Escazú Agreement set to bring environmental justice down to earth

By  |  15 / April / 2021

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The Escazú Agreement enters into force on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, four years after its adoption, kicking off a new phase of  regional grassroots campaigns. The challenge: to obtain government protection for land defenders and environmental activists in Latin America. This could be the toughest and most crucial phase yet.

The Escazú Agreement is the first treaty in the world to contain specific provisions on human rights defenders in environmental matters.

Civil society organizations and scientists took part in the U.N. negotiations that achieved government adoption of the agreement in Escazú, Costa Rica on March 4, 2018. Its formal name describes it precisely as the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Justice for Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It obliges member states to prevent and investigate attacks against those who protect and defend environmental rights. Parties to its terms must provide reparations to victims of violence resulting from their peaceful resistance to unscrupulous development schemes.

Human rights and natural resource conservation defenders throughout the 33-nation region had a strong hand in gathering enough congressional support for ratification. As a result, Mexico and Argentina officially filed their support documentation in January.

With these most recent of 12 national ratifications, the treaty claims one more adherent country than required to move into the implementation stage.

When celebrating the milestone this month, supporters nonetheless confront the daunting tasks of garnering ratification in remaining countries and procuring national enforcement. As signatories hopefully have realized, this environmental justice effort cannot succeed soon enough.

It’s no secret that more than two-thirds of the 212 environmental defenders killed in Global Witness’ most recent annual survey were from Latin America and the Caribbean. The report, “Defending the Future,” leaves little room for doubt that the region is the most dangerous on the planet for champions of conservation and human rights.

To make matters worse, these particular defenders are the keepers of a rich biodiversity trove, dwelling alongside an estimated 60 percent of the world’s terrestrial life. They are at the forefront of populations first forced to face climate disaster, as well as the exploitation of industry, service sectors, financial institutions, and agribusiness.

Fulfillment of the Escazú Agreement is imperative because “growth cannot take place at the expense of the environment and the environment cannot be managed if our economies and peoples are ignored,” says Alicia Barcena, secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.N. agency administering it.

With murders, intimidation, and attacks becoming a steadier diet for environmental activists and indigenous frontliners the world over, the U.N. expert community has developed a shorthand name for people in the crossfire. “EHRDs”, or environmental human rights defenders, suffer crimes that in many cases are not thoroughly investigated or brought to justice.

Classic is the case of Honduran indigenous Lenca land rights leader Berta Cáceres. Her death preceded the Escazú Agreement by two years. Although seven men were convicted of the crime, the masterminds have not been brought to justice for Berta’s murder, which aimed at quelling her and her organization’s peaceful struggle against the Agua Zarca Dam project in Río Blanco.

As recently as March this year, longtime Lenca land defender Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante died in a blaze of gunfire during an incident that Santa Barbara Environmental Movement leadership in the United States labelled a political assassination. He led a local group called “Communities United,” in opposition to El Tornillito hydroelectric dam on the Rio Ulúa.

His apparent murder added insult to the injury of Honduras’ reputation. With 20 killings of EHRDs in 2020, Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for them, according to Global Witness. This one small Central American country accounts for at least 120 of the environmental defenders killed between 2010 and 2017, it notes.

Next worst on the list are Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Of them, only Mexico has ratified the treaty. Also ratifying it have been Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Uruguay.

In addition to requiring legal system safeguards for EHRDs, the agreement constitutes a binding sunshine law, bringing to fruition the efforts of grassroots organizers throughout the hemisphere. It mandates each member state to “ensure the public’s right of access to environmental information in its possession, control, or custody in accordance with the principle of maximum disclosure.”

It binds parties to “take the necessary measures … to promote access to environmental information in the possession of private entities, in particular information on their operations and the possible risks and effects on human health and the environment.”

It includes specific steps for guaranteeing “mechanisms for the participation of the public in decision-making processes,” and establishing “a pollutant release and transfer register covering air, water, soil and subsoil pollutants, as well as materials and waste in its jurisdiction.”

This all stems from Principle 10 of the U.N. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Rio+20) of 2012. The agreement is all the more relevant in the framework of the U.N. Agenda 2030 climate justice goals. That’s because it is an instrument to make human and environmental rights central to securing resiliency in post-pandemic recovery.

To help bring the terms of the Escazú Agreement down to earth, get involved via the Regional Public Mechanism established for it. Register at: https://www.cepal.org/en/topics/principle-10/regional-public-mechanism

Talli Nauman is an analyst on environmental affairs and access to information for the Americas Program and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness.