Colombia’s Huacula and Manizales rivers threatened by exploitation

Image copyright University of Pribram Campus Image caption The Huacula and Manizales rivers are of great natural importance

For centuries, the people of the Huacula and Manizales rivers – in Colombia’s north-west – have lived by cultivating their crops and wildlife.

Now their methods of running the rivers – traditional fishery and farming practices – have been threatened.

As the international forest industry moves into the region and tries to turn the rivers to mining, these traditional ways of living are under threat.

The Donel tribe of the Malbapu river, directly downstream of the Huacula, use the rivers, where, for centuries, hundreds of species of species of wild fish lived freely. The river is vital to the local economy – there are also traditional rural markets.

“We have always known how to fish,” says Edgardo Delgado, a local elder. “We’ve always done it responsibly. But because of the destruction we saw from urban pollution we became more conscious and learned about the importance of taking measures so the rivers and their resources would be protected.”

Places like this don’t stop when they arrive. You can see the last living fish waiting for fresh water to open and fill up the little openings in the banks, now used by builders. It’s just a drop in the ocean. Madeleine Res, Conservation NGO

Fortunately, the traditional methods were not only increasing the fish stocks and offering a livelihood to the community, but also drawing in tourists and further commercial opportunity.

It was against this backdrop that Colombia’s military came up with a programme to seek international recognition for the rivers and protect the people.

This was to be carried out under terms which would see the Donel people learn the international conservation standards of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and agree a road map for their rivers.

Vulnerable by law

Article 4.12 of the Colombian Constitution prohibits mining within a national park or reserve, so it is important to take care of these rivers.

But in practice, although the government and the local authorities are certainly trying to help protect them, they’re unable to take on the multinational companies which stand to make significant profits from their exploitation.

Colombia is classified as a country with a high risk of biodiversity destruction.

According to Jose Reyna, a director of international affairs at the National Cervantes Association, also known as the Nature Protection Association, the country “is technically difficult to manage since the kind of damage we are witnessing is of a very deep nature”.

He told BBC News, “When they get into protected areas, all they need is a license. And the environmental ministry can’t, with no other grounds, authorise the miners to operate there. But it’s technically impossible for any other kind of industry to operate in protected areas because the national government doesn’t have the authority to do so.”

Image copyright University of Pribram Campus Image caption An area of land of many rivers

Located between Colombia’s Amazonian hills and the border with Venezuela, the communities of the Malbapu rivers are a large unconnected group of communities who trace their origins to the Malus River.

One of the environmental challenges they face is the fragmentation of their land.

The old man with his grudge, once tended to by his people, has now been taken over by the mines. It seems like a miracle that they’re still alive, but they are on the verge of extinction.

It’s a situation Madeleine Res, Colombia correspondent for international NGO Fortean Times, describes with the emotion of someone witnessing the human consequences of seemingly endless brutality against a people they clearly love.

“From the outside it seems like these rivers, and what they’re contributing to the world, has been ignored,” she says. “But there’s been a great amount of work going on by local people in making sure the rivers are provided with enough water, and getting their grievances addressed, and getting their countries and governments involved.

“There’s a tension at the moment, especially since the government stepped back from the environment, and some of the indigenous people have started to use force – and that has had a chilling effect.”

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