- The Escazú Agreement is an unprecedented regional treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean that provides access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making, and measures to protect environmental activists.
- The treaty’s ratification by 11 countries is the final step for the agreement to enter into force, the end of an eight-year process that has been marked throughout by the deep involvement of civil society groups.
- Experts say the success of the treaty will depend on the political will of the signatory countries, and on the continued efforts of civil society actors to hold those governments accountable.
- The agreement still faces heavy opposition within many countries in the region, from groups who claim that it will compromise state sovereignty, threaten business interests, and open up internal affairs to international interference.
Bogotá — As the world became fixated on the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the situation for environmental defenders across the globe has only become more precarious. In 2019, 212 environmental activists were murdered worldwide, and the pandemic has only made Indigenous communities more vulnerable and provided a front for governments to pass anti-environment legislation.
But an unprecedented and innovative legal mechanism is making its way through Latin America in an effort to protect social leaders in the world’s deadliest region for environmental activists.
The Escazú Agreement, approved in March 2018 after a six-year negotiation under the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, guarantees access to environmental information, ensures public participation in the approval process for environmental projects, and requires states to take measures to protect environmental and human rights defenders.
The treaty, signed by 24 out of 33 countries in the region, needed 11 ratifications to enter into full force. With Mexico’s ratification on Nov. 5, countries can now enter the implementation phase. The agreement is the first of its kind in Latin America, and stands out both for the content of the treaty and the deep involvement of civil society groups through every phase of the process.
“It is an unprecedented, innovative agreement at the regional level — a binding agreement which includes these types of issues,” said Graciela Martinez, Amnesty International’s campaigner for human rights defenders in the Americas. “Specifically that it includes the issue of the protection of human rights defenders in a region where it is so relevant.”
Experts say the agreement has the potential to reduce conflicts that lead to the murders of so many activists in the region. By giving environmental defenders legitimacy, they say it should be able to play an important role in ending the region’s environmental conflicts. Marcos Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, said this type of recognition is crucial in a region where social leaders are targeted with impunity.
“The Escazú agreement offers hope for environmental defenders that are so often targeted because of their activism in defense of the right to a healthy environment,” Orellana said. “They are often stigmatized as anti-development, as against the public interest, and the Escazú agreement reverses that by appreciating and recognizing their valuable and important work for sustainable development and defense of human rights.”
Laura Santacoloma, an environmental justice researcher at the Colombian human rights nonprofit Dejusticia, said the access to information that the agreement allows for is a crucial aspect of creating an informed citizenry that can organize, make decisions, and elect representatives who reflect their interests and ultimately restructure their governments’ political and legal systems to address issues like climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity.
“That is where they form a critical mass and citizen power that allows for modifying the structures that today maintain and perpetuate these practices that must be overcome to achieve real sustainable development,” Santacoloma said.
While the ratification of the agreement represents an important tool for environmental and human rights defenders to hold governments accountable, those familiar with the treaty say that like many international agreements, its success depends on the political will of the countries that are party to it.
Aida Gamboa, coordinator of the Amazon program for the Peruvian nonprofit Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR), which was involved in the Escazú negotiations since 2015, said the treaty gives leeway to states to determine which public entities will implement its provisions. Its success, she says, will depend on how much the government includes youth, Indigenous and civil society groups in these decisions, and on efforts to educate the public of their rights under the agreement.
“The task will be not only on the part of the government but also on civil society sectors to be vigilant, as well as the citizens to demand better rights, better guarantees as well as whatever financing is needed for the implementation of the agreement,” Gamboa said, adding that private sector participation is also crucial to ensure that the agreement does not remain “on paper as one more treaty.”
But in countries like Peru, Guatemala, Brazil and Colombia — the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders — governments have failed to ratify the treaty, citing concerns over sovereignty, legal uncertainty, and business interests.
Meanwhile, countries like Chile, El Salvador and Honduras, which faces the highest per capita number of murders of environmental defenders, have refused to even sign it.
While Chile led the Escazú negotiations under the left-wing Michelle Bachelet government, the current conservative administration of President Sebastián Piñera has refused to sign it. In Peru, another country that led negotiations, the progress of the agreement has been stalled by the ongoing political crisis.
In Colombia, massive protests against President Iván Duque prompted the conservative leader to sign the agreement in December 2019, becoming the last country to join Escazú. But both houses of Congress must now approve it, before it then faces a Constitutional Court review, a process that has been delayed by the pandemic.
In Colombia and across Latin America, the agreement has also faced backlash and criticism from labor unions and other groups, who say it will infringe on state sovereignty and limit economic development.
In October, Colombian Senator María Fernanda Cabal of the conservative Democratic Center party posted a video to social media titled “No to Escazú.” In it, she says Colombia already has sufficient environmental protection measures in its existing laws, and that the agreement “is part of the environmental propaganda that what it wants is to submit all the development of our country to the decision of third parties,” like NGOS and multinational corporations that operate under a “facade of human rights and the environment.”
But Mary Lawlor, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, has refuted these claims.
“The agreement isn’t against development, it’s for sustainable community-led development that respects human rights, including the right to a healthy environment,” she said, adding that “it in no way undermines the sovereignty of nations in Latin America, it rather strengthens the protection of the rights of the people themselves.”
Santacoloma also refuted the claims that the agreement would open the door for international organizations to interfere in countries’ internal affairs.
“The agreement clearly establishes the responsibilities at the head of local organizations. There is no interference,” she said. “Furthermore, the agreement makes it very clear that each state, according to its legal system, would regulate what was within the agreement.”
Orellana said that while the agreement holds potential for much-needed change, many groups with a vested interest in the status quo are suspicious of more participative decision-making processes. For this reason, he said, they are engaging in “misinformation campaigns that obfuscate public debate” with “factually wrong” assertions to deliberately derail the ratification process.
“There are groups that see in that participatory process of sustainable development a challenge to the way that decisions have been taken in the past,” Orellana said. “So those groups would rather keep an order that is premised on vertical expressions of authority.”
The agreement won’t formally take effect until 90 days after Mexico and Argentina formally deposit their ratifications to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). It is unclear when that will happen. When it does, said Amnesty’s Martinez, the very same civil society groups that pushed for the creation, signing and ratification of the agreement will be crucial in holding their governments to account.
“Civil society has played a fundamental role. Both activists and environmental organizations have been key throughout the process,” she said. “And I think that point is very important to break the limitations that the implementation of the agreement may have.”
Banner image: Blue Anole from Colombia. Photo by Thomas Marent.
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