threatens traditional ways of life in Chocó. Dredgers and diggers have torn the river apart, and stripped large areas of jungle bare. Communities claim that flooding is now more severe and unpredictable. Increased sediment in the water and the use of toxic metals, such as mercury, means that flood water poisons farmland and kills crops. Pollutants in the water and the destruction of marshland spawning grounds have also devastated fish stocks. Communities fear mercury poisoning from consuming what fish are left in the river. Poverty, though, leaves them with few alternatives.
The river that was once a source of sustenance now brings pollution and sickness. The river was life, now it brings death.
Impacts of the conflict
Revenue from mining has also fed the conflict in Chocó, drawing armed groups into the region. The peace deal with the FARC in 2016 brought hopes that Colombia’s long-running internal conflict was coming to an end. However, fighting has intensified in Chocó since the FARC’s demobilisation. The remaining armed groups – the ELN guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries – have escalated operations to seize control of territory vacated by the FARC.
While I was in Chocó, intense fighting in the lower Atrato region had displaced some communities and confined others to their villages. I spoke to friends in the Church who had travelled to the area with international observers to draw attention to the situation. Risking their personal safety, they stood with communities to call on all sides to respect human rights. They continue with such activities despite increasing threats against human rights defenders. Over the past two years, for example, hundreds of activists have been killed across Colombia by armed groups.
Many have been targeted for publicly calling for the implementation of the progressive reforms promised by the peace deal. Opposition to the agreement within the new government of President Iván Duque has heightened tensions further. Duque’s government seems determined to pursue a militarised ‘solution’ to the conflict. Against this context, my friends in the Church were concerned that Chocó was descending into a new phase of violence.
The violence of the conflict has shaped nearly every aspect of life in the Atrato region. People told me how the presence of armed groups had created mistrust between neighbours, fearful of how their words might be used against them: once communities were peaceful and convivial, now there was fear and suspicion. Armed groups have also inhibited the movements of local communities. They have blockaded the Atrato and imposed curfews, for example, cutting-off villages and preventing fishing. Armed groups have prohibited communities from leaving their village and attending to their crops in the jungle, planting anti-personnel mines in some cases. One person told me how he was threatened at the barrel of a gun while walking to tend his land. Another told me how he and his young family had recently hidden in their house during a clash between the ELN and the local paramilitary unit, the sound of gunfire just a few hundred yards away from where they sheltered.
The people of Chocó have repeatedly asserted their independence from armed actors on all sides. Such acts of resistance, though, have been met with threats and violence. Throughout the history of the conflict in Chocó, people have been forced to flee their homes: at times, to avoid violent clashes between groups, while at others, forcibly displaced from their land.
An experienced local activist told me how he had left his home under the cover of night in the late-1990s after receiving a death threat. He continues to speak-out on behalf of the community to this day and has recently become the target of fresh threats as a result. As a Western researcher, I had the privilege of returning home to safety, if the situation became too dangerous in Chocó. When I asked the activist why he continues to assume this role, knowing the risks, he told me that giving-up would mean losing his dignity. For activists like him, standing-up to seemingly insurmountable injustice formed part of their humanity.
A river with rights
The Colombian Constitutional Court’s T-622 ruling shows what can be achieved by such activism. Local civil-society organisations were key in articulating the demands of the communities before the Court, calling for an end to the destruction of their environment by the mining. The Atrato river is home for these communities; it is the main mode of travel; it provides fish and alluvial gold; and it is interwoven with their culture and identity. The ruling recognised the inextricable relationship between the communities and the river. The environmental destruction of the Atrato wrought by mining, also entails the destruction of the communities of the Atrato.
The ruling demands a halt to this destructive mining, and the protection and restauration of the river. However, the struggle for communities has not ended. Lack of political will and resources, and entrenched economic interests means that the implementation of the ruling is far from certain.
The Court has empowered local people to speak for the river through the Guardians of the Atrato – an organisation made-up of 14 individuals drawn from communities along the river. The Guardians now have the challenge of pushing the Colombian state to fully realise the rights of Atrato and deliver on the promise of the ruling. They face many obstacles. In standing against the mining, the Guardians position themselves against powerful economic interests and the armed groups. The threat of violence, and endless bureaucratic and political barriers have slowed progress towards the implementation of the ruling.
Again, despite these challenges, the Guardians continue to struggle for the rights of the river and, by extension, the rights of their communities. When remembering my own sense of hopelessness, I think of people like them and others I met in Chocó who refused to bow to such feelings and faced down personal risks to continue their struggle for justice. Working with the Guardians and the Church in Chocó, I hope our research project can strengthen their cause and be worthy of the trust they have invested in us.
Allan Gillies is a research fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, where he works on Colombia River Stories. This research project is a collaboration between the universities of Glasgow, Nottingham and Portsmouth, SCIAF, the Pastoral Social – Diocese of Quibdó, ABColombia, Tierra Digna and UTCH (The Diego Luis Cordoba Technological – University of Chocó).