Integrated interpretations of rivers as vital and interconnected living and evolving entities have extensive practical application — from their revered preservation throughout Indigenous territories, to modern adaptations of holistic Indigenous worldviews, to advances in integrated research and policy whose goals are conservation, restoration and mitigation.
Colombia is a “megadiverse” country, in culture, ecosystems and biodiversity, and all are supported by an extremely rich network of rivers and watersheds. Several powerful river basins cut through and delineate the borders of the country. The headwaters for hundreds of rivers are found in the high-altitude glaciers , lakes, paramos and cloud forests of the Andes and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountain Ranges, while many others have their sources within the Choco and Amazon tropical lowland forests.
These rivers flow through a vast range of ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots on their way to Colombia’s Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, as well as towards the massive Amazon River Basin. Transboundary rivers, such as the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, also flow through the awe-inspiring tropical forests of Southeastern Colombia.
Along the impressive network of Colombian waterways are 87 recognized Indigenous ethnic groups, with distinct worldviews and interpretations of the origins, importance and damage being done to their sacred rivers.
While there exists a tremendous diversity in beliefs, language, ecosystems, and modern circumstances between Indigenous ethnic groups in Colombia － and of course among traditional cultures around the world － they share a common belief that rivers are vital sources of life, balance and connectivity. To many Indigenous Peoples, rivers, from their sources to their outlets, are Mother Earth’s lifeblood. To obstruct, contaminate, deviate, overfish, deforest and otherwise degrade this life-giving and sustaining network is a natural crime.
I work with Indigenous ethnic groups and researchers in Colombia on multidisciplinary and intercultural projects that take an integrated approach to environmental and cultural preservation. I have come to understand the depth and utility of Indigenous interpretations of rivers, as well as the importance of integrated and basin-scale research and analysis that aims to preserve the integrity of these dynamic river systems.
Conversely, I have observed that the globally pervasive paradigm － anthropocentric and reductionist at its core － of “water rights” as property, has severely altered and degraded some of Colombia’s major rivers, especially within the Magdalena and Cauca River Basins. Furthermore, illicit activities and conflict in isolated and neglected areas of the Amazon and Choco tropical lowland forests have led to the contamination and degradation of many rivers, as well as the displacement of traditional riverine communities who have formed interdependent relationships with the rivers.
From Sacred Sources to Overused Courses: The Magdalena and Cauca Rivers
The High-Andean paramos and cloud forests in southern Colombia give birth to some of the country’s most important river basins. The headwaters of Colombia’s two main “breadbaskets,” the Magdalena and Cauca Rivers, are inside this “water factor,” as are the critical Caqueta and Putumayo Rivers that connect Andes and Amazon ecosystems. These essential watersheds are within the ancestral territories of Indigenous ethnic groups who still fight for their protection.
The interconnected and life-giving rivers are revered and remain largely protected while traversing through the Indigenous territories of the Nasa, Misak, Yanacona and several other ethnic groups in the Andean Highlands. However, once they descend and grow in volume within more populated and agroindustrial areas, they become severely altered, degraded and neglected.
The Magdalena and Cauca Rivers chart parallel courses running south to north through the Andes Mountains, and suffer from parallel stories of exploitation and degradation, i.e. “development” that has supported the “growth” of the Colombian population and economy. Mass-scale deforestation, agroindustry, extractive industries (legal and illegal) and urban waste have polluted and degraded the water and banks of the Magdalena and Cauca for decades. Past dams along the mainstreams and tributaries altered the flow and seasonal flooding of diverse habitats, while greatly diminishing fisheries － though for better or worse, Colombia is “energy self-sufficient,” producing around 70% of the country’s energy from operational hydroelectric dams. New, under construction, and future planned “megadams” along the Magdalena and Cauca mainstreams are impending ecological disasters that further risk the extinction of species and irreparable cumulative damage for the entire Magdalena and Cauca River Basins.
