The Atrato River

The Atrato river.
(“Amanecer en el Atrato” by Desde Colombia con las comunidades campesinas en r is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

In November 2016 (shortly after the signing of the 2016 Peace Agreement with the FARC), Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered that the Atrato River Basin, its tributaries, and surrounding territories be recognized as a legal subject with the rights to be protected, maintained, conserved, and restored ‒ making it the first Colombian rights-bearing ecosystem.

The Atrato River Basin is located within the megadiverse northwestern Chocó department. Ninety percent of Chocó is specially protected forest area ‒ with a diverse range of ecosystems, watersheds, and endemic species. The Atrato River Basin (40,000 square kilometers) runs from the Andean mountains to the Caribbean gulf of Urabá, and over 15 rivers and 300 streams run through it. The decision, announced in May 2017, was made in response to a tutela (legal writ) filed by social justice research center Tierra Digna on behalf of an alliance of Chocó-based organizations.

In its decision, the Court found that the Colombian government had violated the fundamental constitutional rights over river communities through its omission to control and eradicate illegal mining in the region.

The Court made several prescriptive orders to implement its decision, including that the rights of the river will be represented by a guardian, with one representative from government and one from the claimant communities. Since the ruling its precedent has been used to support further cases dealing with the protection of the Amazon and other river systems in the country.