Political elites, corrupt government agencies and unaccountable corporations do not hesitate to use threats or violence to protect their capital and power. Whether it is defending tribal lands or forests from land grabbing by fracking or mining corporations, or being a city-based activist challenging the power of the fossil fuel industry, climate and environmental activists face an unprecedented level of violence and threat directed at them by these vested interests.

Against this confronting backdrop, some hope is on the horizon, and it is worth knowing about this one: The Escazú Agreement.

The Escazú Agreement is a ground breaking multilateral agreement signed by 16 Latin America and Caribbean nations at the end of September, that could – if implemented successfully – be a crucial tool for climate and environmental protection in the years to come. The negotiation sessions, held from May 2015 to March 2018, of this legally binding agreement engaged 24 out of the 33 countries of the region.

The Escazú Agreement obliges states to protect the people and groups that defend the environment. It means everyone will be able to:

  • Access information on the state of the environment and how a particular project might affect it
  • Be consulted and participate in decisions that could affect our environment
  • Seek reparations in the courts if our environment is adversely affected or if our views are not taken into account.

On September 8th, 2018, in Pasto, capital city of Nariño, at the southwest of Colombia, dozens of peasant, artistic, academic, indigenous and social organizations gathered to reclaim and defend their territories from extractive activities like fracking, which risks the water sources and the biodiversity. Photo by David Moreno-Galeano | Survival Media Agency

These are huge wins for communities and the environment in a region that has the highest rates of murder and threats for environmental defenders.

Signed by Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia , Bolivia and Uruguay, the Agreement breaks new ground, being:

  • The first multilateral agreement to include specific recognition and pledges of protection of the rights of Environmental Defenders
  • The first environmental treaty for the Latin America and Caribbean region
  • The first treaty to have emerged from the Rio+20 process
  • It joins only one other regional treaty on environmental democracy: Europe’s Aarhus Convention.

The agreement wasn’t developed by governments alone – it was the result of years of work by civil society and community groups. I spoke with Rubens Born, who has been working on protection for environmental defenders for over 20 years across Latin America, and is now working with 350.org in the region. He participated in the development of the Escazú Agreement as a civil society representative.

The process

It was a unique process, quite different from other agreements. In many high level meetings like this, sometimes civil society organisations can deliver a 2 or 3 minute speech at the end of the day. But here for the Escazú, our representatives could sit at the table where diplomats were sitting. If at least one country supported our proposal, then it would be drafted into the text. That is exactly how the Environment Defenders article ended up in the agreement.

The agreement carries great hope and looks strong on paper, but it comes at a calamitous time; you have to wonder how effective it will be. I asked Rubens about what will be needed for effective implementation:

Implementation is key

We have to study the opportunities Escazú provides us, to identify implementation steps for each country that has signed on, and turn the generic, UN-level language of the agreement into specific policies at the national level. We need to make sure there is enforcement capacity for those policies and that the guarantee of protection for environmental defenders is implemented in practice. That is a huge challenge. We need to push domestic interpretations of the agreement to recognise that it’s not just humans we are protecting, but the forests, animals, waterways, climate and land too.

The Escazú Agreement isn’t just significant for those in Latin America and the Caribbean – in this time marred by increasing authoritarianism, shrinking space for civic participation and disregard for human and environmental rights, it can be a beacon for all of us to support, and learn from. That support can be solidarity when it comes to calls for domestic implementation, and the learning can inspire a new wave of protection for environmental defenders in other parts of the world. With an incredibly narrow window of time to limit climate change catastrophe, we need many more people standing up to protect our environment and climate from fossil fuel extraction — and we need to keep each other safe while doing so.

More information:

The Escazú Agreement text is available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese at https://www.cepal.org/en/escazuagreement

Full text in English – here: https://repositorio.cepal.org/bitstream/handle/11362/43583/1/S1800428_en.pdf

A hub of information for participation and justice in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean : https://www.cepal.org/en/publications/43302-access-information-participation-and-justice-environmental-matters-latin-america

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