Maryury Mosquera has travelled from the rainforest of Choco Colombia to COP26 to raise awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world, Choco, which is also one of the focal points of the Colombian conflict.
Choco department, located in the Pacific basin of the Choco Biographical Region, extends from the Andes mountains to the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its high rates of vegetation cover, forests, mangroves and jungles make it a key carbon storage epicenter to combat the effects of climate change.
It is also crucial to the migration patterns of hundreds of species and a breeding area for turtles and whales.
Choco is of historic and ancestral importance, approximately 90% of the population are Indigenous and Afro-Colombian; communities whose worldviews are intimately intertwined with the land and its natural resources. The government has little presence in this 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.
River guardians: The Colombian Court created a body of 14 Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Guardians elected by the communities along the river Atrato to engage with the state to ensure the implementation of its ruling.
They together with the Colombian Environment Minister form the Atrato River Guardians.
Maryury Mosquera Palacios represents the Afro-descendant community council of Cocomopoca as a Guardian of the Atrato River, the most important river in Choco.
The Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities of Choco together with environmental lawyer Viviana Gonzalez, also attending COP26, took the Colombian state to the Constitutional Court and won a ground-breaking decision which gave bio-cultural rights to the river Atrato. This decision and that of the New Zealand Court were the first in the world to give rights to rivers.
“Our communities are struggling to ensure the protection of our river it is the source of life for us. We are here calling on people and nations to join us as Atrato River Guardians,” says Maryury.
Afro-Colombians settled in Choco when they overcame slavery joining the five indigenous tribes living in this region. They are leading a legal battle to prevent the destruction of their territory, livelihoods, culture and the biodiversity of this unique tropical gem – Choco.
Choco, is being destroyed by illegal gold mining churning up the riverbeds, extracting gold from the sediment and washing mercury back into the river.
There is also a massive deforestation, as large swaths of forest are cleared by commercial logging, and for bringing in mining equipment.
These operations are protected by illegal armed groups making it impossible for community leaders to stop illegal activities taking place in their territories.
In spite of the harsh conditions such as, the armed conflict, illegal gold mining and deforestation, and racial discrimination, Choco is characterised by people who have been persistent in organising themselves, in demanding structural changes, creating human rights networks nationally and internationally to defending their way of life, the environment, their culture and cosmovision.
This culminated in winning a legal battle but there is now a far greater challenge how to get that legal ruling implemented.
“The commitments of states to combat climate change must also include strong measures to control extractive industries, guarantee human rights, and respect the cultural practices of local communities,” says Viviana Gonzalez, environmental lawyer and deputy director of litigation NGO the Centro Sociojuridico SIEMBRA.
Maryury and Viviana are at COP26 to raise awareness of the destruction that is happening in Choco, and the need for world leaders to ensure that the region of Choco, which offers so much to the world in terms of biodiversity, culture and wildlife, as well as a key carbon storage epicenter to combat the effects of climate change, is not destroyed.
The Colombian Government despite being a COP26 Climate Change Champion has taken little action in the six years since the ruling, to dismantle the illegal gold mining operations, which grew exponentially during the Covid lockdown, according to the Satellite mapping undertaken by Portsmouth University, or to halt the deforestation.
(Also with Maryury and Viviana is Alejandro Perez, SNPS Senior Specialist in advocacy and peace issues, where he has been accompanying different communities affected by violence and environmental destruction. They were Invited by ABColombia, the visited the UK for the COP26 Summit.)