Taking a step of enormous importance, the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia issued a ruling declaring that the Amazon, as an ecological region, is a subject of rights. It thus joins other initiatives that abandon the conventionality of understanding Nature only as an object.
The decision, approved on April 5, 2018, says that the Amazon is a “vital ecosystem for the global future”, and that in order to protect it, it is recognized “as an entity 'subject of rights', holder of protection, of the conservation, maintenance and restoration in charge of the State and the regional entities that integrate it ”. Based on this, the decision mandates the government, including ministries, agencies and municipalities, to initiate different actions with a very ambitious goal: zero deforestation.
Colombia had already taken a step in the same direction, when it recognized in 2016 that the Atrato River was a subject of rights. The current case is a bit different, since it responds to a challenge raised by 25 young people and children between the ages of seven and 26 who considered that as Amazon deforestation contributed to climate change it put their rights at risk in the future. This was an action that emulated the lawsuit that children and young people in the United States filed against the federal government for its inactions on climate change.
The measure is very important since the Colombian Amazon, as in the other countries of the basin, is under very strong pressure. In this country, more than 70 thousand hectares of forest were lost in 2016, a figure much higher than the previous year.
Two ways to the same goal
In Latin America, two ways seem to be insinuated in granting rights to Nature. In one of them the starting point is the recognition of Nature as a subject, and from there various consequences are derived, and among them is granting it legal rights. In the other, it starts from expanding the rights of people to take a leap by providing that type of recognition to the environment. Similar situations are reached but the starting points are different.
Indeed, the first tour was the one carried out in Ecuador, where in the new Constitution it was understood that the non-human were subjects, and from an intercultural perspective, they were located in Nature or in Pachamama. Being a subject, they should have a recognition of their rights, and these were deployed in parallel to the rights of humans.
The Colombian resolution, on the other hand, would be registered in the second round. The initial lawsuit emphasized the violation of people's rights. In this case, it was the children and young applicants, who have a life expectancy of between 75 and 80 years, and therefore would end up affected by climate change around the decades from 2040 to 2070. These impacts would also be repeated in future generations. Climate change would be produced, among other factors, by Amazonian deforestation, which should be controlled by the Colombian government, and that is what is not happening today.
Without any intention of minimizing this argument, however, it must be borne in mind that its starting point is based on human rights. Indeed, the resolution of the Supreme Court in several sections addresses the violation of the collective human right to a healthy environment and the consequences of this on future generations. For example, it maintains that the “increasing deterioration of the environment is a serious attack on life today and to come and on all other fundamental rights; furthermore, it gradually exhausts life and all the rights related to it ”.
In the court's decision, the absence of references to the constitutional content of Ecuador on the rights of Nature approved in 2008 is striking, since there is a dialogue mainly with authors from the north (several citations are to texts from many back and that are not specific to this topic). Something similar happens with the laws approved in Bolivia on the rights of Mother Earth, which are not taken into account either. Colombian magistrates are somewhat ignorant of advances or attempts in neighboring countries in Latin America, whether to weigh both their strengths and their weaknesses.
However, the Ecuadorian regulations approved in Montecristi would have been very useful to them, precisely because of this dialogue with the knowledge of indigenous peoples (another component absent in the Colombian decision), as well as for including restoration among the rights of Nature.
The Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia looks at this last aspect since it includes restoration among the actions that the State must face. This is of enormous importance because in many Amazonian sites the current environments are already degraded, and therefore it is necessary to recover them in order to ensure adequate conservation.
In the same way, the Colombian decision gives more weight to the demands to combat climate change and to its international framework. On the other hand, ecological considerations are weaker, starting for example from the ecological value of Colombian biodiversity. That is, the rights of Amazonian animal and plant species to continue their evolutionary processes.
Difficulties are also felt in integrating the worldviews of indigenous peoples into jurisprudence. If you are looking for a foundation to feel and understand a nature full of subjects, there is much to learn. There is one of the strengths of the Ecuadorian process, which has not always been adequately valued.
An important step and an ambitious goal
In any case, the step that is being taken is important, and even more so in the Colombian context, when many Amazonian areas will be liberated to extractivist penetration as a result of the peace process. The arguments remain, however, essentially anthropocentric, and within that field, quite Eurocentric. The step towards a biocentrism appears in this recognition of rights in the Amazon, but it needs more detailed foundations and elaborations. It is a promising step, but it must be supplemented and supported.
Something similar happens in neighboring countries, where there are other efforts such as the two laws of Mother Earth in Bolivia, or the Bill of Rights of Nature that in Argentina is promoted time and again by Senator Fernando “Pino” Solanas.
Finally, another component highlighted in the resolution is that it clearly indicates that the State is responsible for all the measures and actions. The resolution mandates the Colombian presidency and other institutions, such as the Ministry of the Environment, to formulate action plans against Amazon deforestation. It also requires that the municipalities of that region implement land use plans in five months. It also imposes measures in the same direction on regional agencies for sustainable development in the Amazon.
The goal is radical: zero deforestation. And give 48 hours to start those tasks. This increases the importance of this resolution. It offers new arguments to stop the extractivist advance in the Amazon, clearly indicates those responsible for the change of course, and constitutes an example that the other Amazonian countries should follow as soon as possible.
By Eduardo Gudynas
Eduardo Gudynas is a researcher at the Latin American Center for Social Ecology (CLAES). His book on the rights of Nature has been published in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Twitter: @EGudynas