The Magdalena River and El Quimbo Dam
Between 60-70% of Colombia’s approximately 50 million people live within the Magdalena River Basin, which covers nearly a quarter of the country’s area. The Magdalena River itself rises from the Magdalena Lagoon in the Andean Highlands at nearly 12,000 feet. It descends east and flows north, augmenting itself along the way with the Cauca, Sogamoso and hundreds of other rivers, until it discharges into the Atlantic Ocean near the city of Barranquilla 950 miles downstream. Due to its support of so many humans and industries, the Magdalena is widely regarded as Colombia’s most important river. With so much intensive land-use and corruption along its banks, it is difficult to pinpoint direct causes of evident degradation to the Magdalena, such as sediment alteration, species extinction and altered oxygen levels, but the recently constructed El Quimbo Dam separates itself as an especially egregious example of a human-created disaster.
Just 22 miles upstream from the Magdalena’s first damaging mainstream dam － 1980’s-era Betania Dam － El Quimbo is a highly controversial megadam. “El Quimbo has killed off numerous species and left this stretch of the river nearly lifeless, ruining the livelihoods of local fisherman, with cumulative impacts downstream for millions of people and remaining species,” according to Professor Miller Dussan, with whom I spoke in November 2019 at the South Colombian University in Neiva, Huila. Professor Dussan actively campaigned against the construction of El Quimbo － along with collaborators at Asoquimbo and Rios Vivos － and continues to fight for reparations for affected communities. He is concerned that if future proposed dams, mining and fracking initiatives are implemented along the Magdalena, the mighty river will become irreparably degraded.
The Cauca River and Hidroituango Dam
The Cauca River is less voluminous than the Magdalena, but still supports millions of Colombians, and a range of activities that drive the Colombian economy. The Cauca River rises in the High Andean Paramos near Purace Volcano － ancestral territory of the Yanacona － before heading north for 600 miles until its eventual drainage into the Magdalena River.
Dams and drought have led to historically low water levels in the last two years for the Cauca River. The Salvajina Dam, constructed in 1985, has mostly been used for flood control and hydroelectricity (270 megawatts installed capacity) and is responsible for the diminishment of many river species and habitats, including seasonal flood-lakes that used to be spawning grounds for abundant life. The imminent threat to the survival of the Cauca River, however, is the still-in-construction Hidroituango Dam, a megadam projected to have approximately 2,400 megawatts of installed capacity.
Although still in the production stage, Hidroituango is already causing severe ecological and social strife for the Cauca River and nearby communities. Between April-May 2018 heavy floods and mechanical malfunctions led to the emergency evacuation of thousands of people, major delays and brought international attention to the negligence and impacts of the project. Furthermore, the dam is responsible for bringing dry-season water levels of the Cauca River to record lows, while causing a dangerous explosion of invasive plant species. Hidroituango, now due to begin operations in 2021, will not only impact the vital Cauca River, but the biodiversity hotspot downstream at the confluence of the Cauca, Magdalena and other smaller rivers.
Basin-Scale Studies and the Mompos Depression
The Cauca and Magdalena Rivers join forces at the Mompos Depression wetlands, a system of seasonal flood-lakes and marshes that are rich in aquatic, amphibian and avian biodiversity. The Mompos is now seriously threatened due to developments along the Magdalena and Cauca Rivers, and many experts fear that Hidroituango, El Quimbo and future proposed megadams along the Magdalena and Cauca mainstreams will be the death-knell for the Mompos.
In Colombia, researchers at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), as part of the global “Hydropower by Design” framework, have searched for a middle ground by studying and stressing cumulative basin-scale impacts of hydroelectric dams along the Magdalena and Cauca Rivers.
