Colombia’s magnificent Magdalena River has found its fiercest advocate and defender in Liliana Geurrero.
By Andres Bermudez.
Photos by ©Stephen Ferry, courtesy of Culture Trip.
Liliana Guerrero is in a hurry as she navigates the busy streets of Barranquilla, Colombia, in her gray Renault. In fact, she always seems to be in a rush, accompanied by an ever-present smile and an unflappable work ethic.
She is on her way to a hearing on a water-pollution case at the city’s environmental authority, where she is often called on for her legal expertise in environmental issues. The defendants are being prosecuted for running several informal carwash businesses along the Magdalena River that included cleaning gasoline tanker trucks and emptying the remaining petrol into the river. Liliana is pleased that the authorities are prosecuting the case but she laments that it is still “too rare an occasion” and that the enforcement of environmental regulations in the city is still far too lax.
For the past eight years, Liliana has devoted her life to this waterway that snakes along 1,540 kilometers from the snow-capped Andean peaks in southwestern Colombia until it reaches the warm Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla, her native city. It is an industrious port city and the business capital of Colombia’s Caribbean region. It is also home to the Barranquilla Carnival, second only to Rio de Janeiro’s in size and energy, and the hometown of celebrated songwriter and pop star Shakira. Not surprisingly, the city’s residents, called barranquilleros, have a reputation for being both hard working and fun loving. Liliana Guerrero is no exception. She can be lighthearted but there is also a no-nonsense aspect to her, putting you on notice that once she starts something, she is deadly earnest about finishing it.
A LEGAL RIVER GUARDIAN
As a lawyer, Liliana is proud of her country’s strong framework of environmental laws, but she is frustrated by the noticeably weaker track record in effective enforcement and compliance. Liliana grew up in a family of attorneys. But whereas her father, two brothers and four sisters all chose more conventional careers in civil law, Liliana has devoted her entire professional life to environmental law. “Environmental law is my passion,” she says. “What motivates me is to help ensure that environmental rules and regulations benefit everyone and are observed, rather than simply being dead letters on a sheet of paper.” After earning her law degree at the University of Cartagena, she practiced law there and worked as an administrator and taught at another law school in that city.
She met Elizabeth Ramirez when they were both teaching at the law school. Ramirez was, by then, also the Cartagena Baykeeper, and she introduced Liliana to the Waterkeeper movement. “When I learned of Waterkeeper Alliance from Elizabeth’s work,” Liliana says, “I loved that it was a network connecting people who share common ideals about safekeeping water and everyone’s right to clean water. Elizabeth showed me it was possible to do this in Colombia, combining it with community-based work helping her city’s socially vulnerable population.”
Inspired by Elizabeth, Liliana decided to return to her native Barranquilla and to become the guardian of her beloved Magdalena River by establishing an environmental NGO. Liliana’s family has lived in Barranquilla for at least five generations (that is as far back as the records go), and she has a deep, almost palpable, love for the place.
The Magdalena River has been called Colombia’s beating heart. Up until the 19th century, it was the main point of entry to the Andes Mountains where two-thirds of Colombians live. It has also been a mainstay of Colombian popular culture; it is a presence in the tale of impossible love between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s celebrated novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” as it is many other popular stories, including a favorite children’s song about an iguana drinking coffee on the riverbank.
However, Barranquilla ironically grew with its back to the Magdalena, a situation it is now trying to reverse by demolishing abandoned factories and building a one-mile-long promenade. Assisted by a strong conviction that legal analysis and strategic litigation can be instrumental in improving the environmental conditions of her city, Liliana founded Bocas de Ceniza Waterkeeper in 2011, naming it for the area where the Magdalena River empties into the Caribbean Sea, dubbed “ash mouth” since the 15th century because of the ashen color of its water.
“Legal experts may claim that Colombia has a ‘green’ constitution that ensures the people’s right to a healthy environment and clean drinking water,” Liliana says. “But the government’s commitment to this once-promising ecological legislation remains little more than political oratory divorced from effective enforcement.”
Emergencies are everything but rare on Colombia’s most important river, proving Liliana’s point. In August 2018, a barge carrying 200 gallons of diesel capsized and remained submerged for 23 days. The accident happened right next to the city aqueduct’s main supply point, forcing a half-day water shutdown for most of Barranquilla’s 1.2 million inhabitants. A week later, an overturned tanker truck poured 10,000 gallons of petrol into the river’s estuary, a relatively well-preserved patch of mangroves protected under the name of Salamanca Island National Park.
“There’s always a public outcry and some official reaction on the day of a serious spill and maybe for one more day,” says Liliana, a specialist in civil liability and state liability whose self-proclaimed favorite pastime is finding loopholes in environmental legislation and challenging them. “Then authorities begin passing the buck from one to another instead of responding quickly to the emergency. That’s our daily routine: we never allot any resources to risk management and we don’t plan for contingencies.”
