Sunday, April 22, 2018

Amazon and Rain Forest Have Legally Protected Rights, Colombia's Supreme Court Rules (NPR, Reuters)

Great news for environmental protection this week from the Supreme Court of Colombia. See NPR and Reuters stories, below.

The highest court in the Philippines issued a similar order some 25 years ago.  U.S. courts should follow this principle.  Our St. Johns County Commission and other  governments in Florida must create an Ombuds to argue for protection of our environment and public rights to environmental protection.  Quo vobis videtor? (How does it appear to you?)

Here's what Justice William O. Douglas wrote in his dissent in the Mineral King case, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972):

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting.
I share the views of my Brother BLACKMUN, and would reverse the judgment below.
The critical question of "standing"[1] would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers, and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern [p742] for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. See Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? — Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, 45 S.Cal.L.Rev. 450 (1972). This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.
Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes.[2] The corporation sole — a creature of ecclesiastical law — is an acceptable adversary, and large fortunes ride on its cases.[3] The ordinary corporation is a "person" for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, [p743] whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes.[4]
So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes — fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water — whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger — must be able to speak for the values which the river represents, and which are threatened with destruction.
I do not know Mineral King. I have never seen it, nor traveled it, though I have seen articles describing its proposed "development"[5] notably Hano, Protectionists vs. recreationists — The Battle of Mineral King, [p744] N.Y. Times Mag., Aug. 17, 1969, p. 25; and Browning, Mickey Mouse in the Mountain, Harper's, March 1972, p. 65. The Sierra Club, in its complaint alleges that "[o]ne of the principal purposes of the Sierra Club is to protect and conserve the national resources of the Sierra Nevada Mountains." The District Court held that this uncontested allegation made the Sierra Club "sufficiently aggrieved" to have "standing" to sue on behalf of Mineral King.
Mineral King is doubtless like other wonders of the Sierra Nevada such as Tuolumne Meadows and the John Muir Trail. Those who hike it, fish it, hunt it, camp [p745] in it, frequent it, or visit it merely to sit in solitude and wonderment are legitimate spokesmen for it, whether they may be few or many. Those who have that intimate relation with the inanimate object about to be injured, polluted, or otherwise despoiled are its legitimate spokesmen.
The Solicitor General, whose views on this subject are in the appendix, takes a wholly different approach. He considers the problem in terms of "government by the Judiciary." With all respect, the problem is to make certain that the inanimate objects, which are the very core of America's beauty, have spokesmen before they are destroyed. It is, of course, true that most of them are under the control of a federal or state agency. The standards given those agencies are usually expressed in terms of the "public interest." Yet "public interest" has so many differing shades of meaning as to be quite meaningless on the environmental front. Congress accordingly has adopted ecological standards in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Pub.L. 91-190, 83 Stat. 852, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., and guidelines for agency action have been provided by the Council on Environmental Quality, of which Russell E. Train is Chairman. See 36 Fed.Reg. 7724.
