25 youth plaintiffs, including Indigenous youth, between the ages of 7 and 25, sued Colombian governmental bodies, municipalities, and three autonomous regional corporations operating in the Amazon Rainforest for “increased deforestation in the Amazon.” According to the Paris Agreement and Colombian Law 1753 of 2015, the government committed to reducing the net rate of Amazon deforestation to zero by 2020, and to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the plaintiffs showed that the government had increased deforestation in the Amazon, threatening their fundamental rights to a healthy environment, life, food and water. The plaintiffs lodged an acción de tutela, a legal mechanism for individuals to claim immediate protection of their fundamental rights. The Supreme Court of Justice ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and recognized for the first time that the Colombian Amazon is itself a subject of rights. The Court issued five mandatory orders against the defendants to reduce deforestation and GHG emissions.
Environmental Legal Questions:
- Were the criteria for the acción de tutela met? Article 86 of Colombia’s Constitution guarantees that every individual can claim legal protection from a judge when an action or omission of a public authority may jeopardize or threaten their fundamental rights. In an earlier judgment, the District Court ruled that the right legal mechanism for this particular case was the acción popular due to the collective nature of the claim. However, the Supreme Court of Justice overruled, affirming that the criteria were sufficiently demonstrated: (i) the connection between the violation of collective rights and fundamental and individual rights; (ii) the plaintiff is the person directly affected in his or her fundamental and individual rights; iii) the violation of a fundamental right is not hypothetical but fully proved, or the fundamental right is being threatened; and iv) the judicial order is oriented towards restoring individual rights, and not collective ones.
- Was the government legally obliged to reduce the net rate of deforestation and reduce GHG emissions? Under the Paris Agreement, the government committed to reducing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon with the objective of reducing it to zero by 2020. Under national law, the government is also obliged to reduce deforestation and GHG emissions. The Court referred to the specific duties of the defendants and their negligence in fulfilling them and found the government to be legally obliged to these actions.
- Did the government’s and corporations’ actions threaten the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs and future generations? IDEAM, a scientific institution under the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, outlined the risks of temperature rise and GHG emissions due to deforestation. They reported a 44% increase in deforestation between 2015 and 2016, including loss of 70,074 hectares in the rainforest, and estimated a temperature increase of 2.14°C within the estimated lifespan of the plaintiffs. Thus, the Court found that increasing deterioration of the environment posed a serious attack on current and future life and the aforementioned fundamental rights.
- Do future generations have environmental rights protections? The Court found that the environment and ecosystem impact are substantially connected to fundamental rights of life, health, minimum subsistence, freedom, and human dignity. Without a healthy environment, subjects of law will not be able to survive or protect the fundamental rights of children and future generations, and the existence of the family, society, and the state itself cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, the Court applied the principle of intergenerational equity and found that future generations have rights protections.
- Is the Colombian Amazon Rainforest a subject of rights? The Court referenced the Constitutional Court’s declaration of the Atrato River as a subject of rights. To protect the vitality of the rainforest for our global future, the Court similarly recognized the Colombian Amazon as a subject of rights entitled to protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration led by the State and territorial agencies. The judgment recognizes that conserving the Amazon, which is referred to as the main environmental axis of the planet and the “lung of the world,” is a national and global obligation.