Last month saw a very important environmental success in Colombia, when the country’s constitutional court ruled against a legal loophole allowing mining and oil and gas exploitation in fragile, high altitude “paramo” ecosystems. But Colombia is far from our Flyway and we don’t have paramo ecosystems (although high-altitude wetlands may be locally important), so why is this case relevant to EAAFP. Well, it turns out that there are many parallels. Constitutional documents often promise citizens the right to a clean environment. But what does that mean exactly? What struck me in reading about this case is the similarity to cases of reclamation of tidal flats, where directives against further reclamation also do not include “existing” projects. Or, because of limits on the size of reclamation projects, these are broken down into smaller “permissible” initiatives. The Colombia case highlighted three strong underlying reasons to uphold the state’s obligation to protect areas of ecological importance: lack of protection, valuable ecosystem service provision and vulnerability – all features that apply to coastal and freshwater wetlands important to migratory waterbirds. A brief also noted that this loophole contradicted obligations under international environmental conventions, such as CBD and Ramsar. While this decision may promote debate about what constitute paramos and what and where are the limits to the extent of this particular ecosystem, for wetlands, and particularly intertidal areas, the definition and limits are much clearer.
The strong message that Colombia’s constitutional court has sent to the government and the people that economic development cannot ride roughshod over the environment and the right of citizens to be able to enjoy and benefit from that environment is laudable and should give pause to those considering the balance of economic development and environmental protection in our Flyway. After all, what price the right to be able to witness and enjoy the spectacular journeys that our migratory waterbirds make each year?