Virtually unreachable by road and plagued by years of civil unrest, the Chocó region of Colombia can be a dangerous place.
A stronghold for anti-government militia, its unique ecosystem is facing irreparable damage at the hands of illegal gold miners, who dredge the element from sediment in the Atrato river basin.
But there is hope. In 2017, in a world-first, Colombia’s constitutional court awarded ‘human’ rights to the river. It recognised that the river played such an important part in the economic and social life of the region that it should be afforded the equivalent rights to the humans that surround it.
Dr Nick Mount is part of a team of natural and social scientists working to identify how these new rights can translate into concrete progress.
This is a river basin that’s one of the most important biodiversity hot-spots in the world, that’s been absolutely ravaged by environmental destruction. Why has the world not heard of this? Well, the answer is because it’s been silenced
He said: “Rivers are real canaries in the coal mine in terms of what’s going on in your environment. If your river’s in bad health, it usually suggests you’ve got a bigger problem elsewhere.”
In Chocó, the impact of the mining is undeniable.
Dr Mount said: “It’s destroying the river channel, the sediments, the soils have gone, there’s nothing left. It’s like the surface of the moon.”
The Atrato’s new rights demand it must be protected and eventually restored. But without comprehensive baseline data, it is hard to know what this means let alone how it can be achieved. Collecting this data will help to give the river back its voice.
“This is a river basin that’s one of the most important biodiversity hot-spots in the world, that’s been absolutely ravaged by environmental destruction. Why has the world not heard of this? Well, the answer is because it’s been silenced.
“In Britain our rivers have multiple monitoring points where every few minutes or hours we’re collecting data that allows us to monitor river health. In Chocó there is very little state monitoring of the river systems at all.”
Empowering the local community with the equipment and skills to collect this data is key. The Chocó River Stories team is teaching them how to measure water quality and other basic indicators of river health.
“They become advocates, the voices for the river,” he said. “When they’re talking, whether it be to government or NGOs, they’re able to back up their arguments with scientifically validated data and that’s a hugely powerful thing to do.”
In an area of such heightened tensions, partnering with communities and building trust has been key. “We’ve been very careful to design this project with communities from the ground up.
“They know their river and what’s changed. They might not be able to put numbers on it, they might not be able to do it scientifically but it doesn’t mean they don’t have skills and knowledge they need to speak effectively for it.”
Dr Mount also has PhD students working on computer models to recreate what the river function would have looked like before illegal mining.
They become advocates, the voices for the river
Dr Mount’s initial visit to Colombia was funded through one of the University’s research priority areas, which support multidisciplinary responses to key challenges, making it possible for him to join a parliamentary trip as a specialist advisor.
“I needed a decision quickly. The nimbleness of that small amount of funding was critical,” he said.
He hopes the project, which is in partnership with the universities of Glasgow and Portsmouth, will be replicated in other areas of the world where interventions could begin earlier and it’s this belief in change that keeps him returning to Colombia.
“It’s hot, it’s sticky, it’s tense, there are a lot of armed actors and the risk of being kidnapped is always in the back of your mind. I ask myself regularly ‘why the hell am I here?’ but it’s because there has to be a better way.
“If I have a vision for this it would be to see the environment be given far more rights. The human race tends to look at it as some- thing that’s there to serve us, a resource for us to draw on but, actually, the court ruling in Colombia raises the question that maybe it’s something that should have a value and protection equal to human life because, after all, it is the environment that sustains us.”