Grupo de accionantes y su representante César Rodríguez |

First Climate Change Lawsuit in Latin America

Twenty-five young Colombians want to defend their environmental heritage, which is why they demand that authorities stop the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and comply with the Paris Agreements.

Por: January 29, 2018

By: Helena Calle – Infoamazonia’s journalist*

“It used to be cooler, my grandparents tell me,” says José Rodríguez, fourteen, a native of Leticia. Acxan Duque, seven-years-old, notes that Buenaventura “has now become hot.” The youth of Colombia, the third most vulnerable country to climate change, are struggling to secure the future they will grow up in and inherit. On Monday, twenty-five children and young people from Colombia between the ages of seven and twenty-six, and on behalf of future generations, will present the first climate change litigation in Latin America, supported by Dejusticia.

They come from the 17 regions with the highest risk due to climate change, which according to The Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) are: Arauca, Bogotá, Cali, Cartagena, Cubarral, Envigado, Florencia, Floridablanca, Buenaventura, Itagüí, La Calera, Leticia, Manizales, Neiva, Plamira, Quibdó, and San Andrés and Providencia.

The demand of the young activists is simple: that the President, the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the National Parks and regional autonomous corporations, and the mayors and governments of the Amazon take action to stop the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Specifically, they ask that the Government be ordered to submit a plan of action to reduce the rate of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon to zero by the year 2020. This was the commitment that President Juan Manuel Santos made at the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris. They also request that young people be taken into account in the decision-making of this process.

According to the Ministry of Environment, Colombia’s temperature increased by 0.8°C in the last forty-five years, which has made the country more vulnerable to drought, landslides, floods, tropical diseases, and food shortages. These risks are included in the litigation that will be presented before the Superior Court of Bogotá.

For example, ten years ago it was impossible for mosquitoes transmitting dengue to reach high regions like Cundinamarca. Thanks to the increase in temperature in the water storage areas where mosquito larvae grow, the department was on the verge of an epidemic in 2016. Another risk is the increase in sea level, which has already eroded beaches in the bay of Santa Marta and Puerto Colombia.

Entire communities have already had to move, such as Bocas de Curay (in Chocó), a territory forty minutes from Tumaco, and one of the eight most troubling areas for logging, according to IDEAM. The one thousand meters that separated the hill from the beach were already eaten by the sea, and families had to climb the hill in search of higher places, according to El Tiempo. This phenomenon is not unique to Colombia. According to NASA’s climate index, sixty-four million people have moved around the world because of climate change.

Cartagena, one of the cities threatened by climate change, could also be seriously affected. UNESCO estimates that 25 percent of the residential areas of the city could suffer floods and high tides, according to the most optimistic climate models, which foresee a 2°C increase in global temperature. One of the plaintiffs, twenty-three-year-old Yurshell Rodríguez, is from San Andrés and Providencia, the national region most at risk precisely because of the rise in sea level. According to IDEAM, by the year 2070 the temperature in this area will increase by 1.4°C, and according to a study by the Institute for Marine and Coastal Research (INVEMAR), by 2100 17 percent of Yurshell’s home, the San Andrés archipelago, will have disappeared, affecting 80 percent of the population. “Climate change is felt, especially the increase in heat,” he says in a video published by Dejusticia that gathers the experiences of the children and young people.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the judicial action is the young generation’s shout to save the Amazonian forests, the region where forest is cut most excessively. According to IDEAM, Colombia lost 178,591 hectares of forest in 2016 (the equivalent of a department like Quindío) and 39 percent of that deforestation was concentrated in the Amazon. In 2016, 70,074 hectares of forest were lost to the axe and machete.

The problem does not stop there. The brief warned that, for the first time in history, the connection between the Andes and the Amazon was being lost. This is very serious if we consider that water for almost the entire continent depends on the two-hundred billion tons of water that travel from the Atlantic Ocean to be absorbed by the flora of the Amazon. Thanks to the heat, six-hundred million trees transpire through their roots and leaves, creating the steam the wind pushes towards the Andes where it becomes water again and irrigates the earth until returning to the sea. This disconnection is a threat, not only to the water supply, but to the genetic exchange between the fauna and flora of the forest.

