Threats to the environment and to those who defend natural resources or land rights are on the rise.  Journalists are vulnerable, as well, because of our work investigating and reporting these threats.

The persecution is as reckless as it is unpredictable – and we cannot depend on the government to guarantee our safety.  The uselessness of Mexico’s special public prosecutor for violations of the right to freedom of expression is a case in point. We live in a high-risk situation in a time of impunity and sham justice.

The apologists of regimes across the Americas tend to criminalize those who lead struggles for community sustainability.  They repress efforts to defend land from mining and other interests involved in megaprojects. They rally to keep truth from being brought to light.

That’s why the launch of the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Justice for Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbeancomes at a critical moment. Signed in Escazú, Costa Rica, the agreement is a response to Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (Rio+20) of 2012, which states:

At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information

concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela negotiated the terms of the agreement under the banner of the United Nations.

The instrument’s lengthy name precisely describes its three main goals, and its shorthand name, the Escazú Agreement,  refers to the place it was adopted on March 4, 2018: the Escazú district of the city of San José, Costa Rica.

The success of the agreement depends on whether the negotiators’ countries accept its terms, which are obligatory and binding; and whether the governments of these countries implement it through national laws, rules, and norms endorsed and supported by their local jurisdictions with both the financing and political will necessary to make it stick.

Although this all may seem like a naive and idealistic dream, a similar convention already is in place under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Known as the Aarhus Convention, it has received no fewer than 70 complaints against member states related to enforcement of environmental justice, each of which serves as a warnings to other convention parties.

The Escazú Agreement will open to signatures from the 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations in a ceremony on Sept. 27, 2018 at the United Nations in New York.  Ratification requires signatures from at least 11 countries.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) is holding events from Chile to Antigua and Barbuda, to explain to  officials and civil society why the instrument is essential to protecting environmental defenders and journalists. This regional agency of the United Nationsis accompanying these events with the online publication of a compendium of laws, institutional frameworks, andexamples of best practices, as well as a list ofissues emerging from application of Principle 10.

“In a global scenario marked by signs of instability in the economic system, growing inequality, threats to peace and security, and a serious environmental crisis, the unsustainability of the dominant development mode is self-evident,” ECLAC Secretary Alicia Bárcena writes in the instrument’s Spanish language version.

“The agreement recognizes core democratic principles and seeks to address the region’s most important challenges, namely the scourge of inequality and a deep-rooted culture of privilege,” she remarks.

It focusses on judicial system guarantees of individualrights because “growth cannot take place at the expense of the environment and the environment cannot be managed if our economies and peoples are ignored.”

It requires that each member state extend the resources necessary for reparation of damages to environmental defenders who have been harassed or attacked.

Agreement recognizes right of access to environmental information

The agreement establishes that: “Each party shall guarantee, to the extent possible within available resources, that the competent authorities generate, collect, publicize and disseminate environmental information relevant to their functions in a systematic, proactive, timely, regular accessible and comprehensible manner, and periodically update this information and encourage the disaggregation and decentralization of environmental information at the subnational and local levels.” It states that each state “shall ensure the public’s right of access to environmental information in its possession, control, or custody in accordance with the principle of maximum disclosure.”

Moreoever, it mandates the states 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 even 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.”

The role of government representatives in composing the document has been laudable, particularly those from Caribbean nations in distress following natural disasters related to climate change.  However, those who take exception are bound toappear.

Because of this, and because the process of establishing these safeguards is open to the public, we should be taking part in it.

Watchdog organizations have initiated a series of actions to encourage Mexico to sign and ratify it – beginning with  a letter to the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources.

To get involved, via the Regional Public Mechanism established for the agreement, 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, based in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

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