This has become a staple of Bocas de Ceniza Waterkeeper’s work, including legal challenges against lax regulation of coal transport and coal-dust pollution. Liliana and a group of friends from a variety of professional backgrounds, from environmental law to chemical engineering, have even started an academic research group to support their legal work, which they called Nature et lex – nature and the law.
“There are many tools for water-resource management, but they’re in disarray,” Liliana says as she shuffles through the pages of regulations. “We have many political and environmental authorities that do not enforce them properly. We are firmly convinced that the only way to produce permanent behavioral change is through laws that are clear in their intent and properly enforced.”
This is why a group of legal and environmental NGOs from around the country came together at the end of last year to seek more effective avenues of legal protection for the country’s rivers. Inspired by the U.S. Clean Water Act and its Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, this group of lawyers and scientists – including International Rivers, and a group of biologists from Atlantico University – are in the process of drafting a bill that seeks to ensure many of Colombia’s rivers are protected from such major threats as domestic and industrial pollution, gold and coal mining, dams and illegal diversions and preserved in a free-flowing condition for future generations.
This is a critical issue in Colombia. From the Andes to the Colombian Amazon, the country is one of the world’s most biologically diverse and home to one of every 10 of the world’s species of flora and fauna, but it also ranks second as a biodiversity “hotspot,” i.e. a place that is both biologically rich – and deeply threatened.
Safeguarding the country’s rivers is not only crucial to maintaining its natural wealth, but also to providing safe and clean drinking water to its entire population. Liliana knows that for Barranquilla that means taking care of the Magdalena.
“We all have the same interest in protecting Colombia’s water resources,” she says. “We’re pushing for more citizen participation in this process because we want to be stronger actors in the design of public policy.”
FISHING FOR TRASH
On a warm Saturday morning in late October, donning a vest with Bocas de Ceniza Waterkeeper’s logo depicting a river manatee, despite the sweltering sun, Liliana clambers down a ledge and reaches for a green plastic bottle tangled in a riverbank shrub.
This soda bottle is one of thousands of items of rubbish carried by the river to the open sea. Even though litigation is Bocas de Ceniza’s priority, they have two other lines of work: environmental education and monitoring water quality. Today Guerrero is doing a bit of both.
In fact, Liliana just crafted an innovative agreement. Sitting to her right is Jesus Gonzalez, head of an association of 70 traditional fishermen who eke out a living from the diminishing schools of fish in the delta. To her left is Sidid Leones, a lively enterprising woman who created a recycling group a decade ago and helped turn it into a thriving business of 120 persons. Behind them is Bocas de Ceniza, the delta where the Magdalena and the Caribbean meet.
This unlikely trio is working together to try to solve some of the pollution problems plaguing the river and devastating the surrounding legendary coastal mangrove stands in the Mallorquin marshes, in an example of coalition building for conservation of a precious resource.
“We all have the same interest in protecting Colombia’s water resources. We’re pushing for more citizen participation in this process because we want to be stronger actors in the design of public policy.”
The agreement is a win-win for everyone. The fishermen, who live in makeshift huts on the levee, are now collecting the trash piled on this narrow strip of land. Liliana is paying the railway cart operators to transport it every fortnight to the city and is also collecting data on the amount of trash that is being carried down the Magdalena to the Caribbean Sea. And the Universal Recyclers Association is taking it to a waste disposal plant and paying the fishermen for the plastic, even though most garbage processors consider it too dirty to be worthwhile.
“It isn’t profitable, so most people usually don’t receive it,” Sidid says. “But this is about more than that: these are our surroundings and the ecosystem in which we live. You cannot leave everything to government.
In their first two weeks working together, they collected nearly 800 pounds of trash. With this system they think they can solve the local government’s abdication of responsibility that has allowed trash to fester at the mouth of the Magdalena River. Even though the levee is only separated from the city by a 10-minute car ride, the city administration has refused to accept responsibility for anti-pollution efforts because of the costs. Also, it is a difficult place to reach and consequently has, for the most part, eluded widespread public attention save for a small group of environmentalists, of which Liliana is very much one of the most vocal.
It isn’t the only public health issue in Bocas de Ceniza. None of the households on this delta have access to clean drinking water, and must resort to chlorine tablets to purify the dark liquid from the river.
Some things have improved though. “We no longer see as many as three or four bodies floating per day,” a pensive Jesus says, a reflection of how much things have changed in Colombia over the past two decades and especially since the landmark 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels that put an end to 50 years of violence.
In the end, Liliana believes that positive change will come about only if there are both governmental and behavioral transformations. “Creating a culture around water is a fundamental part of designing a comprehensive management of it,” Liliana says. Despite the levels of water pollution, Bocas de Ceniza is still an awe-inspiring delta, with pelicans and cormorants diving from the skies to capture fish and Barranquilla’s skyline glimmering in the horizon.
“Being a Waterkeeper isn’t a job,” Liliana says, “it’s a way of life.”
Andres Bermudez is a Colombian journalist specializing in environmental, rural and peace-related issues.