Yet the pressures on agencies for favorable action one way or the other are enormous. The suggestion that Congress can stop action which is undesirable is true in theory; yet even Congress is too remote to give meaningful direction, and its machinery is too ponderous to use very often. The federal agencies of which I speak are not venal or corrupt. But they are notoriously under the control of powerful interests who manipulate them through advisory committees, or friendly working relations, or who have that natural affinity with the agency [p746] which in time develops between the regulator and the regulated.[6] As early as 1894, Attorney General Olney predicted that regulatory agencies might become "industry-minded," [p747] as illustrated by his forecast concerning the Interstate Commerce Commission:
"The Commission . . . is, or can be, made of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of railroads, at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things."
M. Josephson, The Politicos 526 (1938).
Years later, a court of appeals observed,
"the recurring question which has plagued public regulation of industry [is] whether the regulatory agency is unduly oriented toward the interests of the industry it is designed to regulate, rather than the public interest it is designed to protect."
Moss v. CAB, 139 U.S.App.D.C. 150, 152, 430 F.2d 891, 893. See also Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ v. FCC, 123 U.S.App.D.C. 328, 337-338, 359 F.2d 994, 1003-1004; Udall v. FPC, 387 U. S. 428; Calvert Cliffs' Coordinating Committee, Inc. v. AEC, 146 U.S.App.D.C. 33, 449 F.2d 1109; Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Ruckelhaus, 142 U.S.App.D.C. 74, 439 F.2d 584; Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. HEW, 138 U.S.App.D.C. 381, 428 F.2d 1083; Scenic Hudson Preservation Conf. v. FPC, 354 F.2d 608, 620. But see Jaffe, The Federal Regulatory Agencies In Perspective: Administrative Limitations In A Political Setting, 11 B.C.Ind. & Com.L.Rev. 565 (1970) (labels "industry-mindedness" as "devil" theory).
[p748] The Forest Service — one of the federal agencies behind the scheme to despoil Mineral King — has been notorious for its alignment with lumber companies, although its mandate from Congress directs it to consider the various aspects of multiple use in its supervision of the national forests.[7]
[p749] The voice of the inanimate object, therefore, should not be stilled. That does not mean that the judiciary takes over the managerial functions from the federal [p750] agency. It merely means that, before these priceless bits of Americana (such as a valley, an alpine meadow, a river, or a lake) are forever lost or are so transformed a to be reduced to the eventual rubble of our urban environment, the voice of the existing beneficiaries of these environmental wonders should be heard.[8]
[p751] Perhaps they will not win. Perhaps the bulldozers of "progress" will plow under all the aesthetic wonders of this beautiful land. That is not the present question. The sole question is, who has standing to be heard?
Those who hike the Appalachian Trail into Sunfish Pond, New Jersey, and camp or sleep there, or run the [752] Allagash in Maine, or climb the Guadalupes in West Texas, or who canoe and portage the Quetico Superior in Minnesota, certainly should have standing to defend those natural wonders before courts or agencies, though they live 3,000 miles away. Those who merely are caught up in environmental news or propaganda and flock to defend these waters or areas may be treated differently. That is why these environmental issues should be tendered by the inanimate object itself. Then there will be assurances that all of the forms of life[9] which it represents will stand before the court — the pileated woodpecker as well as the coyote and bear, the lemmings as well a the trout in the streams. Those inarticulate members of the ecological group cannot speak. But those people who have so frequented the place as to know its values and wonders will be able to speak for the entire ecological community.
Ecology reflects the land ethic; and Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac 204 (1949), "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."
That, as I see it, is the issue of "standing" in the present case and controversy.

