Our River Protection Campaigns

We've already begun laying the groundwork for legal river protection in Latin American countries including Peru, Chile and Colombia; read on for updates about those campaigns. Learn more about why our rivers need permanent legal protection, how we're approaching this work, and what we've already learned about the process.


Legal protections for natural resources and community rights to river waters are unclear, weak or insufficient, which leaves rivers and river communities vulnerable to pollution and damming. Permanent legal protections for ecologically and socially important and vulnerable river ecosystems are necessary to ensure the long-term health and viability of rivers and the communities that depend on them.

Protections need to be considered on a basin and catchment scale to ensure that watershed mountain and forest environments are included, as well as the floodplains, deltas, estuaries and near-shore coastal habitats. Changes to rivers through dams, other water infrastructure and extractions affect the system well beyond the immediate environs of the built structures.

To achieve permanent river protection, we will:

  • Evaluate the feasibility of legal protections in river basins in regions where we work.
  • Prioritize key rivers that present the strongest need and greatest opportunity for permanent legal protection, considering the following seven criteria: 1) existing and threatened biodiversity; 2) importance of a river to food security and livelihoods of local populations; 3) commitment of indigenous peoples to river conservation; 4) existing fragmentation or threats from additional dams or infrastructure; 5) feasibility of additional protections; 6) potential to link future river conservation to existing protected systems; 7) political opportunity with aligned interests of stakeholder groups.
  • Build a diverse political constituency to support river protection.
  • Develop a scientific evidence base to justify legal protections of priority rivers.
  • Collaborate with legal experts to develop nationally-specific legal models for achieving protections.

As a result, we will see:

  • Legal pathways developed to permanently protect rivers in key regions and countries.
  • New, informed, active coalitions rise up to support permanent river protection.
  • Improved access to river basin data.
  • Permanent protection for at least five free-flowing rivers.

Current campaigns


Preserving the purity of our waters is essential to keeping these resources suitable for use in drinking, sanitation, agricultural, mining or other development in other sectors of the basin. Furthermore, preserving the scenic beauty and undisturbed landscape will benefit both the tourism sector and scientific research.

In Chile, we have patnered with Geute Conservación Sur, Ecosistemas and Fundación Terram to work on river protection. Geute Conservation Sur, which defends ecosystems with high conservation value, is providing legal analysis to develop a new law for river protection in the country. They have prepared a brief exploring the possibility of establishing legislation for the protection of rivers that are scenic and pristine. The document examines local legislation and outlines the characteristics that permanent protection legislation should possess. Ecosistemas, Geute and International Rivers are beginning to prepare a study on the health of rivers assessing healthy rivers and ecosystems and those that need to be recovered. This study will also incorporate the voices of local people who are protecting their rivers. Geute, Ecosistemas, Terram and International Rivers are launching the communications campaign "Wild Rivers" on the week of June 18.

Chile urgently needs legislation that protects rivers that are still relatively pristine, natural, scenic and free-flowing, because many of these rivers are highly susceptible to alteration in the short or medium term. The brief proposes a legal design for safeguarding wild and scenic rivers, which we could call the "Law of protection of free rivers." The plan balances public power with private initiative, which is seen as the most suitable way to move forward. 

Ríos Libres (Free Rivers), a new coalition of young activists, is building public support for permanent legal river protection.


In Colombia, International Rivers and Tierra Digna are building support for permanent river protection, and working with lawyers to develop new approaches to long-term protection of free-flowing rivers, such as the upper Magdalena River.

The groups recently worked with the Vance Center and the Colombian law firm Gomez-Pinzón Zuleta to develop a brief describing the regulatory regime around water in Colombia and identifying the relevant regulatory agencies. The brief discusses protection mechanisms and the importance of citizen participation in river protection, and it provides an overview of decisions made by Colombia’s high courts regarding the protection of two of Colombia’s rivers as well as a first-of-its-kind initiative to confer protected status on a Colombian river, the Atrato.

To strengthen river protection in Colombia, the study calls for a unified regulation of water resource management and the creation of a new kind of protection exclusively for rivers and their surrounding areas to ensure their preservation, restoration and sustainable use. The study also notes the need to increase our understanding of rivers' biodiversity. This protection could be governed by standards similar to those used to define protected areas in the national system of protected areas, recognizing the importance of rivers and guaranteeing protection and a real limit to the development of harmful economic and extractive activities.


Furthermore, in Peru, we’re reviewing opportunities to ensure permanent protection of the Marañón River to secure the health of the Amazon’s headwaters.

Lazo, De Romaña and CBS Abogados, a Peruvian law firm, prepared a draft brief called "Legal Protection of Rivers in Peru." The brief is very comprehensive in its description of regulations that can be used to protect rivers, and recommends an analysis on how and why existing laws and policies do not work to deliver genuine protection for waterways. 

The brief describes a useful provision in the Water Resources Law for the protection of headwaters. The purpose of this law is to regulate the conservation and protection of the headwaters of river basin. However, the methodological framework for technical criteria for the identification, delimitation and zoning of headwaters is still in development by the National Water Authority. 

The Vance Center is preparing a self-determination brief; we expect it to be complete by the middle in July 2018. We requested this brief because many river basins are home to indigenous peoples and their ancestral waterways and territories, especially in the Amazon, and at least six indigenous groups in those areas are working on forming Autonomous Territorial Governments. The brief will identify examples of self-determination of indigenous peoples in countries other than Peru.

We are partnering with groups in Peru to draf the law on river protection and developing strategies for getting the bill into Congress. We will need to work on developing more precedents in river protection jurisprudence while also pursuing new legislaton, that goes beyong protection of headwaters.

Our strategies

There’s no single way to pursue permanent protection for rivers. In some countries, rivers can be protected through creating a law or a decree, by creating national parks where waterways are protected in addition to land and forests, or by complying with existing legislation and policies.

However, some principles apply across each country context. We've developed a river protection strategy in conjunction with our partners that we'll keep updating throughout this ongoing learning process. 

The strategy consists of:

  1. Creating precedent: We work with lawyers to prepare legal briefs to inform the drafting of river protection laws or to recommend other forms of permanent protection. Lawyers also work with us to set up legal pathways, including identifying possibilities for establishing laws or for strengthening protections.
  2. Building coalitions: We believe that informed communities and river protection movements are key: These are the people who will speak about why their rivers need protection and will help support legislation and or other protective measures.
  3. Creating public awareness: We created this river protection hub with the intention of gathering information globally on river protection throughout the world. We have also created a Google group called “Rights of Rivers” (write to monti@internationalrivers.org) to distribute information. 
  4. Research: Technical, scientific and social studies are needed to develop criteria for designation. Studies help us get acquainted with the special characteristics of a river or river basin and the benefits provided by specific river ecosystems. Informed decision-makers are key, and river defenders should develop a power analysis for achieving the groundswell of political support needed for river protection.
  5. Communication: Communication is power, and it is indispensable to a river protection effort. The constant questions, as the world changes, are how do we learn, and how do we elicit changes in behavior? Social media and visual communication are powerful tools that can help boost the visibility of a campaign. We will lauch national and international campaign with partners.