“We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own …This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life”
— Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize 2004
While both the climate and biodiversity crises consistently illustrate how people, ecosystems and other living-beings around the world are inter-connected, I find that COVID-19 has made this link even more obvious. Degradation of the health of our planet is one of the root causes of zoonotic diseases (diseases originating from pathogens that transfer from animals to humans) such as COVID-19. These kinds of diseases affect as many as a billion people globally each year, and cause millions of deaths. Only solidarity based on human rights and an understanding of our interconnectedness with nature will enable us to address these unprecedented and interlinked challenges and to become more resilient. It’s clear to me that children and youth have a transformative role to play – not only as the future generation that will inherit an Earth in crisis, but also as today’s agents of change that can help to build the future we want. In particular, they bring their creativity to re-imagine ways to restore and sustain healthy ecosystems and biodiversity – an essential element of the right to a healthy environment for all.
“It’s clear to me that children and youth have a transformative role to play – not only as the future generation that will inherit an Earth in crisis, but also as today’s agents of change that can help to build the future we want.”
As adults, we often consider constraints, such as the time, budget and risks associated with an initiative. While these constraints may be real, this approach can stifle ideas, creativity and innovation. By contrast, young people help us to see untapped possibilities, free of these limits. A child-friendly city initiative in Boulder, Colorado, US, found that one of the benefits of including children in city planning was their emphasis on direct contact with nature, leading to designs for communities and common spaces that incorporate water, fruit trees, flowers and animals. By listening to the children’s proposals, all in the city have benefited, particularly those facing heightened challenges, such as mental health issues, or poverty.
Exposure to biodiversity, from bird or frog sounds to wildflower smells, can lead to mental restoration, calm and creativity. Neuroscience research shows that natural-enriched environments that prompt movement and engagement help keep our brains healthy, and make us happier. Children often remind me of this. In the context of COVID-19 restrictions and social-distancing measures, my daughters have found new playmates in nature such as a hermit crab under a rock, and the climbing branches of Spring-blooming trees.
“…young people help us to see untapped possibilities…”
The science backs up what indigenous peoples around the world have always known. Two decades ago, in the cloud forest of Southern Mexico, a bio-cultural rich area, I met indigenous children living in their ancestral land who showed me the well-being they derived from their close relationship with nature. They joyfully bathed in beautiful waterfalls with many tones of blue, surrounded by diverse trees and singing birds. In contrast, I met children living in a nearby community who had been displaced by horrific violence, and others severely affected by a lack of access to clean water and suffering from preventable diseases such as diarrhea.
From violent conflict to climate-related migration, children displaced from their lands lose vital connections with territories of life, interfering with their enjoyment of healthy ecosystems and biodiversity, and therefore their right to a healthy environment.
It is seventy two years since world governments adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, setting out the fundamental rights of all peoples of all nations, demonstrating that – following two world wars – countries can come together after tragic experiences to recognise the inherent dignity of all human beings.
Today, human rights are increasingly threatened by the biodiversity, climate and COVID-19 crises. UN Special Rapporteurs view COVID-19 as a serious international challenge but also a “wake-up call for the revitalization of universal human rights principles”. Jamison Ervin from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) highlights the importance of preventive action and considering tipping points to address both the nature crises and COVID-19, “Early actions have exponential benefits, late actions are exponentially more difficult, and actions beyond the point of no return may have little or no benefit at all”. This means that actions by the current generation may have exponential benefits for future generations, while the cost of inaction may be catastrophic not only for the current generation but also for future generations and other living beings.
In 2020, the UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a Global Call for Action on Human Rights. Under the ‘rights of future generations’ theme, it calls for universal recognition of ‘the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment,’ and for increasing the focus on protecting the rights and supporting the work of environmental human rights defenders. Many children are courageously undertaking the role of environmental human rights defenders today, particularly in the Global South.
In multilateral environmental fora, young people are raising their voice, highlighting that no-one is too young to make a difference. An example is Joanna Sustento who is a youth blogger from the city of Tacloban, Philippines, who survived the typhoon Haiyan in 2013 but lost almost her entire family. During the global climate talks in 2018, she highlighted that “we all have the potential to contribute to the change we want to see”. Children and youth are also active in the international Convention on Biological Diversity negotiations, notably through the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN), an interconnected and interdisciplinary network of young people from every region of the world, who share the common goal of preventing and halting the loss of biodiversity.
Another network for healthy ecosystems is the Young Environmental Journalists initiative, a group of young professionals and students from around the world that have joined forces with the UNDP and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency to raise awareness about the environmental and human rights nexus in the mining sector.
Children and youth have also triggered landmark and innovative healthy ecosystem cases at the national level that are rooted in their local and national realities and that make use of international biodiversity related instruments and research. Because many of these cases have been framed as climate cases, they have passed largely under the radar of the ‘community’ working on biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. For example, the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia ruled in favour of 25 kids and youth plaintiffs who argued that deforestation in the Amazon, the increase of the average temperature in the country and associated impacts, including in the water cycle and capacities of the soil to absorb water, threatened their Constitutional right to a healthy environment, life, health, food, and water. The principle of solidarity was interpreted by the Colombian High Court as “the duty and co-responsibility of the Colombian State to stop the causes of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the abrupt deforestation of the Amazon, the imperative of adopting immediate mitigation measures, and protecting the right to environmental well-being, both of the petitioners and of other people who inhabit and share the Amazonian territory, not only the national territory, but also abroad, along with all the inhabitants of the globe, including ecosystems and living beings”. Jurisprudence in Colombia also includes elaborating the content of biocultural rights and its connection to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Considering these and many other examples, I believe that children are not only a vulnerable group but also courageous agents of change: environmental human rights defenders that are increasingly using the law at local, national and global levels to support human rights and nature based solutions.
“I believe that children are not only a vulnerable group but also courageous agents of change: environmental human rights defenders…”
Claudia Ituarte-Lima is an international public lawyer and scholar with two decades of experience on human rights and environmental law (in particular biodiversity and climate change). She is Visiting Research Associate at University of British Columbia and Senior Researcher at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.