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Two dozen Latin American countries sign agreement to protect environmental defenders

The countries that approved the Agreement of Principle 10 must now ratify the treaty in their respective nations. Photo: DAR.

The countries that approved the Agreement of Principle 10 must now ratify the treaty in their respective nations. Photo: DAR.

  • The Principle 10 treaty deals mainly with the defense of environmentalists, promoting transparency in public access to environmental information, and shoring up environmental democracy and justice.
  • The principles were approved on March 4 in the so-called Escazú Agreement in Costa Rica, by 24 countries from around Latin America and the Caribbean. It must now be ratified by the member countries.
  • Environmental activists have hailed it as a massive step forward in the protection of environmental defenders, in a region where such advocates face the greatest threats to their lives.

A photograph of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran national who was murdered two years ago for fighting against a controversial hydroelectric project, stood out at the negotiating table in Escazú, Costa Rica. And it was there where a regional agreement on access to information, public participation and access to environmental justice, known as Principle 10, was approved.

The presence of Cáceres’s image was a poignant reminder of a key aspect of this international treaty: special measures that governments should take to protect environmental defenders. Regionally, Latin America saw the most environmentalists killed anywhere in the world in 2017, according to Global Witness.

The so-called Principle 10 brought together 24 representatives from Latin American and Caribbean countries in Costa Rica. Photo: DAR

The Escazú Agreement (formally called the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean) was approved on March 4. A total of 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed on, and it remains open for others to join.

The commitments related to the protection of environmental defenders are set forth in Article 9 of the Escazú Agreement. The article, titled “Human Rights Defenders on Environmental Issues,” specifies that each country “guarantee a safe and propitious environment in which individuals, groups and organizations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters can act without threats, restrictions and insecurity.”

It also indicates that adequate and effective measures will be taken to recognize, protect and promote all the rights of human rights defenders in environmental matters. It commits to appropriate, effective and timely measures to prevent, investigate and punish attacks, threats or intimidation.

A long road

“This is a historic moment for Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Carole Excell, director of the Office of Environmental Democracy at the World Resources Institute (WRI). “The countries of the region have the opportunity to approve a legally binding environmental rights agreement that will not only help prevent and punish attacks against environmental defenders, but will also make it easier for millions of people to access environmental information and participate in the making decisions that affect their lives.”

The process to reach the agreement began six years ago, Excell told Mongabay in an interview.

“We have reached the end of an important negotiation because this treaty is the first time developing countries [have signed an] agreement that deals specifically with environmental rights, citizen participation and the right to justice,” she added.

Andrea Sanhueza Echeverría, a representative of the public for Principle 10, said she believed the agreement would have real impact. Representatives of governments and civil society participate in the negotiations, the latter being called representatives of the public.

“This agreement will change the rules of the game on how decisions are made in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Sanhueza said. “Once the [public] comes into force, it can be part of the decisions on projects and policies that will affect them.”

Representatives of governments and civil society met to negotiate an agreement for environmental democracy. Photo: DAR

Sanhueza said it was a binding agreement that governments must comply with legally once signed and ratified in each of their countries.

“The region had already made considerable progress in terms of access to public information, but in terms of citizen participation, our countries still have very poor mechanisms,” she said.

She also noted that the groundwork for the agreement began in 2012, when 10 countries committed to the process of environmental democracy. The negotiations that culminated in the new agreement began in 2016.

As it stands, the agreement to protect environmental defenders is historic. “It will be the first international treaty in the world that recognizes the situation these people are living and offers guarantees for their better protection,” Sanhueza said.

The negotiations of Principle 10 began in 2016 and culminated on March 4, 2018. Photo: Natalia Gómez.

Nations commit

For the treaty to enter into force, 11 of the 24 governments of the nations that approved the agreement must ratify it in their respective countries. The committed countries are expected to sign it by September 2020. In some countries, including Costa Rica, Chile and Colombia, which are scheduled to hold elections this year, ratification of the agreement will depend on the new government that comes into power.

Danielle Andrade, a lawyer from Jamaica with who represents clients in domestic civil society cases, said she was optimistic about the agreement’s impact in her country. “This treaty will be able to strengthen its laws, especially those that allow the public to participate in the decisions that affect the environment,” Andrade said.

Patricia Gualinga, Kichwa Sarayaku leader from Ecuador, threatened for denouncing the violation of the rights of the Amazonian peoples. Photo: Courtesy Patricia Gualinga.

A spokesperson for the Peruvian Ministry of Environment told Mongabay that throughout the negotiation process, Peru favored a legally binding agreement. The agreement still has to be presented to Peru’s congress for ratification.

Peru also joined Costa Rica and Paraguay in supporting the proposal to recognize the term “human rights defenders in environmental matters.”

Peru’s approval of the Escazú Agreement comes shortly after it signed off on its National Human Rights Plan 2017-2021, on Jan. 31. The latter includes the design and execution of policies in favor of special protection groups, such as human rights defenders. Peru says it is committed to generating a registry of risk situations for human rights defenders and implementing a mechanism for their protection.

The Deputy Minister of Strategic Development of Natural Resources of Peru, Fernando León Morales, participated in the negotiations in Costa Rica. Photo: DAR.

Isabel Calle, director of the Environmental Policy and Governance Program of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law, describes the Escazú Agreement as an international instrument that regulates standards for access to information and environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Discrepancies in treaty approval

Natalia Gómez, from the Colombian NGO Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad and a participant at the negotiations, said her country had “been regressive” in the negotiations, even though it signed the base document in 2013.

Gómez, who is an expert on environmental democracy, said Colombia backed down on two issues during the talks in Costa Rica. One dealt with a monitoring committee that proposed that any citizen could monitor and communicate to this committee in compliance with the treaty in their country. Colombia requested that that article be deleted.

“Mexico also adopted this position, but after negotiations a consensus was reached, but the paragraph that you can receive communications about compliance with the agreement was excluded,” Gómez said.

Guadalupe Campanur, from the indigenous community of Cherán, in Mexico, was murdered on January 17, 2018. Source: Facebook.

Another issue flagged by the Colombian government was related to the request to include an article that allows governments to have so-called “reservations.” This allows each government the possibility to sign the agreement but choose which articles of the treaty it accepts and which to not adopt. Thus, each country can pick and choose how the agreement is applied in its jurisdiction, Gómez said.

Colombia and Mexico are among the countries with the highest number of murders and threats to environmentalists, according to a 2017 Global Witness report. So the bid to allow countries not to ratify some articles worried the other governments and environmentalists at the negotiations.

In the end, the push to include such an article faltered, and the Escazú Agreement was approved excluding any reservations.

“Colombia has regressed on these issues because, although our constitution has many mechanisms for citizen participation in environmental matters, it is currently going through a crisis as more and more communities carry out prior consultation processes for mining in their territory,” Gómez said. “I think the government is worried about this situation.”

Although she questioned whether everything that civil society participants had hoped for was achieved, Gómez said she considered the Escazú Agreement was a hopeful advance.

The countries that approved the Agreement of Principle 10 must now ratify the treaty in their respective nations. Photo: DAR.

Included among the specific actions for governments to take are the recognition of environmentalists’ work, the non-criminalization of their actions, and the guarantee of access to information. In many cases, socio-environmental conflicts are caused by a lack of information on the projects within a community.

Vanessa Cueto, coordinator for governance and environmental management at the Peruvian NGO Law, Environment and Natural Resources, said the clause referring to environmental defenders was not considered at the beginning of the negotiations and it was civil society that encouraged its adoption. Cueto said transparency in information was often not taken into account, despite the fact that timely access is important to help prevent rights violations.

“It is a subject that is violated every day, not only in the prior consultation processes, but in the environmental impact study processes for megaprojects,” she said. “It is important that local populations have timely information from the promulgation of the investment project and we hope that one of the effects is the reduction of environmental conflicts.”

Now it is up to the governments to ratify the agreement so that the document signed in Costa Rica is translated into concrete actions in the defense of environmental rights.

Banner image: The countries that approved the Agreement of Principle 10 must now ratify the treaty in their respective nations. Photo: DAR.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on March 8, 2018.

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