EXPERTS from Glasgow University are helping destitute Colombians take on illegal loggers and armed paramilitaries, as they look to protect a river which has its own rights.

The Rio Atrato, in Choco Department, is described as facing a "perfect storm" of extraction. The area is one of the world's richest for biodiversity and natural resources, meaning it attracts illegal loggers, coca cultivation and dredging for gold.

The people who live there are Colombia's poorest – largely Afro-Colombian descendants of slaves, denied property rights and frequently forcibly displaced by the armed militias whose activities go largely unchecked.

Now researchers from Glasgow are helping local communities fight back, using scientific evidence to show how heavy metals from gold dredging, especially mercury, are entering the local food chain and damaging the environment.

Dr Mo Hume, of the university's politics department and Neil Burnside, a geoscientific engineer are helping the people living on the besieged banks of the Atrato to demand their own rights and enforce those granted to the river itself in a landmark ruling by Colombia's constitutional court in May last year.

The court ruled that the Atrato was subject to rights to protection, conservation, maintenance and, restoration.

The problem for local people is that the Government has been unable or unwilling to protect the environment and homes of those living in the area.

"Large dredgers as tall as double decker buses and twice as wide come into an area and use toxic chemicals to help extract gold flakes from the sediment," Dr Hume said. "The livelihoods of local people are fundamentally built on the river. But they have been wrecked. Illegal mining has caused devastation and changed the course of the river. Meanwhile people are regularly forcibly displaced from their homes."

Dr Burnside has been helping analyse the pollution in the sediment and the bio-accumulation of toxic chemicals in the food chain, while attempting to come up with plans for rebuilding and re-planting the banks of the Atrato. "While there are engineering strategies that can be employed, rehabilitation is difficult. The speed of the devastation has been really quick but recuperation will take decades," he said.

In the past, human rights defenders such as Bernadino Mosquera have been at risk, targeted with impunity by paramilitaries for speaking up. "Every communication to defend our territory results in threats or repercussions," he said on a visit to Glasgow. "People have been killed but only one in fifty murders results in any kind of legal process."

The Colombian Government has only been interested in converting the rich natural resources of the area into cash, he claims, but it will have to act now the courts have ruled the Atrato must be protected. Meanwhile the link with Glasgow University gives the community access to scientific resources which would not otherwise be available to them. "They have helped us raise awareness about the problems and generate evidence," Mr Mosquera added.

Mark Camburn,  Programme Officer for Colombia for the Catholic aid charity Sciaf, said: “Sciaf has been involved in this project from the start. Our aim is to ensure that communities are central to the river rehabilitation process, and that they can engage directly with the UK universities and experts.

"We hope that the work of the UK universities can fill in some of the scientific and knowledge gaps for the rehabilitation of the Atrato river, and that these new skills and science can be developed with, and transferred to, the local communities and local academic institutions in Chocó.”

Father Sterlin Londono, a priest who was born and bred in Choco, said: "This is one of the most protracted conflicts in the world. Part of my job has been to pick up bodies during battles between armed groups. It is normal but it is not acceptable. "

But an end to conflict in the area may finally be in sight as the government negotiates peace accords with the militias while paramilitary groups are set to be banned.

"The constitutional court has also recognised the plight of our people formally as a human rights crisis," Father Londono added.

Details of the collaboration between Glasgow and Choco are being shared online via the Twitter hashtag @chocoriverstories.

Meanwhile Mosquera has been appointed one of 14 guardians of the Rio Atrato. The river needs all the international attention it can get, he says. "I am a guardian of the Atrato and I invite all of Scotland to be its guardians too."