River lives, River movements. Fisher communities mobilizing local and official rules in defense of the Magdalena River

Rutgerd Boelens*, Juliana Forigua-Sandoval, Bibiana Duarte-Abadía, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Camargo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/Letter to the editorAcademic

4 Citations (Scopus)


The Magdalena River, Colombia’s main river backbone, features multiple tensions and socio-environmental conflicts. They manifest themselves in the river’s ecological degradation and negatively impact the riparian communities and artisanal fishermen, whose productive activities and rights of access to water are restricted. For these communities, the river is a means of passing down and exchanging knowledge between generations. However, their knowledge and practices are not recognized in the dominant governance processes over the Magdalena River. In an interview with Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Camargo, environmental activist, researcher and companion of artisanal fishermen, we illustrate the universe of epistemologies and worldviews of these communities. We discuss, from a legal-pluralism perspective, the contradictions between state norms and authorities, parastatal powers, and the customary rights of fishing communities. We analyze how the simultaneous presence of various authorities and the complex, unequal arena of legal, extra-legal and illegal forces, hinders enforcement of fishermen’s customary socio-legal repertoires and also of the Colombian Constitution to protect riverside communities’ human rights. The interview reflects on the great complexity of exercising community leadership, environmental protection and defense of artisanal fishing in the midst of a socio-normative political arena permeated by state abandonment and paramilitary violence. For this reason, the interview stresses the importance of recognizing artisanal fisher collectives as political subjects in river co-governance. It also highlights the ambivalent implications of granting rights to nature and rivers: their meaning, functions and impact depend on their political trajectory and mobilization by grassrooted collectives. Finally, Gutiérrez proposes strengthening knowledge networks to bolster river co-governance where the political-cultural and socio-normative frameworks of riverside communities play a preponderant role.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)458-476
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Colombia
  • environmental justice
  • Fisher communities
  • legal complexity
  • Magdalena River


Dive into the research topics of 'River lives, River movements. Fisher communities mobilizing local and official rules in defense of the Magdalena River'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this