The Escazú Agreement, the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean, is officially operational today after ratification by 12 countries in the region. Its implementation will guarantee access to environmental information, help protect environmental defenders and ensure public participation in environmental decisions.
The agreement was approved in 2018 by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) after a six-year negotiation process. Its activation required the ratification of at least 11 countries, a goal that was surpassed in late 2020 with the ratification of Argentina and Mexico.
countries have already ratified the Escazú Agreement
“Escazú is a response from the region with a set of common problems from the loss of biodiversity to the problems of exercising rights,” said Andrés Nápoli, executive director of the Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN) in Argentina.
The agreement opened the door to complex internal discussions at the national level, even among countries that had originally promoted it, such as Chile, Peru and Costa Rica, which have not yet ratified it. However, civil society members that have followed the negotiation of the agreement in stalling countries hope their governments will soon sign up.
The agreement details the objectives of guaranteeing the “full and effective implementation of the rights of access to environmental information, public participation and access to justice”. In addition, it seeks to strengthen capacities and cooperation, contributing to the protection of the right to live in a healthy environment.
Among the most urgent problems in Latin America are impunity for crimes against environmental defenders, the lack of consultation with communities about the possible impacts of large development projects, and difficulties in accessing environmental information. All of this is expected to be addressed by Escazú.
"It is a very important tool for the defence of our territories," said Berlin Diques, president of the regional organisation Aidesep Ucayali (ORAU) of Peru. “Escazú can generate big changes. Without this instrument, there is social and environmental instability in the country.”
“These are very critical moments with the assassinations of indigenous leaders," he added.
Escazú: More protection for environmental defenders
Latin America ranks first in the risks to environmental defenders. According to the latest report by the NGO Global Witness, 212 environmental defenders were murdered around the world in 2019. Two-thirds of cases occurred in Latin America. Colombia led the ranking with a record high 64 killings.
Experts agree that Escazú has the potential to reduce conflicts that lead to the murders of activists in the region. By giving legitimacy to environmental defenders, the agreement should be able to play an important role in ending environmental conflicts.
Marcos Orellana, the UN special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, said that this type of recognition is crucial in a region where social leaders are attacked with impunity.
“They are classified as anti-development and that is very dangerous. This is how the attack and the threats are justified,” said Orellana. "The agreement recognises the importance of the work of environmental defenders for a healthy environment, for democracy and for human rights and establishes specific obligations."
Aida Gamboa, coordinator of the Amazon program for the NGO Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR) of Peru, said that the access to information that Escazú allows is a crucial aspect to create an informed citizenry that can organise and make decisions in relation to the environment.
Escazú is the hope that change is possible for Latin America. It is a triumph for the communities and civil society
"Escazú is innovative in all its pillars and proposes a regional standard so that all countries can effectively promote these rights,” Gamboa said. “Countries that do not have a law on access to environmental information should develop one or update it, as in the case of Peru, where the law was approved 15 years ago.”
While ratification of the agreement represents an important tool for environmental and human rights defenders to hold governments accountable, its success will also depend on the political will of the countries that sign it. Therefore, civil society organisations will closely monitor its implementation.
Lina Muñoz, a Colombian lawyer specialising in environmental law, maintains that ratification is only a starting point. Now it will be necessary to advance on each of the points of the agreement at the national level.
“There are simpler issues, like creating a standard environmental participation law that can be adapted to countries that do not yet have one. But there are other more complex ones that will require more time, such as strengthening the capacities of judicial authorities in environmental matters,” said Muñoz.
Countries yet to get on board with Escazú
In Peru, Guatemala, Brazil and Colombia, the governments have not ratified the agreement, citing concerns about sovereignty, legal uncertainty and commercial interests. The governments of Chile, El Salvador and Honduras have even refused to even sign it.
While Chile led the Escazú negotiations under the left-wing government of Michelle Bachelet, the current conservative administration of President Sebastián Piñera has backtracked. In Peru, another country that led the negotiations, the progress of the agreement has stalled because of a long-running political crisis.
Among demonstrators' demands as they took to the streets in Colombia in late 2019 to protest against President Iván Duque, were calls for the conservative leader to sign the Escazú agreement. He did so in December that year, making Colombia the last country to join the pact. Yet, both houses of Congress must now pass it now before it faces a Constitutional Court review.
Escazú is innovative in all its pillars and proposes a regional standard so that all countries can effectively promote these rights
Organisations that promote the agreement link its rejection in some countries to disinformation campaigns that scared the population and spread throughout the region. The agreement does not limit the sovereignty of countries or economic development. Each country will be in charge of implementing the agreement according to its own legal system.
"There are groups that see in this participatory process of sustainable development a challenge to the way in which decisions have been made in the past. They prefer to maintain an order based on vertical expressions of authority," said Orellana. "The standards of the agreement are very reasonable."
In any case, experts agree that when seen in operation, the agreement will overcome such arguments and will lead to more signatures and ratifications. Full and effective implementation of Escazú could be the sign of a new dynamic for the region in the defence and promotion of sustainable development, they argue.
Natalia Gómez Peña, advocacy officer for the NGO Cívicus, said the entry into force of the agreement represents a significant victory in the campaign for environmental democracy: “Escazú is the hope that change is possible for Latin America. It is a triumph for the communities and civil society.”