Youth Truth: A Group of Kids Sued the Colombian Government to Protect the Amazon…and it Worked!

Amazon Protection Youth

Rich in gold and other Old World commodities, South America was the promised land for the Europeans, who colonized it between the 1500s and 1700s. Loaded with artifacts, materials, and spices, fleets of Spanish galleons took incalculable amounts of wealth back home. The most coveted South American treasure was gold and the most prominent legend about unlimited stores of gold in the New World was the one of El Dorado or “the golden one.”

The story went something like this: local kings would ceremonially cover themselves in gold dust and walk into the water of what is now known as Lake Guatavita. Since gold was abundant and had no monetary value for the Muiscas who lived around lake, the practice was intended as way to connect to the goddess of water, Chié, and others in the pantheon. Legend has it that additional gold artifacts were thrown into the lake as offerings, and through the ages many fortune hunters led expeditions in search of the promised treasure.

Located in present day Colombia about an hour outside its hyperactive capital, Bogotá, the Laguna de Guatavita is small, peaceful, and often cloaked in fog, making it a storied setting for water sports, nature walks, and myths. Spanish explorers repeatedly dredged it, died diving it, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to drain it. Despite the difficulty of missions to recover objects from the unfathomable mud at the bottom, the Spanish crown managed to find and extract quite a few choice pieces from Guatavita, as if a magical realist had taken to turning legend into history.

The artifacts that the conquistadors missed still remain on exhibit at the Museo del Oro in Colombia. These objects demonstrate the Muiscas’ ample skills as orfébres or “gold workers.” Their scarcity now demonstrate the colonizers’ feat — taking something of high value in their own culture from the South Americans, for whom it held none.

Today, the gold is largely gone, but Colombia is far from poor. Rich in natural resources, the most precious of these is undoubtedly the vast ribbon of Amazon rainforest, roughly the size of Texas, which wraps the southern border of the country and was, for many years, thriving.

Source of countless plants and fungi that have proven to be essential in curing disease and home to hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna, the Amazon jungle is a world heritage resource. As green as a place can get, its canopy is responsible for converting a large amounts of carbon dioxide back into oxygen. Helping to purify the air back into a form that can be consumed again, by none other than the same humans responsible for emitting the carbon dioxide in the first place, the Amazon rainforest also helps stabilize climate and prevent radical environmental changes.

Who Protects the Amazon?

Responsibility for the care and maintenance of the Amazon lies in the hands of the nine South American nations who comprise it: Brazil, Perú, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, Ecuador, and French Guiana, with the first three encompassing the largest portions. While Brazil and Perú passed deforestation protections into law around the year 2000, realizing their earlier laissez faire attitude was a mistake, Colombia repeated the mistake of El Dorado.

The Colombian government’s ability to dictate what happens in the Amazon, not just in law but in deed, is a recent and hard-won fact. Formerly controlled by coca-plant growers and guerrilleros until these two became one and the same, this southern, most remote and impenetrable, region was both being razed and preserved. On the one hand, coca farmers required clearing the Heart of Darkness-like jungle into farmable land; on the other, the illicit nature of this practice, along with the kidnappings, murders, and other war crimes that took place at the hands of criminal insurgents who called the jungle their home for almost four decades, best camouflaged under a thick and dangerous canopy.

By the middle of President Juan Manuel Santos’ mandate around 2015, it was becoming clear that in the struggle between preserving the rainforest and various business interests, such as illegal mining and logging, various agricultural pursuits both legal and otherwise, plus plans to build and international highway through the jungle, everyone was winning except the Amazon.

All of these practices together threatened the integrity of that ecosystem and, in turn, the Amazon’s ability to serve as lung and laboratory for the world.

Between 2015 and 2016, as President Santos struggled to negotiate a peace treaty with the main guerrilla faction, the FARC, while the Colombian portion of the jungle saw a 44% increase in deforestation. Santos won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work, but the power vacuum that resulted from the removal of the FARC as the ruling power in the Amazon was, perversely, bad news for the environment. Now, domestic and foreign interests rushed in a colonized the jungle. Just before the end of his tenure, Santos was under domestic and international pressure to change something and finally in 2018 he put a stop to the construction of the highway.

