By Camila Bustos
I remember being at the Paris climate negotiations in 2015 and hearing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reaffirm the government’s commitment to reach zero-net deforestation in the Colombian Amazon by 2020.
At the time, the government also announced its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2030 and prided itself on supporting strong climate action.
By then, I had been an activist for coal divestment, researched fossil fuel extraction, pushed for local climate change legislation, and attended enough UN climate talks to know one thing: climate change was threatening the fulfillment of human rights around the world and we were not doing nearly enough to stop it.
That was also when I learned that despite the slow progress at the climate negotiations and the failure of governments to advance their plans to tackle emissions and adapt to a warming world, climate advocates were turning to a new strategy: climate litigation.
This is why I decided to join 24 other young Colombians in suing the national government for failing to curb deforestation in the Amazon region.
Today, cattle ranching, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and mining are driving the destruction of our forest. The most recent data shows that deforestation increased by 44 percent in 2016, which is equal to 178,597 acres of forest loss.
With Dejusticia’s support, we are arguing that deforestation is violating our constitutional right to a healthy environment, which in turn threatens our right to water, food, and health.
As we began developing the lawsuit, we learned about the intrinsic connections between the Amazon and the water cycle that supplies the rest of the nation. We learned about how deforesting one area could have a significant impact thousands of kilometers away. We learned that,according to official projections, we could expect a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2070.
The more we read and studied about climate impacts in Colombia, the clearer the sense of urgency we felt.
We realized we had to ask the government to back its international rhetoric on deforestation with concrete and effective actions on the ground. Not only is the destruction of forests the greatest source behind Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also a threat to local ecosystems and the people that depend on them for their livelihoods.
But our petitions do not end there. We are also asking that the government creates an inter-generational agreement on climate change, outlining the measures that the government will adopt to reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. We ask that this document also includes the adaptation and mitigation strategies each vulnerable municipality in the country will implement.
What I find most exciting about the prospect of a court ruling in our favor is that our case is not an exception, but part of a broader movement seeking justice through climate change litigation. The climate movement is evolving and, as we increase pressure on governments to act on climate, we diversify our toolkit and strategies to demand social change.
We hope that our lawsuit can help inform and shape public debates, calling attention to the monumental crisis the planet is facing.
I am proud of being one the the plaintiffs behind this lawsuit. I am proud of being part of a generation that refuses to sit in silence.
Published on Thomson Reuters Foundation News on January 31, 2018
Human rights and environment
In recent years, the recognition of the links between human rights and the environment has greatly increased. The number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment have grown rapidly.
Many States now incorporate a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. Many questions about the relationship of human rights and the environment remain unresolved, however, and require further examination.
As a result, in March 2012 the Human Rights Council decided to establish a mandate on human rights and the environment, which will (among other tasks) study the human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and promote best practices relating to the use of human rights in environmental policymaking.
Mr. John Knox was appointed in August 2012 to a three-year term as the first Independent Expert on human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. His mandate was further extended in March 2015 for another three years as a Special Rapporteur.
The resolution 16/11 adopted by the Human Rights Council on 12th of April 2011 entitled “Human Rights and the environment” requested the Office of the High Commissioner “in consultation with and taking into account the views of States Members of the United Nations, relevant international organizations and intergovernmental bodies, including the United Nations Environment Programme and relevant multilateral environmental agreements, special procedures, treaty bodies and other stakeholders, to conduct, within existing resources, a detailed analytical study on the relationship between human rights and the environment” (para.1).
See also the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
Human rights and climate change
In its 5th Assessment Report (2014), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unequivocally confirmed that climate change is real and that human-made greenhouse gas emissions are its primary cause. The report identified the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and natural disasters, rising sea-levels, floods, heat waves, droughts, desertification, water shortages, and the spread of tropical and vector-borne diseases as some of the adverse impacts of climate change. These phenomena directly and indirectly threaten the full and effective enjoyment of a range of human rights by people throughout the world, including the rights to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development.