  1. Jump up  See generally Data Processing Service v. Camp397 U. S. 150 (1970); Barlow v. Collins397 U. S. 159 (1970); Flast v. Cohen392 U. S. 83 (1968). See also MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN's separate opinion in Barlow v. Collins, supra, at 397 U. S. 167. The issue of statutory standing aside, no doubt exists that "injury in fact," to "aesthetic" and "conservational" interests is here sufficiently threatened to satisfy the case or controversy clause. Data Processing Service v. Camp, supra, at 397 U. S. 154.
  2. Jump up  In rem actions brought to adjudicate libellants' interests in vessels are well known in admiralty. G. Gilmore & C. Black, The Law of Admiralty 31 (1957). But admiralty also permits a salvage action to be brought in the name of the rescuing vessel. 75 U. S. 476 (1869). And, in collision litigation, the first-libeled ship may counterclaim in its own name. The Gylfe v. The Trujillo209 F.2d 386 (CA2 1954). Our case law has personified vessels:
    "A ship is born when she is launched, and lives so long as her identity is preserved. Prior to her launching, she is a mere congeries of wood and iron. . . . In the baptism of launching, she receives her name, and, from the moment her keel touches the water, she is transformed. . . . She acquires a personality of her own."
    Tucker v. Alexandroff183 U. S. 424, 183 U. S. 438.
  3. Jump up  At common law, an officeholder, such as a priest or the king, and his successors constituted a corporation sole, a legal entity distinct from the personality which managed it. Rights and duties were deemed to adhere to this device, rather than to the officeholder, in order to provide continuity after the latter retired. The notion is occasionally revived by American courts. E.g., Reid v. Barry93 Fla. 849112 So. 846 (1927), discussed in Recent Cases, 12 Minn.L.Rev. 295 (1928), and in Note, 26 Mich.L.Rev. 545 (1928); see generally 1 W. Fletcher, Cyclopedia of the Law of Private Corporations §§ 50-53 (1963); 1 P. Potter, Law of Corporations 27 (1881).
  4. Jump up  Early jurists considered the conventional corporation to be a highly artificial entity. Lord Coke opined that a corporation's creation "rests only in intendment and consideration of the law." Case of Sutton's Hospital, 77 Eng.Rep. 937, 973 (K.B. 1612). Mr. Chief Justice Marshall added that the device is "an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law." 17 U. S. 636 (1819). Today, suits in the names of corporations are taken for granted.
  5. Jump up  Although, in the past, Mineral King Valley has annually supplied about 70,000 visitor-days of simpler and more rustic forms of recreation — hiking, camping, and skiing (without lifts) — the Forest Service, in 1949 and again in 1965, invited developers to submit proposals to "improve" the Valley for resort use. Walt Disney Productions won the competition, and transformed the Service's idea into a mammoth project 10 times its originally proposed dimensions. For example, while the Forest Service prospectus called for an investment of at least $3 million and a sleeping capacity of at least 100, Disney will spend $35.3 million and will bed down 3,300 persons by 1978. Disney also plans a nine-level parking structure with two supplemental lots for automobiles, 10 restaurants and 20 ski lifts. The Service's annual license revenue is hitched to Disney's profits. Under Disney's projections, the Valley will be forced to accommodate a tourist population twice as dense as that in Yosemite Valley on a busy day. And, although Disney has bought up much of the private land near the project, another commercial firm plans to transform an adjoining 160-acre parcel into a "piggyback" resort complex, further adding to the volume of human activity the Valley must endure. See generally Note, Mineral King Valley: Who Shall Watch the Watchmen?, 25 Rutgers L.Rev. 103, 107 (1970); Thar's Gold in Those Hills, 206 The Nation 260 (1968). For a general critique of mass recreation enclaves in national forests see Christian Science Monitor, .Nov. 22, 1965, p. 5, col. 1 (Western ed.). Michael Frome cautions that the national forests are "fragile" and "deteriorate rapidly with excessive recreation use" because
    "[t]he trampling effect alone eliminates vegetative growth, creating erosion and water runoff problems. The concentration of people, particularly in horse parties, on excessively steep slopes that follow old Indian or cattle routes, has torn up the landscape of the High Sierras in California and sent tons of wilderness soil washing downstream each year."
    M. Frome, The Forest Service 69 (1971).
  6. Jump up  The federal budget annually includes about $75 million for underwriting about 1,500 advisory committees attached to various regulatory agencies. These groups are almost exclusively composed of industry representatives appointed by the President or by Cabinet members. Although public members may be on these committees, they are rarely asked to serve. Senator Lee Metcalf warns:
    "Industry advisory committees exist inside most important federal agencies, and even have offices in some. Legally, their function is purely as kibitzer, but, in practice, many have become internal lobbies — printing industry handouts in the Government Printing Office with taxpayers' money, and even influencing policies. Industry committees perform the dual function of stopping government from finding out about corporations while at the same time helping corporations get inside information about what government is doing. Sometimes, the same company that sits on an advisory council that obstructs or turns down a government questionnaire is precisely the company which is withholding information the government needs in order to enforce a law."
