Reviving the Bogotá River (Colombia)

The Bogotá river isn’t dead. Despite decades of being declared a liquid corpse, communities from its highland sources to the dramatic Tequendama Falls are taking action to care for this polluted body of water.

For centuries, the river has been the life source and energy for inhabitants of Bogota’s flat savannah. The Indigenous Muiscas worked with water to create navigation channels and raised bed agriculture. Modern irrigation systems siphon the flow to farmers for their crops. And the nation’s first hydropower plant tapped the river to generate electricity that lit up Colombia’s growing capital city at the start of modernity.

Everyone is connected to the river. But media images that focus only on lethal contamination and water treatment infrastructure risk disconnecting Bogotá’s inhabitants from their river, turning it into a lost cause. We want to shift the narrative and tell different stories about this river, focusing on the people that care for it.

In a collaboration between the entre—ríos collective and the River Commons project of Wageningen University, we followed the Bogotá River from its source in the Guacheneque highlands to the cloud forest of the Tequendama Falls region in Cundinamarca.

By walking the river and listening closely to communities over the course of a week, we connected with grassroots water management and wetland restoration groups, environmental education, and art projects. In the confluences of different practices of care, this polluted river comes back to life.

We encountered a river network woven through water and land, in the biodiversity that grows in this amphibious ecosystem, and in the community relationships that make possible its restoration, rehabilitation, and conservation.

by Lisa Blackmore, entre—ríos, University of Essex; Laura Giraldo-Martínez, PhD researcher River Commons project Wageningen University; Diego Piñeros García, visual artist; Juliana Steiner, curator.


To be born in a highland páramo ecosystem is to be born as a network of plants, mosses and lichen. It is to become a river, a riverbed and an encounter. The Bogotá River is born in the Guacheneque páramo, in Villapinzón municipality. From there, its water is born and reborn as it flows through the basin towards the Magdalena River, 380 kilometers downstream. Photo: Laura Giraldo-Martínez.

Flowing from its headwater, the river finds its course via the Cascada La Nutria inside the Forest Reserve. As it tumbles into the pool below, the fall revitalizes the still-pristine water, caring for the páramos’ role as a “water factory” which nourishes millions of people, animals and plants along its course. Photo: Laura Giraldo-Martínez.


The river is also food, radishes, artichokes, mustard, parsley, native potato, physalis, and chili. The water from the Bogotá River and the high mountain rains irrigate the Su Mercado Campesino vegetable patch. The careful work of tending to this garden weaves webs of relations where the river nourishes its basin by putting organic food on dining tables. Photo: Lisa Blackmore.

We drank water from the river, clear and fresh. We became the river and the river became us. For the vast majority of Bogotá’s citizens, this would seem an impossible feat —perhaps even an act of recklessness. But this was only kilometer 8.5 of the river, and there its water is still pure, clean and icy cold. Photo: Lisa Blackmore.

Downstream, a few kilometers from its source, the river reaches the municipality of Suesca under the care of Manos a la Cuenca, a collective where water is at the heart of restoration work. Caring for the river also means restoring riparian forest and creeks, working with local aqueducts and schools, in partnership with universities, community tourism, and NGOs. Photo: Laura Giraldo-Martínez.

For Manos a la Cuenca walking through the territory is essential for learning from the river and with it. In these highly transformed mountains, there are not many native forests left. Reviving the river also means recovering the memory of the plants that have lived here. Monitoring growth and connectivity between plant corridors is forging a new future for the river. Photo: Diego Piñeros García.

The Bogotá river is steeped in memories that are re-emerging in the wetland landscape of its path through the city. Zanjas y Camellones is a collaborative project that is recreating the ecosystem of raised bed, ditches, and canals used by the Indigenous Muiscas. This system was based on symbiotic relationships between food planting, fishing and hunting , that endured for more than 3,000 years until the arrival of the Spanish colonial infrastructure. Photo: Laura Giraldo-Martínez.

Every tree matters in this collaborative network. The seedlings grow in the plant nurseries for ecological restoration, to later be planted in the riparian forest of the river and its streams. Mano de oso, encenillos, robles, arbolocos — all these species contribute to recovering the soil quality and the connectivity of the micro-basins around the Bogotá river. Photo: Laura Giraldo-Martínez.

The Escuela de Pensamiento Ambiental y de Paz at the El Charquito wetland is neighbor to one of the most polluted sections of the Bogotá River. This collective of environmental educators and community gardeners protect and contribute to wetland conservation through workshops and caring for the ‘mother’ orchards that provide seeds for the community’s food security. Photo: Diego Piñeros García.

High in the cloud forest above the iconic Tequendama Falls, this tree is part of the quarantine forest of the Granja Ecológica El Porvenir, planted to honor victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Life is fragile and caring for the forest is a job that has taken place over three decades. Although it looks like an island in the middle of the fog, the tree is not alone. While it may not seem so sometimes, we are all part of the same forest, the same river, and the same water network between rivers. Photo: Lisa Blackmore.


Country and location of the photo story: Bogotá River, Cundinamarca Department, Colombia.

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