Nature’s Right

Saving the Colombian Amazons

Sandeep Banerjee

The Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Aroldo Wilson Quiroz Monsalvo came to the rescue of the Colombian Amazon forest and granted Amazon to be treated as a legal entity or 'subject of law' which usually 'persons' or human beings enjoy.  It reminded of the 2012 ruling of a court of Ecuador which granted legal right to a river. Rights of Nature, idea of treating nature as a legal entity, are now somewhat established in Latin American minds, and at least Ecuador and Bolivia officially recognise Nature's Right. It is perhaps not unlikely, as the indigenous people of Latin America have in their culture, in their belief system, an idea called 'sumak kawsay' (in Spanish 'buen vivir') is ingrained particularly among the Quechua people.

In January this year 25 persons, aged in between 7 and 26, from Colombia's all 17 provinces, with the help of Dejusticia, filed a litigation in the Supreme Court demanding  immediate action to stop climate change factors; they were particularly worried about deforestation in the Amazons. There is a government organisation in Colombia—IDEAM (Instituto DE AMbientales, or rather—Instituto de Hidrología, Meteorología y Estudios Ambientales, in English: The Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies) which produces and manages the scientific and technical information on the environment of Colombia and serves as the Colombian institute of meteorology and studies the climate of Colombia. IDEAM is a government agency under the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia. In June 2017 they released a document from Monitoring System of Forests and Carbon for Colombia (Sistema de Monitoreo de Bosques y Carbono para Colombia) in which they showed how dangerously Colombia's Amazons are being deforested. From satellite maps they also calculated and demonstrated how much deforestation had happened in provinces that suffered most forest cover loss. In 2016 the rate of deforestation was up by 44%! (Incidentally, the USGS system EarthView from Landsat also released their document of deforestation in Colombia in December 2016.) This was indeed a revelation to people of Colombia. They had been suffering from different ailments brought by climate change. That the city of Cartagena by the Caribbean Sea is facing the threat of sea level rise is known for some ten years or so. And so is Tumaco, the city by the Pacific. The places with high altitudes Cundinamarca region (the region around the capital Bogota) are now having a new pest—mosquito, and dengue is spreading; this was unheard of previously. Due to climate change even entire communities have had to move, as in Bocas de Curay (Chocó), a territory near Pacific coast city Tumaco, one of the eight most worrying foci of forest clearing, according to Ideam. The 1,000 metres that separated the hill from the beach were already eaten by the sea, and the families had to climb the hill, in search of higher places... as says El Espectador. Based on such facts the NGO moved to the court. (El Tiempo, another news portal of Colombia, has a multimedia section dedicated to climate change scenario in Colombia.)

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the 25 petitioners and ordered the President and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia to work together with the petitioners and also the affected communities to draw up a short term, a medium term and a long term plan to counteract the rate of deforestation in the Amazons, and the court has set a time limit of 4 months to start the job. Moreover, the Supreme Court has set a time limit of 5 months only for constructing a "pacto intergeneracional por la vida del amazonas colombiano" or PIVAC—an Intergenerational Pact for the Life of Colombian Amazon—Supreme Court ordered the President, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to work together with the 25 petitioners, the affected communities, the scientific community and groups of environmental researchers to develop this. PIVAC will have to make plan so that deforestation becomes ZERO, the court mentioned it; also it will have to look after how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to develop national, regional and local strategies, preventive, obligatory, corrective and pedagogical types of strategies for climate change. 

From Dejusticia and some Colombian newspapers that reported this case people came to know about a US NGO "Our Children's Trust" that also helped in this case. Interestingly "Our Children's Trust" in the USA and then "Plan B.Earth" in the UK are some of the leading NGOs which are arranging quite a number of environmental legal suits involving children and youth in different countries including USA and UK. Actions of this type, i.e. challenging climate change legally, are happening in not-so-developed countries also. For example here is a headline from 'Climate Change News' on 20/09/2015 : "Pakistan was ordered to enforce climate law by Lahore court. Farmer's legal challenge makes history as judge tells government to get its act together on tackling global warming". There is a full website dedicated to climate cases database : climatecasechart[dot]com and from there many such cases and their details can be seen. It will be worthwhile if one reads the 'Mission Statement' of the NGO "Our Children's Trust". It says: "Our Children's Trust elevates the voice of youth to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for the benefit of all present and future generations. Through our programmes, youth participate in advocacy, public education and civic engagement to ensure the viability of all natural systems in accordance with science. Our mission is to protect earth's atmosphere and natural systems for present and future generations. We lead a game-changing legal campaign seeking systemic, science-based emissions reductions and climate recovery policy at all levels of government. We give young people, those with most at stake in the climate crisis, a voice to favorably impact their futures."

But what about the other course, beyond or outside the sphere of litigations? One of the key persons of the trust said to a reporter of Project Earth: "Rather than challenge the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL and this new facility for LNG in this and that place, we're going after the whole system collectively". It will be interesting if one can find what this NGO has to tell about capitalism, accumulation, the development-maniac, resource plunder and such fundamental factors that are really behind the 'whole thing'.

But the other side, that of people’s actions of other types, is still there, as India saw it in Niyamgiri, where the people fought mining expansion to pristine forests and hills. Just yesterday, 12.04.2018, El Tiempo published a report : ONGC of India and Sinopec of China jointly floated a company named Mansarovar to mine petroleum in Colombia. The government assigned the firm several areas for their mining programme. But people in a region called Cumaral refused to let the company work in their area; they arranged a plebiscite and voted 'No' for mining. Now the court is sitting to decide what to do. Already many such plebiscites happened, as the newspaper informs, and altogether those stalled mining projects that could fetch 230 Billion Pesos of Royalty to the government!

Naturally there will be discussions as to what % of the royalties should go to regional and local governments and what 'development' could be made to those poverty stricken regions etc. But at least the plebiscite voters felt some threats that accompany developments done by the governments and corporate entities. El Tiempo published a photo-poster of the plebiscite : 'A man trying to collect a little water from a pond that is becoming almost dry, a photo of harsh drought condition, parched land, some animal carcass... and on it is written: petroleum exploration is as harmful as your exploitation, vote 'NO' in the plebiscite'. Interestingly, Cumaral is situated in a region named Meta in Colombia and Meta is famous for a river which is called 'most beautiful river in the world' or sometimes 'river of five colours' and the same river was closed for the tourists during 2015-16 drought. That same report of El Tiempo said at the end—when the Mayor of Cumaral was asked: would you forsake so much royalty share that your city could get, the mayor said—'hope we will live with the things that will preserve our water to have a sustainable livelihood'.


Vol. 50, No.48, June 3 - 9, 2018