Illegal deforestation in the Amazon exacerbates climate changeIllegal deforestation threatens much of the Amazon and Colombian young people are suing their government to protect the rainforests and the climate. Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

By Ucilia Wang

A group of 25 young people in Colombia are petitioning a court to protect their constitutional rights to life and a healthy environment. The group is asking the court to require the government to honor its climate commitment and stop deforestation in the Amazon.

The case, filed this week, comes as land that was previously in conflict zones is opening up for development. The government and the rebels signed a peace treaty in 2016 to end the fighting that lasted more than five decades.

How much of the former battle ground is up for development and whether any land deep in the jungle has already been illegally cleared for commercial activities isn’t clear because the government has failed to monitor it, said Camila Bustos, a researcher with Dejusticia, the nonprofit advocacy group that filed the petition on behalf of the group young people ranging from 7 to 26 years old.

“Colombia knew it had a deforestation problem, but the situation has become more urgent,” Bustos said. “The land that was naturally protected because of the conflict with the guerrillas is now opening up. More deforestation is happening in this transition to peace. The challenge to protect the environment is huge.”

As part of the Paris climate agreement signed in 2015, the Colombian government pledged to achieve zero net deforestation by 2020. Last November, the government signed on to an initiative by the World Economic Forum to stop deforestation in the Amazon.

Critics say the government isn’t doing enough to keep forests alive. The country lost 178,597 acres of forests in 2016, a 44 percent jump from the year before, Dejusticia said in the court filing. Most of the increases took place in the Amazon rainforest.

“Colombia has the resources to control deforestation, but it’s not a priority for the government. The budget for the environmental ministry is small, less than 1 perent of the GDP,” Bustos said.

The Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, which is named as a defendant in the case, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The case, filed in the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá, reflects a growing number of climate lawsuits filed by young people worldwide to challenge governments on constitutional grounds. In the United States, a panel of federal judges is set to decide whether a high-profile case, Juliana v. United States, can proceed to trial.

The Colombian case isn’t the first climate litigation in the country that alleges a violation of constitutional rights. Its Constitutional Court in 2016 struck down provisions of federal laws that allowed exemptions for mining and oil and gas drilling in high-altitude areas of Colombia with fragile ecosystems. The court ruled that the provisions violated the public’s right to clean water because these areas provided as much as 70 percent of the country’s drinking water and were capable of capturing more carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere than a rainforest of comparable size.

This week’s case, uses a legal mechanism created in 1991 that guarantees citizens a prompt court consideration on claims of constitutional rights violations.

The mechanism, called tutela, is meant to help those who feel marginalized to seek justice in a political system that the public sees as favoring the rich and powerful, said Marcela Velasco, a political science professor at the Colorado State University.

Tutela is commonly used, often to resolve healthcare disputes, Velasco said. The courts have sided with petitioners who claimed that their right to life was violated when their insurance companies refused to pay for cancer or other treatments.

The popularity of tutela also reflects a shortcoming in a political system that enshrines many constitutional rights but doesn’t follow up with legislation and enforcement to ensure those rights are protected, Velasco added.

It’s difficult to gauge which way the court might lean in the youth climate case, but the petition can at least focus the public’s attention on environmental issues. Historically, public discussions in this country of 47.7 million people were dominated by the fighting with rebels, corruption and other more pressing issues.  

“It’s raising awareness, and it might force some actions from local authorities who are often inspired by these” citizens’ petitions, Velasco said.

The tribunal court is scheduled to issue its decision in three weeks, Bustos said. The petition asks the court to order the government to come up a plan within six months to halt deforestation by 2020. The young people also  want the government to create a process that considers young citizens’ input on decisions involving climate change.

When Colombia went to (climate negotiations), we committed to very ambitious goals for stopping deforestation. But when it comes to domestic policy, we still have a very old fashioned development model,” Bustos said. “The government policy has been centered on mining and fossil fuel extraction.”


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