"It's up to us leaders to keep quiet if we don't want to be victims of the conflict."
Bernardino Mosquera Palacios is a social leader in the department of Chocó, on the Colombian Pacific coast, who has one job: to protect the Atrato River. This is his testimony.
With a cock in the background, at 7:00 in the morning, I begin my talk with Bernardino, a native of Rio Quito, Chocó.
My job is to be the guardian of the Atrato River. And legally so, as established inRuling T-622 of 2016, which recognizes the Atrato River as a subject of rights. In the beginning, I was a councilman of my municipality for two periods, then I was president of the community council, and now I am the guardian of the river.
I have almost 16 years of leadership in this black community in Rio Quito. My life is that of every farmer in this forgotten region. I studied in a school called Institución Educativa Nuestra Señora Virgen de la Candelaria. There, I finished my primary studies, and then I went to Quibdó to finish high school, but it was very difficult. My parents did not have a house in Quibdó, and it was tough to support us, so I left my studies and continued with my work in the fields.
When I grew up and had a family, I dedicated myself to helping them become professionals. All my children studied; they are all professionals. I later validated my high school diploma and then began to study two careers.
Moving forward was not easy. I began to look for ways to get ahead, but it is difficult in a place where we lack basic services. There is no greater difficulty than that: there is no access to health, nor light, education, or drinking water.
Then came the most significant challenge: the territory’s invasion by illegal groups that began to dispute the territory to take advantage of its natural resources.
Those actors were the AUC, the ELN, and, at some point, the FARC. Now, Mexican drug trafficking gangs and the Bacrim have joined.
What happens in my region is an unusual geographical situation, because Rio Quito is a municipality with quick access to both oceans, Atlantic and Pacific. It is a forested and mountainous area that allows for the easy creation of drug corridors. For the last 20 years, other actors that have tremendously damaged the territory are multinational mining companies, along with illegal and criminal mining activities.
We want the government and all these actors to understand that the Atrato River is our livelihood. It is our highway, our airport, and the most important cultural actor we have because in it we find our source of life. That's why we believe that if the river dies, we die; if it gets sick, we get sick. Because it is, even, everything that the state is not: our water and sewage system, our light, our home.
Today, serious contamination from mining is happening. Mercury and cyanide damage the waters and affect human health. If we add to that the use of dredges, it is unmanageable. The sedimentation is such that the riverbed is almost dead.
Will not be so easily intimidated by these groups that attack the river, we will resist.
With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, we thought that, at least, the mining exploitation was going to stop, but it intensified. Life stopped, but the dredging and barrelling did not.
Bernardino finishes talking.
While land grabbing, extensive cattle ranching, and illicit crops are the main drivers of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, in the Pacific, the chainsaw is directly associated with illegal gold mining, an activity that moves more than 1.2 billion dollars a year in Colombia.
Chocó is the main center of operation for illegal mining and deforestation in the Pacific. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the department has the largest amount of area destined for alluvial gold exploitation in the country, with more than 33.000 hectares.
To extract a single gram of gold, a minimum of four people and a backhoe are required to remove six tons of soil and forest. Then, they build an artificial pool, where they apply 1.000 liters of water per second and five grams of mercury, one of the 10 chemicals that affects health the most and poisons the rivers and soil.
I was kidnapped by the paramilitaries when I was a councilman because I didn't want to pay for the vaccine [money asked by ilegal armed groups so the communities are left alone] they charged. Before, I had protective measures by the State. Now, I am adrift.
Today we live by taking care of each other and ourselves. In the urban center, we see the public forces, but it seems that they don't know anything. What's more, we often see them sharing with the illegal groups that threaten us every day to protect the territory.
It's my turn to go out. The authority that has helped us the most is the Ombudsman's Office and, lately, the delegated procurator for ethnic affairs.
We are always exchanging what happens to us in the territory and on a platform that we have called the Chocó Inter-Ethnic Solidarity Forum, which brings together all the ethnic organizations in the department.
A department in oblivion
For years, Chocó has been an invisible department for the State. The factors for that are: the State shields itself from the poverty of the communities and uses us in various ways. We don't expect much from the government anymore because we see very little willingness on their part.
Since the signing of the peace agreement, things have gotten worse; we expected peace in the territory, but the opposite has happened. Things have gotten worse with the new government, and the territory has been left to the armed actors who are not the FARC. And it's up to us leaders to keep quiet if we don't want to be victims of the conflict.
For us, the last alternative is that the government hears a proposal from the Forum of ethnic communities, which is that the peace negotiations with the ELN should not be stopped.
Another problem is what has happened with the sentence that protects the river. We had made progress with the now ex-minister of the Environment, Ricardo Lozano, to draw up a fifth-order action plan to decontaminate the water source. We worked on a seventh-order food security plan with the Ministry of Agriculture, but there was no willingness to negotiate with us. Now, with a new Environment minister, we don't even know if what we did is going to be fulfilled.
We understand and see that we have no health system,so we turn to traditional medicine. Most of the Covid-19 cases have been treated through our traditional medicine, and we have come out very well. We have survived like this. We are going to have to keep surviving.
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