Colombian and international scientists have published integrated research that demonstrates the enormous potential impacts on the seasonal flooding and rich biodiversity of the Mompos Depression if dams are constructed as proposed. Sadly, most of their warnings and suggestions have fallen on deaf ears within short-sighted Colombian administrations, while the “rights” to build new dams are sold to the highest bidder in public auctions. In a recent conversation with one of the study authors － TNC biologist and freshwater specialist Dr. Juliana Delgado － and TNC-Colombia Science Coordinator Dr. Thomas Walschburger, Dr. Walschburger lamented that:
“Cumulative environmental and social impact studies are essential to determining the placement and/or viability of dam construction, in Colombia and around the world. Unfortunately, due to strong economic and political interests, the science takes a back seat and the traditional superficial local assessments, if any assessments are done at all, remain the so-far impenetrable rule of thumb. I do not have much hope for the beautiful Mompos if the status quo remains, and it could be gone within the next 20-30 years.”
Adapting Integrated Indigenous Worldviews to the Modern World: Rights of Colombian Rivers
With so much evident environmental damage and recent concern for future sustainability, the “Western” world is starting to wake up to the integrated perspectives of nature that has been fundamental to Indigenous worldviews for millennia.
The “Rights of Nature” movement has been expanding globally － with Colombia being an early and spirited adopter － though the actual impact and implementation of such drastic shifts away from anthropocentrism and “water rights” as property remain to be seen. This movement is firmly grounded in holistic Indigenous worldviews, where the rivers, forests and all species are interconnected “persons” of a healthy Mother Earth, not resources to be exploited.
Judgement of the Atrato River
The Atrato is the Choco’s principal waterway. It rises along the western slopes of the Andes, dropping down to the vibrant Choco Rainforest, then taking a northward turn past the rainy regional capital Quibdó, before eventually draining into the Gulf of Urabá on the Atlantic Coast of Colombia near Panama. Along its 416 mile course, it flows through 91 Indigenous communities and has been heavily impacted by illegal gold mining. The Embera Dobidá － which literally means “People of the River” － live along the Atrato River and its tributaries and have been vocal supporters of its protection and restoration.
The Atrato River gained international notoriety for a ruling of Colombia’s Constitutional Court announced in May of 2017, which granted the river the rights of “personhood.” More explicitly, the Atrato River is now “subject to the rights that implicate its protection, conservation, maintenance, and, in the specific case, restoration,” with legal local guardians that include Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians.
“The Atrato and its tributaries remain heavily exploited and contaminated due to illegal gold mining and logging,” Biology Department Chair at the Technological University of Choco, Dr. Jhon Tailor Rengifo, confirmed during a conversation with me in May of 2019. Nonetheless, the “Judgment of the Atrato River established an important precedent for future action and increased consciousness.”
The Rights of the Amazon
An April 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of Colombia extended the Rights of Nature model in Colombia to the entire Amazon region, stating that “for the sake of protecting this vital ecosystem for the future of the planet,” the court would “recognize the Colombian Amazon as an entity, subject of rights, and beneficiary of the protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration.”
The Amazon River Basin is a region almost incomprehensibly rich in water, biodiversity and traditional ethnic groups. In the Colombian Amazon, rivers support and are revered by approximately 70 Indigenous Amazonian ethnic groups.
For many ethnic groups in the Amazon, the vast and powerful river network not only represents a vital interconnected system of the Mother Earth, but a connection to the cosmos and the origin of all life. Within these Amazonian worldviews, the Anaconda often serves as a metaphor of the Amazon River Basin, as well as the originator of life and culture. For the Makuna － “the water people” － in the Gran Vaupes region of the Colombian Amazon, the “Ancestral Anaconda” descends from the all-important “Principal Ancestor” in the Milky Way － known as “Yurupary” － and gives birth to water, life and culture. Makuna leader Fabio Valencia explained to me that “The rivers and the spirits that reside within them connect us to Yurupary and balance the energies between these parallel worlds. The Ancestral Anaconda created us here in the center of the terrestrial world to preserve this balance. The river spirits, whether within animals, plants, gold or water itself, should always be respected, and never disturbed or extracted unless with explicit permission and offerings to Yurupary, or we risk destroying the vital balance of our world.” He continued, “The river speaks, it has a powerful voice and tells countless stories; The problem is that we have stopped listening.”