    Metcalf, The Vested Oracles: How Industry Regulates Government, 3 The Washington Monthly, July 1971, p. 45. For proceedings conducted by Senator Metcalf exposing these relationships, see Hearings on S. 3067 before the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, 91st Cong., 2d Sess. (1970); Hearings on S. 1637, S.1964, and S. 2064 before the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Relations of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, 92d Cong., 1st Sess. (1971).
    The web spun about administrative agencies by industry representatives does not depend, of course, solely upon advisory committees for effectiveness. See Elman, Administrative Reform of the Federal Trade Commission, 59 Geo.L.J. 777, 788 (1971); Johnson, A New Fidelity to the Regulatory Ideal, 59 Geo.L.J. 869, 874, 906 (1971); R. Berkman & K. Viscusi, Damming The West, The Ralph Nader Study Group Report on The Bureau of Reclamation 155 (1971); R. Fellmeth, The Interstate Commerce Omission, The Ralph Nader Study Group Report on the Interstate Commerce Commission and Transportation 15-39 and passim (1970); J. Turner, The Chemical Feast, The Ralph Nader Study Group Report on Food Protection and the Food and Drug Administration passim (1970); Massel, The Regulatory Process, 26 Law & Contemp.Prob. 181, 189 (1961); J. Landis, Report on Regulatory Agencies to the President-Elect 13, 69 (1960).
  7. Jump up  The Forest Reserve Act of 1897, 30 Stat. 35, 16 U.S.C. § 551, imposed upon the Secretary of the Interior the duty to "preserve the [national] forests . . . from destruction" by regulating their "occupancy and use." In 1905, these duties and powers were transferred to the Forest Service created within the Department of Agriculture by the Act of Feb. 1, 1905, 33 Stat. 628, 16 U.S.C. § 472. The phrase "occupancy and use" has been the cornerstone for the concept of "multiple use" of national forests, that is, the policy that uses other than logging were also to be taken into consideration in managing our 154 national forests. This policy was made more explicit by the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960, 74 Stat. 215, 16 U.S.C. §§ 528-531, which provides that competing considerations should include outdoor recreation, range timber, watershed, wildlife, and fish purposes. The Forest Service, influenced by powerful logging interests, has, however, paid only lip service to its multiple use mandate, and has auctioned away millions of timberland acres without considering environmental or conservational interests. The importance of national forests to the construction and logging industries results from the type of lumber grown therein which is well suited to builders' needs. For example, Western acreage produces Douglas fir (structural support) and ponderosa pine (plywood lamination). In order to preserve the total acreage and so-called "maturity" of timber, the annual size of a Forest Service harvest is supposedly equated with expected yearly reforestation. Nonetheless, yearly cuts have increased from 5.6 billion board feet in 1950 to 13.74 billion in 1971. Forestry professionals challenge the Service's explanation that this harvest increase to 240% is not really overcutting, but instead has resulted from its improved management of timberlands. "Improved management," answer the critics, is only a euphemism for exaggerated regrowth forecasts by the Service. N.Y. Times, Nov. 15, 1971, p. 48, col. 1. Recent rises in lumber prices have caused a new round of industry pressure to auction more federally owned timber. See Wagner, Resources Report/Lumbermen, conservationists head for new battle over government timber, 3 National J. 657 (1971). Aside from the issue of how much timber should be cut annually, another crucial question is how lumber should be harvested. Despite much criticism, the Forest Service had adhered to a policy of permitting logging companies to "clear-cut" tracts of auctioned acreage. "Clearcutting," somewhat analogous to strip mining, is the indiscriminate and complete shaving from the earth of all trees — regardless of size or age — often across hundreds of contiguous acres. Of clear-cutting, Senator Gale McGee, a leading antagonist of Forest Service policy, complains:
    "The Forest Service's management policies are wreaking havoc with the environment. Soil is eroding, reforestation is neglected, if not ignored, streams are silting, and clear-cutting remains a basic practice."
    N.Y. Times, Nov. 14, 1971, p. 60, col. 2. He adds: "In Wyoming . . . , the Forest Service is very much . . . nursemaid . . . to the lumber industry. . . ." Hearings on Management Practices on the Public Lands before the Subcommittee on Public Land of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, pt. 1, p. 7 (1971).