Dejusticia to the Rescue

By then, damage had been done and it needed to be repaired. March 2018 saw the end of the trans-Amazonian highway construction. A month later, taking a page from similar efforts in the U.S. and Europe, a group of 25 private individuals, sued the Colombian government in a landmark case for the continent. This group, organized by the Dejusticia, a civil rights-seeking organization, was comprised of children and young adults. The ages of the plaintiffs were key elements in the suit, as the complaint center around the fundamental right of these young people living in a democracy to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Dejusticia case shares parallels with Juliana vs. the United States, a case that is set for trial in late October and which seeks to compel the Donald Trump and the government to rejoin the Paris agreement. Attorneys at Our Children’s Trust also built this case around a group of kids and organized it as a catalog of grievances that specifically illustrate the way in which environmental destruction and the resulting climate change poses an obstacle to these future adult’s prosperity, health, enjoyment, and freedom. Both of these cases rely on the young as the inspiration because both have the same probative challenge—that climate change causes verifiable harm to the plaintiffs.

A young resident of Providencia island in Colombia, testified on behalf of Dejusticia, showing that the ecological damage to the reef will rob her of the ability to fish for sustenance; another young scuba diver worried that she won’t be able to for much longer in her local waters. In the U.S. case, there are parallel stories of teenagers fearing the loss of their family land and patrimony.

Dejusticia’s legal approach can be easily transferred to myriad other situations around the world, the evidence, sadly, also easily replicated in any number of places. The case cited research from foremost expert James E. Hansen, the Director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. His brief included language that calls us to action at a “late” but critically necessary moment to avoid “calamitous” climate change, warning that no matter how bad it gets for us, future generations will surely pay an even higher price for our inaction. Hansen let none of us off the hook, assuring that no single jurisdiction should bear the brunt of this responsibility solely, but neither should this present generation carry it alone.

When the Youth Prevails

Far more surprising than the testimony from scientific experts on the danger of climate change or the passion and eloquence of the young, who will no doubt pay for our years of environmental negligence, is that the children prevailed. Never before has a nation in South America entertained a ruling to save the environment over any other interest. The decision actually includes explicit language that connects civil rights to the environmental rights, citing access to clean water and air as basic and fundamental.

Crucially, in order to fulfill the requirements for a tutela lawsuit in Colombia it must show a transgression was committed against an individual’s rights. Here, Dejusticia effectively demonstrated that the individual’s rights are inextricable from the group’s, that Hansen’s criteria of “intergenerational equity” and “solidarity” were one and the same, that when a Colombian child breathes some nice Amazonian air, the whole world can breathe more deeply.

A group of Colombian kids sued their government to protect the Amazon and it worked. Now, with a landmark victory in the books and clear language that equates environmentalism with world citizenship, Colombia has committed to net zero deforestation by the year 2020, and inspired other countries around the world to do the same.

In Philippines, nearly 20 citizens have been petitioning to take 47 mining companies to task for their breach of human rights in their employment and environmental practices. They have received enough attention that an amicus curiae will be submitted on their behalf to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights. In a similar way, groups in India, South Africa, Pakistan and the Netherlands have taken steps toward holding their governments accountable in contributing to the decline in the current population’s health and contributing to climate change and future generation’s problems.

Progress So Far

Colombia is a great model to compare to other post-conflict tropical areas whose lushness covered up conflict for years and now needs reforesting. Places like Myanmar, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nicaragua, among many others, similarly had their jungles sacrificed to armed conflict and covert operations. Now, as many of these places rebuild, it’s not only infrastructure that requires attention. Having championed zero-deforestation cacao plantations, Colombia is exploring similar ecological models, such as a promising rubber plant cultivation plan that promotes reforestation as well as economic incentives to encourage continued cooperation.

Certainly, it is a tall order to expect ecological friendliness in exchange for one’s livelihood. In order to require farmers to give up coca farming, an alternative or two must be provided. The richness of the wildlife in the Amazon makes it a prime spot for birdwatchers and other lovers of nature, especially the wild and exotic. Ecotourism, with all its attending infrastructure of inns and restaurants, is taking root, as is the notion that people must be educated about the stakes we all carry in the environmental game. These feelings are enough to keep Colombians feeling optimistic, despite the current president’s less-than-stellar record on ecological issues.

Presumably, if all else fails, we will have to rely on technology to police the rainforest: already at work are the satellites and drones of Terra-i, a digital monitoring system that can detect deforestation in near real time. As we continue to comes to terms with the fact that solidarity and intergenerational equity are the same as environmentalism, our machines may well have to step up and become the protectors of our monkeys.