While indeed a trailblazing and eloquent legal proclamation that also proposes steps to be taken, how the integrated model and vision of legal rights for the Colombian Amazon will actually be implemented is unknown and mostly viewed with ambivalence by Indigenous leaders and conservationists alike. Stakeholders that are trying to improve the situation often quip that Colombia is “a lawless country with the best laws in the world.”
Furthermore, protecting the vast beauty and diversity of the Colombian Amazon may still be insufficient for preserving the integrity of all of its rivers. Free-flowing rivers often connect distinct ecosystems and transport sediments that are critical for the health of natural habitats and riverine communities over long ranges. For example, many rivers that end up as part of the Amazon River Basin are born on the slopes of the Andes Mountains, and the sediments from these montane ecosystems provide distinct nutrients that lowland plants and animals in the tropical forests downstream depend upon. The Caqueta and Putumayo Rivers are examples of major Andes-Amazon rivers that have been severely contaminated by legal and illegal industries.
Research is recognizing that this so-called “Andes-to-Amazon Connectivity” is also critical for certain migratory fish species, such as the intrepid Goliath Catfish, an emblematic species of the Amazon that is a traditionally important source of food and legend for Indigenous communities. These fish have their spawning grounds at higher elevations on the Andean slopes, and travel thousands of miles during their life-cycles between highland and lowland ecosystems. The epic journey of the Goliath Catfish is being fragmented by dams in both the lowland Amazon River Basin and the highland Andean slopes, though not yet in Colombia.
From Integrated Ideology and Research to Pragmatic Solutions
Ideological and investigative － if not fully practical － progress is clearly being made, in Colombia and other parts of the world, which in the long term will be essential to a more sustainable future. A pragmatic strategy for both amplifying and implementing formal “River Rights” are needed now though, regardless of whether a wider populace recognizes the follies of the current global models of limitless growth, reductionism, private property and resource extraction. The advancements in integrated science and Rights of Nature come after the severe “overuse” and degradation of rivers. Two-thirds of the world’s longest rivers are no longer free-flowing thanks to tens of thousands of dams. A whole range of chemical, irrigation and diversionary practices from agroindustry and extractive industries, plus copious amounts of human consumption and waste, have polluted and diminished rivers and their diverse species. Anthropogenic climate change and deforestation also threaten to dry out many rivers due to severe drought and erosion of riverine habitats.
Nonetheless, we － the products of modern science, reason, globalization, urbanization, consumption and “growth” － can still recognize the right of a river to follow its natural course, and the incredible arrogance displayed by our species in damming, contaminating and degrading rivers and adjacent habitats. We and all life depend on these vast networks of fresh flowing water, species and sediments, that connect diverse ecosystems, biodiversity and human communities, yet we continue to ignore the suffering of the rivers. If we cannot listen, learn and change our ways, for the good of all “persons” of the planet, power should be put in the hands of those that have listened for millennia and can speak in defense of the violated interconnected rivers of the world.
Header Image: Stretch of the Magdalena River between El Quimbo and Betania Dams. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.
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The author would like to thank professor Miller Dussan of South Colombian University, professor Jhon Rengifo of the Technical University of Choco, professor Rafael Hurtado of the National University of Colombia – Bogota, professor Juan Gonzalez of Cauca University, Dr. Fernando Trujillo of Omacha Foundation, Dr. Thomas Walschburger and Dr. Juliana Delgado of The Nature Conservancy – Colombia, and R. Thomas Wendlandt, for their contributions, collaborations and expertise. The author would also like to sincerely thank the Indigenous leaders from the Embera Dobida, Wounaan, Arhuaco, Nasa, Misak, Koreguaje, Murui Muina, Makuna and Tikuna ethnic groups, who shared their complex worldviews, knowledge and stories from within their beautiful territories.