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Here is how litigation for the planet won in Colombia

The lawyer for the 25 children and youth who won the lawsuit on deforestation and climate change in the Amazon narrates the case and analyzes the subsequent steps to implement the historic ruling of the Supreme Court.

The 25 young plaintiffs arrived on time for our appointment in Bogotá. The unusual cold and stubborn drizzle of that Saturday morning reminded us of the reason that brought us together: climate change, which is already felt in Bogotá and the Amazon, and the other fifteen cities and municipalities that the young people and their parents are from. They shared experiences of their environmental leadership in their schools and universities and their desire to take action against global warming. The brainstorming workshop led to months of exchanges and research with the Dejusticia team, culminating in the filing of a lawsuit against the government for its failure to halt the destruction of the Amazon. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled in favor of the 25 young plaintiffs. Michael Gerrard, Director of the Sabin Center on Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said the decision “is one of the strongest environmental decisions every issued by any court in the world.” (“The Amazon and Rights”)

The Court ordered the government to present an action plan within four months to combat deforestation in the Amazon region, as well as to build an Intergenerational Pact for the Life of the Colombian Amazon with the young plaintiffs and other relevant entities and organizations. The Court also recognized the Amazon as an “entity subject of rights,” and ordered the mayors and regional autonomous corporations to come up with action plans to halt deforestation.

As the case has stirred national and international interest, it is worth understanding its context, trajectory, and the subsequent steps, as well as the continued role of youth actors. (Details of the case).

Litigating the future  

Although the first of its kind in Latin America, the lawsuit is one of over 800 climate change cases around the world. Some, like the successful Urgenda case in the Netherlands, have sued governments to meet or increase their commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Others, like the pending cases brought by the mayors of New York and San Francisco, are suing the major oil companies, seeking billions in damages to cover the infrastructure improvements to protect the cities from rising sea levels due to global warming.

The most promising aspect of the Colombian case is that it states the importance of protecting the rights of future generations, those who will suffer the gravest effects of deforestation and global warming. These include rights to life and health, like those of seven-year-old Axcan Duque Guerrero of Buenaventura. As he explains in the lawsuit, he suffers from a common ailment that would prevent him from breathing if the temperature increased by 1.5 degrees C before he turns 30, as is estimated by the current trajectory. This idea already exists in national and international law. The Rio Declaration of 1992 incorporates these rights in the definition of sustainable development. Yet only now, with this lawsuit, will concrete actions be taken on behalf of future generations.

This is why the 25 children and young people will soon return to Bogotá. They will have a voice in the latest brainstorming discussion, this time with the government and other entities and organizations, to build the Intergenerational Pact. It must specify the rights and duties of current and future generations to confront deforestation and climate change.

Science and justice

Litigation has advanced at the pace of scientific knowledge. Our lawsuit, and recent cases in other countries, have been based on the latest advances in climate science, which can now more accurately attribute the probable causes of extreme events, such as torrential rains and heat waves.

The figures from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), a government agency of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, clearly demonstrated that deforestation is the main cause of carbon emissions in Colombia. The government itself made reducing deforestation the central commitment in Colombia’s fight against climate change. In 2013, the government agreed to reduce net deforestation the Amazon to zero by 2020 and renewed this commitment at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit.

The promise makes sense. On the one hand, deforestation deeply affects the ecosystems and climate not only of the Amazon, but of the entire country. For example, it could alter the water cycle to the point of causing droughts in some of the plaintiffs’ hometowns, such as Cartagena and San Andrés, while causing floods in others, such as Cali or Medellín.

On the other hand, reforestation is the most efficient natural solution to global warming. In fact, Colombia’s potential for extraction through reforestation ranks amongst the greatest in the world. James Hansen, former scientific director of NASA, demonstrated this in an amicus brief sent to the Supreme Court to support the lawsuit. However, early IDEAM data and warnings show that deforestation is increasing in the Amazon and the country. In 2016, the national figure increased by 44 percent. Thus, the lawsuit’s request is simple: the Government must fulfill its promise and reverse the trend.

The current Ministry of Environment has openly acknowledged the problem and published studies and policies attempting to confront it. Therefore, this ruling serves as an external incentive to accelerate these efforts and generate citizen pressure to achieve the goals, as Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo has said when committing to comply with the ruling.

What comes next

The risk of new sentences is that they remain yet to be enforced. Lawyers, judges, and officials tend to be better at declaring rights than making them a reality. The application of ambitious rulings often becomes entangled in cumbersome procedures and discussions.

This time it must be different. Thanks to the court-ordered short deadlines, the Ministry of Environment’s political will, and the pressure of thousands of young people who have joined the cause through social networks, the process of implementing the ruling, in coordination with the relevant parties, should begin very soon. Meanwhile, the young plaintiffs are already doing their part. They have become spokespeople for the case and the cause in their respective hometowns, and, with the support of their communities and those supporting the case, are organizing to craft the content of the Intergenerational Pact and to participate in the other court-ordered activities.

They have the urgency that previous generations have lacked. They know that we are bestowing them a country where every hour, on average, sixteen hectares of forest are cut down. And a planet, where, as Hansen wrote, “the burden placed on young people and future generations may become too heavy to bear.”


*Director of Dejusticia (Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society) and the lead lawyer of the lawsuit on deforestation and the climate change in the Amazon.

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