Al Son Del Río (English version)

Photo by Steve Cagan

Water Rights in Chocó, Colombia

By Diana Lucía Duque Marín              

Wending our way down the Atrato River in Colombia’s Chocó region, we finally reach the town of Puné. It is a fickle June afternoon, one of those humid tropical afternoons when the sun and water alternate in sudden torrential rains. “The river is everything to us,” Berta is telling me as we drift along the “fluvial highway,” which from time immemorial has connected fresh water with the salty sea, moving from the Pacific to the Colombian Caribbean. The water in Chocó is part of its symbolism, its social fabric; it is an essential part of spatial reference and identity of the communities. Baptisms and spells, enchantments and incantations all express the importance of water. Water is not merely a necessary service; it is also a collective good that has a deep cultural dimension. 

The stockades to trap fish, plots flooded to grow rice, dikes and basins for the harvest, plains for gold mining, water courses as a way of marking territories, all these make up traditional practices that sustain the agro-forest systems, artisan mining and fishing. “People, depending on their productive activities, go along with the river. People move to the beat of the fish, the wood, the mines (…). The fish, just like a human being, knows when the river is going to dry up or when it is going to rain, so it becomes a game of anticipating the ebb and flow of the river, for opening and closing the stockades,” Eulise tells me as she teaches me about the river. 

Ever since we left the port of Quibdó, we have been passing through the collective land of the black communities of the Medio Atrato region. We encounter other boats, carrying—just like ours—all sort of local treasures: dried fish, bananas, cocoa, rice, wood. From the platform, lying in hammocks or playing dominos, crew members greet us with a wave. On both sides of the river, fishermen float in their canoes; women wash clothes on the shore, and children play. They all pause to watch our boat pass by. The green flag on its prow is well known along the river and its tributaries, because it identifies members of the Integral Peasant Association of the Chocó’s Medio Atrato, known by its Spanish acronym as ACIA. “The armed groups know who we are by this flag,” other passengers explain. They are used to slipping alongside the border of the invisible war that hides deep in the jungle. 

Since 1997, ACIA has spearheaded a pilot project of collective land titles, one of the most radical experiences in Latin America and perhaps the most important in terms of agrarian reform in Colombia. The 1993 Law 70 granted rights to the black population stemming from its ethnic and cultural roots and set forth certain mechanisms to protect these communities and allow them to maintain their traditions of collective property rights. ACIA, integrated as the Greater Community Council (Consejo Comunitario Mayor-COCOMACIA), be-came the representative of black communities in this region of the country. 

The sense of belonging to the river and its environs deeply influenced the processes of political organization in the Atrato. Guided by the flow of the waters, the communitarian councils established ethnic-territorial boundaries, using the principles of planning for hydrographic basins. Since then, natural markings such as rivers, streams and swamps have continued to be used as spatial references for land jurisdiction, in keeping with the local ways of perception and environmental use as well as the kinship logics that the black communities have long followed. 

As we move down the river, we observe among the tropical pichindés, banana and fruit trees, clusters of stilt houses in small communities along the shore. Using thick trunks of the guayacán tree, the river inhabitants build these houses to deal with recurring floods. In this way, they can live alongside the ebb and flow of the river, which constantly deposits marsh debris under their houses. However, the inhabitants wonder why the relationship with the “little game of the river’s ebb and flow” has been changing lately: “Now we don’t know when it is going to flood.” These disturbances in the natural rhythms of the water have drastic implications for the health and daily life of the population. Julia tells me that when the Bebaráma River “floods, the mosquitoes take over,” which implies greater risks of malaria and other diseases. 

“Sometimes we have to sleep with the water under my bed,” adds Berta; “if the mouths of the Atrato were dredged, it wouldn’t flood so much.” Until the 1980s, floods came in a regular and predictable form, coinciding with the region’s winter. However, the removal of earth from the beds of rivers and streams with heavy machines to mine gold has caused sedimentation; it changed the river’s flow and, indeed, affected its navigatability. In the same fashion, indiscriminate lumbering is causing problems on the banks of tributaries and headwaters: artificial canals built to float the logs cause the natural course of the waters to deviate, while discarded waste produces sedimentation and chokes the river. The mechanism is simple, Carlos tells me: “when the river is made less deep because of continual sedimentation, it loses its flow intensity and ends up flooding the riverbanks.” 