    Senator Jennings Randolph offers a similar criticism of the leveling by lumber companies of large portions of the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Id. at 9. See also 116 Cong.Rec. 36971 (reprinted speech of Sen. Jennings Randolph concerning Forest Service policy in Monongahela National Forest). To investigate similar controversy surrounding the Service's management of the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, Senator Lee Metcalf recently asked forestry professionals at the University of Montana to study local harvesting practices. The faculty group concluded that public dissatisfaction had arisen from the Forest Service's "overriding concern for sawtimber production" and its "insensitivity to the related forest uses and to the . . . public's interest in environmental values." S.Doc. No. 91-115, p. 14 (1970). See also Behan, Timber Mining: Accusation or Prospect?, American Forests, Nov.1971, p. 4 (additional comments of faculty participant); Reich, The Public and the Nation's Forests, 50 Calif.L.Rev. 381-400 (1962).
    Former Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel similarly faulted clear-cutting as excusable only as a money-saving harvesting practice for large lumber corporations. W. Hickel, Who Owns America? 130 (1971). See also Risser, The U.S. Forest Service: Smokey's Strip Miners, 3 The Washington Monthly, Dec.1971, p. 16. And at least one Forest Service study team shares some of these criticisms of clear-cutting. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Management in Wyoming 12 (1971). See also Public Land Law Review Comm'n, Report to the President and to the Congress 44 (1970); Chapman, Effects of Logging upon Fish Resources of the West Coast, 60 J. of Forestry 533 (1962).
    A third category of criticism results from the Service's huge backlog of delayed reforestation projects. It is true that Congress has underfunded replanting programs of the Service, but it is also true that the Service and lumber companies have regularly ensured that Congress fully funds budgets requested for the Forest Service's "timber sales and management." M. Frome, The Environment and Timber Resources, in What's Ahead for Our Public Lands? 23, 24 (H. Pyles ed.1970).
  8. Jump up  Permitting a court to appoint a representative of an inanimate object would not be significantly different from customary judicial appointments of guardians ad litem, executors, conservators, receivers, or counsel for indigents. The values that ride on decisions such as the present one are often not appreciated, even by the so-called experts. "A teaspoon of living earth contains 5 million bacteria, 20 million fungi, one million protozoa, and 200,000 algae. No living human can predict what vital miracles may be locked in this dab of life, this stupendous reservoir of genetic materials that have evolved continuously since the dawn of the earth. For example, molds have existed on earth for about 2 billion years. But only in this century did we unlock the secret of the penicillins, tetracyclines, and other antibiotics from the lowly molds, and thus fashion the most powerful and effective medicines ever discovered by man. Medical scientists still wince at the thought that we might have inadvertently wiped out the rhesus monkey, medically, the most important research animal on earth. And who knows what revelations might lie in the cells of the black-back gorilla nesting in his eyrie this moment in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda? And what might we have learned from the European lion, the first species formally noted (in 80 A. D.) as extinct by the Romans?" "When a species is gone, it is gone forever. Nature's genetic chain, billions of years in the making, is broken for all time." Conserve. — Water, Land and Life, Nov. 1971, p. 4. Aldo Leopold wrote in Round River 147 (1953):
    "In Germany, there is a mountain called the Spessart. Its south slope bears the most magnificent oaks in the world. American cabinetmakers, when they want the last word in quality, use Spessart oak. The north slope, which should be the better, bears an indifferent stand of Scotch pine. Why? Both slopes are part of the same state forest; both have been managed with equally scrupulous care for two centuries. Why the difference?" "Kick up the litter under the oaks and you will see that the leaves rot almost as fast as they fall. Under the pines, though, the needles pile up as a thick duff; decay is much slower. Why? Because, in the Middle Ages, the south slope was preserved as a deer forest by a hunting bishop; the north slope was pastured, plowed, and cut by settlers, just as we do with our woodlots in Wisconsin and Iowa today. Only after this period of abuse was the north slope replanted to pines. During this period of abuse, something happened to the microscopic flora and fauna of the soil. The number of species was greatly reduced, i.e., the digestive apparatus of the soil lost some of its parts. Two centuries of conservation have not sufficed to restore these losses. It required the modern microscope, and a century of research in soil science, to discover the existence of these 'small cogs and wheels' which determine harmony or disharmony between men and land in the Spessart."
  9. Jump up  Senator Cranston has introduced a bill to establish a 35,000-acre Pupfish National Monument to honor the pupfish which are one inch long and are useless to man. S. 2141, 92d Cong., 1st Sess. They are too small to eat, and unfit for a home aquarium. But as Michael Frome has said: "Still, I agree with Senator Cranston that saving the pupfish would symbolize our appreciation of diversity in God's tired old biosphere, the qualities which hold it together and the interaction of life forms. When fishermen rise up united to save the pupfish, they can save the world as well." Field & Stream, Dec. 1971, p. 74.

