Court examines Colombian government (in)action on deforestation in the Amazon: update on the first stage of hearings

Amazon rainforest at sunset
Amazon rainforest at sunset

Court examines Colombian government (in)action on deforestation in the Amazon: update on the first stage of hearings

In 2018, Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice declared under judgement STC 4360 that the Amazon Rainforest is a subject with rights that need to be respected. It ordered that the state must take measures at the local and national levels to protect these rights, defend the forest and combat climate change. This landmark court ruling consisted of four main orders:

  1. Formulate short, medium and long-term action plans to counteract deforestation in the Amazon.
  2. Create an Intergenerational Pact for the Life of the Colombian Amazon.
  3. Update and implement Municipal Plans for Territorial Planning across the region
  4. Carry out an Action Plan to counter deforestation as reported by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies through policing, judicial or administrative measures.

During October, a first stage of hearings in Bogotá were convened by the Court in order to verify whether its landmark ruling is being upheld by the Colombian state. A second stage of hearings will continue in November to listen to more testimonies, including from indigenous Amazonian peoples.

According to Colombian non-governmental organisation DeJusticia, the first few days of the hearing produced some important results. They note the keen interest of Colombian citizens and the general public – especially young activists – in defending the rainforest. They also note the strong presence of environmental and indigenous organisations at the audience, who are being given the opportunity to act as observers, to ask questions and help ensure that the harmful impacts of deforestation on ethnic and rural communities are properly explained. The judges have actively listened to the interventions and asked their own questions to better understand the situation in the region. They have also requested reports from organisations such as the National Parks Agency and the National Land Agency on the actions they have taken to halt deforestation.

However, advances in judicial processes still far outweigh inaction on behalf of state authorities. The Government has so far not supplied any updates on the creation of the required Action Plan. One government spokesperson has admitted that none of the presidential advisors are qualified on the issue of deforestation in the Amazon. These sorts of shortcomings allowed many ministries to claim a lack of responsibility – with each declaring that another body was in charge of combatting deforestation, monitoring illegal palm oil expansion and so on.

For their part, representatives for the Ministries of Transport and Mining attended the hearing without the information necessary for them to be able to give updates, answer questions and share their action plans.

The judges also acknowledged that given the security situation in much of the Colombian Amazon, state environmental authorities are at times unable to enforce laws there without the backing of the Ministry of Defence. One judge stated, “Here we see some environmental authorities that are acting alone and handcuffed because they work in areas with strong security and crime problems. Our question is – how much longer it will take the Ministry of Defence to reach these areas? How is it possible that crime can arrive and the state cannot?”

Peasant associations at the first hearing explained that the purpose of the court ruling is not to punish rural communities, but for the State to be able to understand and tackle the major structural and underlying drivers of deforestation. In turn, the National Parks Agency said they had been working on agreements with the local people, including the possible option of relocation, although they claimed that they were not in a position to carry out the relocations. In addition, they said, not all communities were willing to open up the dialogue with them, or to move out of the protected areas.

A multi-pronged approach was agreed upon in the first few days of the hearing. The Ministry of Information Technology and Communications would be developing IT systems and means of digital monitoring in order to identify areas of deforestation. It would also be using local radio stations to reach communities in remote areas. The Ministry of Education committed to strengthening environmental education in schools and create more of a focus on this in academic institutions.

As of 22 October, the judges had concluded the following:

“We have been in the Court for more than a year and we do not see concrete actions by the authorities. Unfortunately, we will have to make decisions, because time is running out. The hearings will end and from the Government we have only heard that they will begin to consider how to act. Reducing deforestation in the Amazon is a gigantic task… and we have done nothing but talk.”

Read the full response to the first stage of hearing from DeJusticia.