“This creates a serious threat to the fundamental rights of those of us who are young today and who will face the effects of climate change in our adult lives,” say the twenty-five activists in the case. In other words: their right to life, health, food, and a healthy environment is at stake.

The Colombian Government is aware of the problem. Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom are willing to pay US$100 million if Colombia reduces the Amazon deforestation rate to zero in five years. According to Yesid Beltrán, director of the agro-environmental pillar of Visión Amazonia, the initiative created to address this phenomenon, the credits, technical assistance, and productive alliances are key to fulfill the commitment of zero deforestation in the Amazon that Colombia agreed to during the 2015 Climate Change Summit in Paris.

Some of the strategies include the protection of water sources, the conservation of trees in livestock herds, the use of native species such as rubber and cocoa, and eco-tourism.

However, the task is not easy. Although it is true that as of last year the Amazon was no longer the number one deforested region worldwide, it continues to be, due to its historical trajectory, the most deforested region of Colombia: 34 percent of the country’s total deforestation has occurred in the Amazon. Of the thirty municipalities in which deforestation is concentrated, the foothills of llano grasslands—where the llanos and the jungle meet—continue to occupy the first few places; in the second quarter, San José del Guaviare was the second most deforested municipality, and La Macarena was the third.

This is the youth’s concern, as they know that they will continue to face the climatic and economic effects of these figures. Ultimately, this case is a legitimate claim against the current generations who have the power to address the environment that the younger generation will inherit. Depending on the country the older generations build, those who come will either be able to enjoy a healthy environment, as stipulated in Article 73 of the Constitution, or will have to adapt to climate change and suffer the consequences.

This case adds to a wave of climate change litigation in the United States and Europe. James Hansen, one of the most active scientists in the fight against climate change, was the first to propose that companies and states responsible for pollution be sued. Our Children’s Trust—the group that sponsors the lawsuit against the federal government of the United States for their responsibility in the effects of climate change—is intimately tied to Hansen (and his granddaughter, who is one of the plaintiffs).

That case was the first to present a novel, albeit obvious, theory: we must guarantee young people a non-toxic environment, suitable for human habitation, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.

The idea spread rapidly. Earlier this year, New York took legal action against Exxon Mobil, Conoco Philips, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP, seeking compensation for environmental damage. San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, California did the same in 2017.

New generations are even questioning the actions of their own lineage. Since 2003, the Rockefellers have taken legal action against Exxon—the company that made them rich—because they claim that the oil company knew of their company’s effects on the environment and hid this information from the public.

According to César Rodríguez, director of Dejusticia and a lawyer for the young plaintiffs, “just as the mayors of New York and San Francisco sued the most polluting oil companies to compensate for the damage to the global climate, and as the government of the Netherlands has been court-ordered to decrease the carbon emissions of the country, we are asking that Colombia fulfill its own commitments against global warming.”

In a document published in July 2017 in the scientific journal “Earth System Dynamics,” Hansen says that due to continuous inaction since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, limiting carbon emissions to maintain the global temperature to below 1.5°C is no longer enough. “Active measures will be required to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Those measures will be staggeringly expensive, placing an impossible burden on the shoulders of young people and those unborn to clean up the disaster that their ancestors created consciously and voluntarily,” he says.

The twenty-five plaintiffs and children are not alone. In Colombia there are other initiatives that fight for a healthy environment for future generations: Ciudad Verde, which organizes sustainability routes through the Van der Hammen Nature Reserve; Tierra Digna, the group of young women who managed to get the Atrato River declared as a subject possessing rights; and July Mora, the leader of two large associations of fishermen and farmers of Magdalena Medio, who rescues native species and tries to recover the river. These are just a few examples of the power of young people.

The generations of the future are already here, and with this legal action, children and young citizens send a clear message: they are not going to resign themselves to the world they will inherit.

*Infoamazonia is a journalistic alliance between Amazon Conservation Team, Dejusticia, and El Espectador.

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