Air Date: Week of April 20, 2018

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

The 25 youth plaintiffs hail from 17 different cities in Colombia, including 4 from the Amazon. (Photo: Courtesy of Dejusticia)
Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that 25 young plaintiffs have a right to a safe and healthy environment in the years ahead. To that end the high court ordered the government to halt deforestation of the Colombian part of the Amazon, and granted the river and tropical forest the legal standing of a person, so ‘guardians’ can sue on its behalf for protection. Host Steve Curwood discussed the significance of this historic ruling with University of British Columbia law professor, David Boyd, author of the book “The Rights of Nature.”


CURWOOD: From PRI, and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In an historic case in Columbia, 25 young plaintiffs sued the government for their right to a safe environment and recently won protection for the Amazon at the Supreme Court. Lead plaintiff Valentina Rozo –
ROZO: I feel incredible. We are in total 25 of us. We are between the ages of 7 and 26 and we come from 17 different cities in Colombia. Four of them live in the Amazon and that's also great because, well they are the most directly affected. So it's important because we can show that we as young people, and especially for someone that is seven years old, he doesn't have to be a president or a minister to make a change and to be listened [to]. So, you don't have to have power to create something big.
CURWOOD: The case is part of a growing global movement where young people are challenging governments to combat climate change and protect future generations.
The Supreme Court granted the Colombian portion of the Amazon tropical forest the status of “personhood”, so the forest has rights under the law. Lawyer David Boyd joins us – he teaches at the University of British Columbia, and is author of The Rights of Nature. Welcome back to Living on Earth David!
BOYD: Well, it is absolutely delightful to be back with you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Talk to me about this ruling by the Colombian Supreme Court of Justice. What exactly does it say, and what does it entail, in brief?
BOYD: Well, this is an extraordinary ruling by Colombia's Supreme Court, in a case that was brought on behalf of twenty-five Colombian children, by a human rights organization called Dejusticia. And basically what these children argued in court is that their fundamental right to live in a healthy environment, one of the most sacred human rights that there is, is being violated by deforestation in the Colombian Amazon rainforest, which not only is impacting water in Colombia, but also has significant effects on climate change because deforestation releases carbon to the atmosphere and exacerbates the global climate crisis.
CURWOOD: So what does this tell us in terms of global trends, and what kind of legal precedent is this court setting?
BOYD: Well, this is actually part of a line of cases that dates back twenty-five years to an extraordinary case in the Philippines that was brought by a Filipino lawyer named Tony Oposa on behalf of his children and a group of other Filipino children, in which Tony Oposa argued that deforestation in the Philippines was violating those children's right to live in a healthy environment under the Filipino Constitution. And in 1993, the Supreme Court of the Philippines agreed with Tony Oposa that that was indeed the case, and that really is kind of the grandmother of all of these cases being brought today on behalf of children in countries all over the world. So this Colombian case is the latest, but it's also the first in the world where a court has really tackled this issue of deforestation, and made the connection between deforestation and climate change.

Valentina Rozo is a researcher with Dejusticia and one of the plaintiffs in the case. (Photo: Courtesy of Dejusticia)
CURWOOD: Now, what's the main argument of these young plaintiffs?
BOYD: The main argument is really quite simple - it's that they have rights under the Colombian Constitution - the right to life and the right to a healthy environment, and the impacts of deforestation are clearly, scientifically proven to be adversely affecting those rights.
CURWOOD: David, now what about this aspect of the decision that grants nature personhood. The court is saying, not only should you protect these trees, but in fact, these trees have the right to exist.
BOYD: Yeah, well, this is another fascinating part of the court's decision. The court really goes into great detail talking about how it's absolutely vital for the government not only to stop deforestation, but for society more broadly to re-evaluate and reorient our relationship with the natural world. For too long we've seen nature as merely a basket of commodities or natural resources for human beings’ use and exploitation. And what the court says is nature is actually a community to which we belong and not a commodity for us to exploit. And, in recognizing that the Amazon rainforest has the legal rights of a person, what that does is that shifts our relationship with nature in a profound way and says, we have really sacred legal obligations to protect and restore the Amazon rainforest, and those responsibilities fall upon the shoulders of the President of Colombia, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the people of Colombia.
CURWOOD: Under the law in America, corporations are treated as persons in the court system. What's the effect on these natural systems of giving them personhood?
BOYD: Well, the effect on natural systems is that - two things. One is that they have rights that are recognized in our legal system, so their situation has been transformed from objects to subjects, and as subjects they have rights that can be enforced in the legal system. So we've seen, for example, in Ecuador, a case in which the constitutional rights of a river led a court to order the government to carry out an ecological restoration project on the Vilcabamba River. In the context of the Amazon, the fact that the Amazon is now designated as a legal person means that it has legally enforceable rights, and if the government fails to develop an action plan for deforestation -- to achieve zero deforestation – then, lawyers on behalf of children or the Amazon itself can go back to court in Colombia and enforce those legal rights. So it really is quite a game changer from a legal perspective.

In Colombia, the Amazon rainforest can now enjoy rights of personhood under the law as a result of a Colombian Supreme Court ruling. (Photo: Neil Palmer/ CIAT, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0) 
CURWOOD: Of course, going way back it's always been Mother Nature.
BOYD: Yeah, I mean. And the science of this is really remarkable. I mean, we are literally -- we share DNA with every other form of life on the planet -- from bacteria, to old growth forests, to elephants. We all are related. We all emerged from the primordial soup billions of years ago. We've of course evolved in different ways, but we are, scientifically speaking, part of the family of life on this planet. And for far too long we’ve behaved quite selfishly and really, recognizing the rights of nature is just a way of returning to a perspective that says this is our family and we're going to treat our family with respect.
CURWOOD: Now, why is this ruling so important at this moment?
BOYD: Well, this legal ruling really brings together two fascinating global trends. One is that we're seeing a real upsweep in children filing lawsuits, in lawyers representing children in court. So we've seen -- I mentioned a case in the Philippines, but there have been cases in the Ukraine, in Uganda, in Norway. There's a case pending in Portugal. There's the Juliana vs. the United States case, which is proceeding through the American courts.

