University of Reading: Landmark Legal Case Provides Hope For Indigenous People Around The World Displaced By Climate Change

A lawsuit brought forward by an indigenous group in Colombia could provide an important precedent in bringing a climate justice case against a national government.

In what is believed to be the first Global South case of its kind, the Raizal people from the island of Providencia are suing their national government for not carrying out emergency work to make their indigenous home habitable after being hit by the category 5 hurricane Iota in November 2020.

The case argues that climate change has had a significant role in the Raizal people being forced to leave their ancestral home, and that the Colombian government has failed to recognise their rights.

Following the destruction caused by the hurricane, the Colombian government declared a national emergency and promised reconstruction works. However, more than 10 months after the hurricane, the Government has still not made good on its promise, leaving displaced families unable to return home to the island long after reconstruction should have finished.

The Raizal people’s case was initially dismissed twice by the Colombian courts, but has now been selected by the country’s Constitutional Court after support from a group of legal groups including the University of Reading Centre for Climate and Justice.

Juliana Velez-Echeverri, a PhD researcher at the University of Reading’s Centre for Climate and Justice has been part of a team of experts advising the Raizal people on their case.

Velez-Echeverri said: “Climate change litigation has traditionally been dominated by court action in countries from the Global North, so this case is the first of its kind to see a lawsuit being heard in courts in the Global South involving climate adaptation and displacement. It highlights a debate scarcely addressed through legal avenues about how disasters such as Hurricane Iota which are more prevalent and more damaging due to climate change are threatening rights to housing, ancestral land and cultural identity.

“If this case is successful and the Colombian Constitutional Court recognises the legal category of climate displacement, it will give further weight to climate justice movements to make similar requests in their own countries, or even in international bodies. It could also help to further support a human rights approach to the issue of climate change related displacement in international and national agendas.”

Professor Chris Hilson, Director of the University of Reading Centre for Climate and Justice said:

“This is a very important constitutional case in Colombia and for the wider world watching to see as legal precedents begin to be set for tackling the human impacts of climate change. The Colombian legal system has so far not approached climate change impacts from a human rights perspective, and as the sharp end of the present emergency announced by the Colombian government continues, little progress has been made on the island’s reconstruction, amid the threat of further potential hurricanes.”

“As the climate crisis worsens, events like Hurricane Iota and storms caused by La Niña phenomenon tend to become more frequent and intense. This situation puts at risk, not just the ancestral people of the archipelagos, but also communities on the Colombian mainland.”

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