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Human rights defenders

“Children are agents of change”

13 July 2023

Francisco Vera wearing a green hoodie with the “Guardians for Life” logo on it.  © Vincent Tremeau

Having snowy mountains with actual snow, rivers with water, forests with trees may seem self-evident, but to Francisco Vera, a young Colombian human rights defender and environmentalist, it isn’t any longer. The climate crisis is changing the world and putting life itself at risk, he said.

At nine years old, Francisco realised he needed to defend the environment, after the shock of watching the devastating fires that ravaged the Amazon in 2019. He was also inspired by other young climate activists, such as Greta Thunberg.

"I can also transform my territory and that's how I founded Guardianes por la Vida" (Guardians for Life),” Francisco, now 13, said. 

The organization that started with six children in 2019, now has hundreds of members who defend the environment in Colombia and thousands of followers on social media. Its goal is to influence public policies to reduce pollution and mitigate the effects of climate change. In short, the group advocates for the human right to a healthy environment to become a reality.

Advocacy work as a child is not easy, but Francisco said age is no barrier to fight for the environment.

"It doesn't matter if we are children or not, really. We can all be part of the change,” he said. “Adults already have experience, so what we propose is to use that experience and take advantage of our energy, our desire, our enthusiasm to continue building a society as children, as teenagers, as young people".

"I think the first step is to recognize ourselves as political actors, that we are citizens, that we have a voice, a voice that must be included," Francisco continued. An intergenerational dialogue is needed that recognizes children as full subjects of rights, particularly in relation to the current climate crisis, he said.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is very relevant, because it is simply the basis for human development and the development of the quality of life and of our societies.

Francisco Vera, environmentalist and human rights defender, Colombia

As part of his continued advocacy work, Francisco recently visited Geneva, where he met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. There he presented Türk with the Joint Declaration of Eco-Esperanza, a manifesto in defense of a healthy environment drafted with fellow Guardians for Life members and signed by more than 3,000 children.

Francisco Vera meets with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk in Geneva.  @ Pierre Albouy

Francisco Vera meets with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk in Geneva. @ Pierre Albouy

There is still a long way to go in the fight for a healthy environment, but Francisco said there has been progress and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been a big part of this.

Francisco says that on Mother Earth Day this year, with the support of UN Human Rights in Colombia, he and hundreds of children planted 750 trees to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration and demand the right to a healthy environment.

"The United Nations has done a great job in ensuring peace, equality, access to education, a healthy environment, and I think that this is something that should be recognized," he said.

Still time for childhood

While Francisco’s human rights work takes up much of his time, he said he still makes time to enjoy his hobbies in his free time. He enjoys playing football, meeting up with his friends, going to the cinema. He also confessed a love of playing pranks – especially prank phone calls.

"I participate in the reading club at the library where I live. I enjoy swimming a lot, I can swim for hours. I like to read and watch a lot of content about history and geography. Learning is something cool for me".

Francisco said everyone can defend their rights, and children, in particular, need to be aware of the impact they can have on the world.

“We must see children as victims of this conflict, but also agents of change,” he said.

“The world has no borders, neither does the climate and neither do our actions,” Francisco said. “Let’s take action and be part of the change. The fight is long, but we also have to persevere. “