On February 1st, 2018, Christian Aid Ireland and ABColombia hosted a panel discussion with Fr. Padre Sterlin of the Catholic Diocese of Quibdó, Chocó and Barnadino Mosquera, a community leader from the Rio Quito, Chocó. The Chocó region located on Colombia’s Pacific coast, is rich in natural resources and is one of the focal points of the Colombian conflict. The government has little access to the remote region, and for decades guerrillas and paramilitaries have set up bases there, brutalising the local populations and ravaging the environment. For years, the region has suffered from illegal mining, causing forced displacement of entire communities and gravely polluting the river, making it unsafe for people to bathe or fish in.
Father Sterlin and Barnadino, shared their stories of struggle to protect their rights prior to and since the implementation of the peace process. Their work was instrumental in adding an ethnic chapter to the peace agreement, ensuring the rights of indigenous and afro-descendant people are protected. They also successfully campaigned for the acquisition of legal status for the Atrato River. In November 2017, the constitutional court awarded special rights to the River. An award given to only two other rivers around the world, (India and New Zealand). These rights mean the river should be protected.
The verdict of the Colombian Constitutional Court on the Atrato river also guaranteed the fundamental rights of the communities that inhabit its banks, providing the communities with stronger legal grounds. Barnadino Mosquera is a guardian of the Atrato river, a commitment that has exposed him to renewed intimidation and threats from paramilitaries and guerrillas still active in the region.
The audience heard that while the peace agreement has brought hope to the Chocó people, very little has been done so far to actually implement the agreement and the government remains mostly absent. The disarmament of the FARC has had a negligible impact in Chocó as it is estimated that they were only responsible for about 15% of the violence directed toward civilians. Existing and emerging paramilitary groups have filled the power vacuum created by the FARC leaving the region and violence has in fact increased since the signature of the peace agreement, with human right activists being targeted in particular.
Barnadino Mosquera invited the audience, and everyone around the world, to also become guardians of the Atrato river by raising awareness on the situation to ensure that this diverse ecosystem and the people living on its banks continue to be protected.