More than eight years after the Rio Conference on Sustainable Development, the first legally binding agreement emerging from it will enter into force in April: the Escazú Agreement. It is praised as a unique treaty breathing new life into the fight for environmental democracy and justice in Latin America and the Caribbean – the most dangerous continent to protest for land rights and the planet. But can the agreement live up to the hopes that are put in it – and why would anyone not support the ‘right to live in a healthy environment’?

In 2016, the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was murdered after years of receiving death threats  due to her fight against the construction of a gigantic dam on the sacred Río Gualcarque. Her murder gained international attention, but is far from being a unique case in the region. 

Latin America and the Caribbean have suffered socio-environmental conflicts for centuries, dating back to the period of widespread colonisation. Gigantic mining and oil extraction sites, as well as infrastructure and agribusiness projects are not only endangering people’s livelihoods and health, but are also putting unique biospheres on the line. Conflicts about water contamination from mining, as in the cases of the Tía María copper mine in southern Peru, or Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon, have been the cause of massive social unrest. More often than not, economic benefits gain the upper hand over a government’s duty to protect its people and environment. 

This is supposed to change with the Escazú Agreement, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is the only legally binding treaty that emerged from the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, and the first environmental agreement in the region. With Mexico being the eleventh party  to ratify the agreement, it will finally enter into force after six years of negotiations on April 22nd 2021 – International Mother Earth Day.

Status of the signing and ratification process of the Escazú Agreement (Own illustration by Sophie Scherger)

The Rio Declaration’s legacy – environmental democracy

The agreement follows the steps of the 2001 European Aarhus Convention promoting the Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development – better known as the principle of environmental democracy. 

Apart from the right to a ‘healthy environment’, the agreement fosters the rights that are believed to be fundamental for sustainable development: access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters. Crucially, this also accounts for information from private businesses. Environmental democracy is about the protection of human rights – the right to be heard, the right to have a say and the right to know about what happens to the place that you live in. Although these rights already exist to a large extent in some way in national legislations, they lack proper enforcement and legislative hurdles often make it  impossible for people to claim their rights. 

For Alicia Bárcena -the Executive Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – the agreement is a milestone for the region: “With this Agreement we are fighting against the culture of privilege, the culture of those who possess the information, who monopolise justice, those who are unwilling for there to be true participation or prior informed consent. We are democratizing the right to information, participation and justice. The Escazú Agreement is an essential instrument to avoid mortgaging the future, and to address the legitimate demands of many communities.”

Wall painting in Chollay, Chile, a village whose water resources were heavily affected by the Barrick gold mine Pascua Lama, saying “Water is worth more than gold”. (Photo by: Amilcar/Flickr)

Frontline environmental defenders at risk

Environmental democracy is dependent on the engagement of exactly the people that are at utmost risk: environmental defenders. Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world to be fighting for your right to live in a healthy environment. Six out of ten of the most dangerous countries for environmentalists are Latin American. In 2019 over two thirds of the worldwide 212 killings of environmental defenders, especially of indigenous communities, took place in the region. In Colombia that translates to at least one killing a week alone. 90% of the murders go unpunished – not speaking of the thousands of repressive acts against environmental activists and civil society. Journalists of the research project #tierraderesistentes found 2367 documented victimizing events against environmental leaders and communities between 2009 and 2019 – for only 303 out of them  a court decision was made. 

The Escazú agreement uniquely emphasises the government’s obligation to protect environmental defenders. One might argue it should be a given to ensure a safe environment for environmental activists to work in, and to investigate and punish attacks on them. But in a region with shrinking spaces of public participation and where environmentalists are often criminalised by the government, and stigmatized as standing against public interest and development, the Escazú Agreement gives legitimacy to environmental protection.

Protesters at the vigil or Berta Cáceres at the Organization of American States on April 5, 2016. (Photo by: Daniel Cima for Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos/Flickr)

Resistance from frontrunners

Unfortunately, some countries remain hesitant to ratify the agreement – or even to sign it, as in the case of Chile. The country was one of the initiators of the negotiations under the left-wing government of Michelle Bachelet and the planned COP25 summit. The public’s call for fundamental changes during the 2019 protests led to the assumption that Chile could take a leading position in fostering environmental democracy in the region. But last September President Piñera’s conservative government confirmed that “the signing of the Escazú Agreement is inconvenient given the ambiguity and broadness of its terms, its eventual self-enforcement and the mandatory nature of its regulations that would prevail over internal environmental legislation”. Piñera argued that signing the agreement could even open up new disputes with Bolivia over sea access that Bolivia lost during the Pacific War in the 19th century.

Although advocates of the agreement state that these claims are completely unsubstantiated and part of disinformation campaigns, similar arguments about the interference of the treaty with national sovereignty and development opportunities are brought forward by counter-movements in Peru, Colombia and Paraguay. Peru’s former Minister of Foreign Relations Tudela even stated Peru would lose its sovereignty over a large part of the Amazon and it would turn into a common heritage of humankind like Antarctica.

The ratification processes once more revealed that the governments in the region do not necessarily represent the interests of all citizens, but prioritize the protection of business interests.  For Ezio Costa, the Executive Director of the Chilean NGO Fima, these rights should not even be up for discussion: “The interest of the country cannot be different from the interest of its inhabitants. Having more and better information, participation and justice is essentially in the interest of the country and its inhabitants”. The picture seems to be quite clear – if governments and businesses adhere to the already existing national laws, they should not have a problem with the Escazú Agreement. And exactly that seems to be the problem.

 A success story?

How effective the agreement will be remains to be seen. It is highly dependent on what the first Conference of Parties decides about the enforcement mechanisms – how the generic language of the agreement is put into practical policies at national level. The agreement will not solve the problem on its own, it requires the constant challenging and engagement of civil society. But it might be able to create an even playing field giving environmental defenders the chance to fight on equal terms to protect people, environment and our global climate from business interests.

Sophie Scherger