David Boyd is an environmental lawyer and professor at the University of British Columbia. His latest book is The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution That Could Save the World. (Photo: Courtesy of David Boyd)
So that's one avenue -- or one trend -- that's really increasing globally. And the other trend that it's linked to is the recognition that nature has rights. And so when you put together these two different avenues of progress, recognition of the rights of nature and recognition that children have a right to live in a healthy climate, what you have is a really explosive mix of transformative potential. So these two different global trends, in tandem, have the potential to really transform our world in a positive way from an ecological perspective.
CURWOOD: So, the High Court in Colombia has said that nature has rights, particularly the Amazon and its trees. What did it order the government to do as a result of this ruling?
BOYD: Well, it ordered the President, the Minister of Environment, and the Minister of Agriculture to sit down and hammer out an action plan within a period of four months that will result in zero deforestation by 2020. So, in other words, the Supreme Court of Colombia has put the government of Colombia on a very tight leash. That's the first part of their court order. The second part of the court order is even broader and requires the government to work with indigenous peoples, local communities, and scientists to come up with what the court calls “an intergenerational pact for the future life of the Amazon”. So, this is a really broad and sweeping plan that will be intended to protect this majestic ecosystem for all time. And the other really fascinating part of the court's judgment is that they gave the government 48 hours to get started. So, there's no room for delay here. The court has really remarkably expressed the urgency of its order by saying you've got to hit the road, Jack, and get going on this within the next two days.
CURWOOD: David Boyd is a professor of law policy and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Thank you so much for taking the time with us today!
BOYD: Well, thanks for having me on Steve. It's a real pleasure.


Colombia's top court orders government to protect Amazon forest in landmark case
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia’s highest court has told the government it must take urgent action to protect its Amazon rainforest and stem rising deforestation, in what campaigners said was an historic moment that should help conserve forests and counter climate change.

In their ruling on Thursday, the judges said that Colombia - which is home to a swathe of rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England combined - saw deforestation rates in its Amazon region increase by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016.

“It is clear, despite numerous international commitments, regulations ... that the Colombian state has not efficiently addressed the problem of deforestation in the Amazon,” the supreme court said.

The ruling comes after a group of 25 young plaintiffs, ranging in age from seven to 26, filed a lawsuit against the government in January demanding it protect their right to a healthy environment.

The plaintiffs had said the government’s failure to stop the destruction of the Amazon jeopardized their futures and violated their constitutional rights to a healthy environment, life, food and water.

Bogota-based rights group Dejusticia, which supported the plaintiffs’ case, said the verdict meant it was the first time a lawsuit of this kind had been ruled upon favorably in Latin America.

“The Supreme Court’s decision marks an historical precedent in terms of climate change litigation,” said Camila Bustos, one of the plaintiffs and a researcher at Dejusticia.

In its ruling, the court recognized Colombia’s Amazon as an “entity subject of rights”, which means that the rainforest has been granted the same legal rights as a human being.

“The ruling states the importance of protecting the rights of future generations, and even declares the Amazon a subject of rights,” Bustos told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The court ordered the government - both at the local and national level - along with the environment and agriculture ministries and environmental authorities to come up with action plans within four months to combat deforestation in the Amazon.

The Amazon’s destruction leads to “imminent and serious” damage to children and adults for both present and future generations, the judges said.

The ruling stated that forests were being felled to make way for more grazing and agricultural land, as well as coca crops - the raw ingredient for cocaine - illegal mining and logging.

Deforestation is a key source of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, which damages ecosystems and water sources and leads to land degradation, the court said.

“Without a healthy environment, subjects of law and living beings in general will not be able to survive, let alone safeguard those rights for our children or for future generations,” the ruling said.

The lawsuit follows a surge in litigation around the world demanding action or claiming damages over the impact of climate change - from rising sea levels to pollution.

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit
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