Twenty-five young Colombians are suing the government over climate change

Deforestation in Colombia has increased 44% since 2015, despite the government's Paris commitment to reach net zero by 2020

06.02.2018

Lucy Sherriff

Páramo de Sumapaz, Colombia. Amazon rainfall feeds the páramos ecosystem, the main source of drinking water for capital city Bogota’s eight million people. Photo: Jhon Heaver Paz / Greenpeace.

Twenty-five Colombian youths – one as young as seven – are suing the government for failing to protect the environment and prevent deforestation in the Amazon.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in Latin America, and demands the Colombian government protect young people’s rights to a healthy environment, life, food and water.

On 29th January, the group of young plaintiffs – all of whom are under 26 and come from 17 cities and municipalities across the country – filed a “tutela”, a special action in Colombia’s Constitution protecting fundamental rights.

Lawyer César Rodríguez, director of Colombian NGO Dejusticia, is acting on behalf of the youths. He said: “Just as cities like New York and San Francisco have sued oil companies for their role in fuelling climate change and a court ordered the Netherland’s government to reduce its carbon emissions, we are asking that Colombia fulfills its prior commitments to tackle climate change.”

At the 2015 climate change conference in Paris, President Juan Manuel Santos committed to reach zero net deforestation by 2020. But the youths say the increasing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is threatening their rights.

After Farc

In July 2016, Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), announced deforestation had increased by 44% since 2015, with 34% occurring in the Amazon. The majority of deforestation occurred in remote areas once controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Since the historic peace agreement was signed in late 2016, many previously inaccessible areas have been subjected to large-scale agriculture, logging, illegal mining and road infrastructure projects.

Farc had ordered civilians to maintain 20% of their land with forest cover, in order to protect guerrillas from government air raids. No longer controlled by Farc, farmers have been able to expand.

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Farc rebels watch a live broadcast of the peace agreement signing from the remote Yari plains, where the accord was ratified in November 2016. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Camila Bustos, a researcher with Dejusticia, said the budget for the environmental ministry is less than 1% of the GDP.

Colombia has the resources to control deforestation, but it’s not a priority for the government,” she said.

“Colombia knew it had a deforestation problem, but the situation has become more urgent. 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 and the challenge to protect the environment is huge.”

“Critical moment”

Colombia has the world’s eighth-largest forest cover and is home to around 6% of the Amazon rainforest. Amazon rainfall feeds the páramos ecosystem, the main source of drinking water for capital city Bogota’s eight million people.

“Deforestation is threatening the fundamental rights of those of us who are young today and will face the impacts of climate change the rest of our lives,” say the group suing the government.

“We are at a critical moment given the speed at which deforestation is happening in the Colombian Amazon. The government’s lack of capacity and planning as well as its failure to protect the environment makes the adoption of urgent measures necessary.”

The group also wants the government to create an intergenerational agreement so youths can be involved in climate change-related decisions in the future.

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Carolina Garcia, a climate change campaigner and columnist for Semana Sustainable Magazine, says the government should be more ambitious in protecting the environment.

“The government has been unable to address deforestation and illegal mining has become a major crisis to the point that we are the country that liberates the most mercury per capita in the world.

“We need to start implementing truly sustainable development, especially in managing and planning out territory. Once policies are in place, we need to foster collaborative action between all the actors: the private sector, civil society and the government.”

President Juan Manuel Santos delivers his acceptance speech during the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. (Photo: Nigel Waldron / Getty Images)

Garcia, a 28-year-old from Bogotá, said she felt empowered and excited that young people are taking action.

“The law can be a tool to protect the status quo or a tool to change it. This movement is not only aiming to create climate change accountability through a judicial precedent, but also intergenerational justice.

“Children have the right to speak up, as they will be bearing the consequences of a problem previous generations have created.

“Young people should be at the base of the climate change movement. They’re demanding change and this lawsuit is clearly and example of this.”

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