The territory of Chocó, knitted together by a tangle of rivers, streams, swamps and brooks, is considered one of the rainiest and most biodiverse regions in the world. Nevertheless, the dwellers alongside the banks of the Atrato suffer a chronic shortage of water fit for human consumption. The superficial water sources, available in abundance, are exposed to all sorts of contamination and sewage. Everyone seems to agree “the only clean water is the kind that comes in a downpour.” As we make our way along beaches and tributaries, Julia, Carmen and Berta explain the difficulties they face when rain is scarce. During the dry season, daily work multiplies—especially for women—who must set out in boats looking for clean water or walk carrying the water in crocks on the long trip home. 

As the meeting point between the Atlantic and the Pacific, Chocó has pompously been called “the 21st century window on the sea” for Colombia. Moreover, it is the center of several megaprojects: transnational highways, an interoceanic canal and electrical connections between the Americas. Paradoxically, the region itself is immersed in the most profound lack of services of potable water and basic sanitation. Aqueduct construction and sewage disposal for Chocó are some of the most deficient in the entire continent. Likewise, the mortality rate due to diseases associated with water stands at least at 10 percent yearly: typhoid fever and paratyphoid, malaria, cholera and diarrhea.

Black men and women identify several factors pointing to the changes experienced in regards to water. They talk about the marshes that are drying up “turning into scrubland.” They tell how sardines and a fish they call “wide-mouth” are disappearing from their diets. They fear the river “will rise up with fury and sweep away the houses,” and they evoke the “ambushed” rivers that disappeared with the path of the dredges. They lament that streams have become contaminated and that fishing is no longer possible. They miss wading in the brooks on their way to plant the fields. 

The collective project of the black population of the Atrato is threatened by conflicting interests seeking to occupy and exploit the region. Gold and other mining resources, as well as lumber and biodiversity, attract independent settlers—colonos—and small businesses with or without formal concessions, as well as huge multinational companies backed by the government. The water, like a mirror, reflects these territorial contradictions. 

María Albina lets off steam: “The dredges took out the gold, damaged the river and left it in ruins…” The chemical contamination by the fuel and oil from the machines and by the mercury used to amalgamate the metal affect fishing, worsening the dwellers’ diet. The waters that originate in the mining zones come downstream filthy and filled with sediment. They cannot be used even to wash clothes or to prepare food, “not even to clean the house,” she says. 

On the other side, the swamps in Tumaradó, Perancho and la Honda, once important water regulators, are affected by the indiscriminate timber exploitation at the riverheads. As Gonzalo asserts, “Dead forests, dead rivers.” The river has its rights and belongings: “The forests are the patrimony of the river.” 

War has also marked these communities. Pacho recalls that in his little village, “The armed groups took control of everything, even the times we could go fishing. One could only go out to the river between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and this was very difficult...sometimes the armed actors set up camp at the river mouth, and people didn’t want to go there to cast their nets any longer...this changed people’s habits.” 

The restriction on mobility and lack of access to food necessarily affected collective work and the cultural structures which had defined production and self-sufficiency. Moreover, and by far the worse, the river itself had become the stage for death. “In ‘97, ‘98, ‘99, dead bodies would go floating down the river. So when we found a body in the river, we would try to give it back its personhood, to treat it as a human being: vamos a hacer gente. But back then, in that period, we couldn’t even think about that; people were even afraid to find the bodies because if you fished out a body, you just might get killed for that. Keeping quiet was very hard....”

It took us four hours to get to Puné. When we disembark, we see that the river is getting dry and that a large slice of beach is between us and the little village. The next morning the river continues to be “deviated.” I stumble on seven naked boys and a little girl who are pretending to be fishermen on the beach; they dig stockades; they play at catching the river fishguagucos; they toss nets into the air. Meanwhile two-year-old Davinson tries out his luck with swimming. His mother, washing clothes, warns him not to leave the riverbank. He replies with a playful splash. 

Thus, as they pass the time playing, the children wait for the men who had gone to the marsh to fish. They challenge each other as to which dad would bring in the biggest fish. “My dad is going to bring in a huge toothy fish” shouts the little girl. “But my dad is going to come with lots of bocachico,” replies the other kid—”and a net full of kicharos.” And a third child insists,“My uncle is going to get a big catfish, a super-duper huge catfish—big enough for all of us to eat.” 

That’s how they see and dream the river, and when they distinguish the boats from a distance, they all run to meet them. 

 Diana Duque is a consultant and researcher in rural development and the social impact of water. She has participated in political and social projects at the United Nations, the Institute von Humboldt, local governments and civil society organizations in Colombia. 

 Diana Duque es consultante e investigadora enfocando en el desarrollo rural y el impacto social del agua. Ha participado en proyectos politicos y sociales en la ONU, en el Instituto von Humboldt, y con gobiernos locales y instituciones de la sociedad civil en Colombia.