The election of Peru’s new government will be an opportunity to resume the debate on the ratification of the Escazú Agreement, the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It entered into force on 22 April after being ratified by 12 countries, and its implementation should guarantee access to environmental information, help protect environmental defenders and ensure public participation in environmental decisions. Peru was not one of the nations that ratified it, despite being an early advocate.
countries have already ratified the Escazú agreement
Peru’s indigenous peoples and other champions of this international pact are not optimistic about either of the two candidates for Peru’s presidency — Keiko Fujimori for the Fuerza Popular party and Pedro Castillo for the Peru Libre party — being supporters of the treaty and worry whether it will have many supporters in the next Congress.
Three groups at the forefront of the fight to put the Escazú Agreement back on Peru’s political agenda are: young people who protested when Congress decided to shelve the ratification bill sent by then President Martín Vizcarra on 5 August 2019; civil society organisations who started a campaign against the disinformation and lies circulated by businessmen and right-wing politicians; the indigenous population, who have experienced murders of their leaders, threats, seizure and looting of their territories, as well as the contamination of their lands and rivers.
Since the Peruvian government declared a health emergency over Covid-19 on 16 March 2020, at least seven Amazonian defenders have been killed. In the last year, the number of environmental defenders who have been murdered differs according to different sources. The minister of justice and human rights, Eduardo Vega, said that there have been seven deaths, while the figures from the Ombudsman's Office and indigenous and environmental organisations give between eight and 10 killings.
According to the Ombudsman's Office, five environmental defenders were murdered in 2020: in April, Arbildo Meléndez Grandes (Huánuco department) and Benjamín Ríos Urimishi (Ucayali); in May, Gonzalo Pío Flores (Junín); in July, Lorenzo Wampagkit Yamil (Amazonas); and in September, Roberto Pacheco (Madre de Dios). This year, in February, Herasmo García Grau and Yenes Ríos (Ucayali) were murdered; and in March, Estela Casanto Mauricio (Ucayali).
What both institutions and indigenous and environmental organisations agree is that there were three murders in 2021. In February, indigenous leaders Herasmo García Grau and Yenes Ríos Bonsano (Ucayali) were murdered; and in March, Estela Casanto Mauricio (Ucayali), according to the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (Aidesep) and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. As well as these crimes, there are other the threats to indigenous leaders and members of their communities made by people involved in illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, deforestation, illegal mining and land trafficking.
On the eve of Earth Day, 21 April, Peru’s government announced the approval of a supreme decree creating protections for human rights defenders. "Once signs of threats against indigenous leaders are detected, a protocol is activated to provide them with protection, if the case requires it, a transfer… to prevent impunity,” explained Vega.
Vega acknowledged that human rights defenders, mostly indigenous leaders, have been assassinated in the last year as a result of defending their territories in the Amazon. "These indigenous leaders have been killed as a result of the expansion of drug trafficking in their territories, invasions of their lands and other illegal activities such as logging and human trafficking," he said.
One of the indigenous leaders threatened for defending his territory is the apu (indigenous leader) Berlin Diques, president of the Regional Organisation Aidesep Ucayali (ORAU), who considers the Escazú Agreement an important instrument for the protection of environmental defenders and a guarantee of access to information for indigenous peoples. “We need ratification to guarantee the effective protection of indigenous peoples,” he adds.
Diques recalls that the few achievements that have been obtained by Peru’s indigenous peoples have been based on struggles. For this reason, the Amazonian organisations are organising themselves to have a more effective impact on the new executive and legislative powers, so that the agreement is ratified.
Two candidates, one uncertain future
Between the right-wing Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori currently serving 25 years in prison for human rights violations, and the left-wing Castillo of Peru Libre, who is leader of the teachers' union, there has been little enthusiasm for the Escazú Agreement.
Members of Congress from Fujimori's party opposed the ratification of this pact last October. While Castillo's political organisation has not said it wants to reject the treaty, it has harshly criticised multilateral organisations and international conventions.
Lizardo Cauper, president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep) and from the Shipibo people of the Ucayali region, is not discouraged by the new political panorama and says that they will seek dialogue with all sides with the hope that the new Congress will analyse, evaluate, discuss and ratify the Escazú Agreement, which will help to protect the territories and peoples of the Amazon.
“Far from guaranteeing the lives of its citizens, the state plays a role in favouring the big elites, the legal and illegal economies, which violate rights. Our demand has been going on for years. We demand legal security to guarantee our territories,” says Cauper, whose brothers were killed while defending their territories, their forests and biodiversity.
Cauper says the murders of environmental defenders in the Peruvian Amazon last year are just the most visible part of the problem. There are more Indigenous leaders and inhabitants threatened, but they keep quiet out of fear, because those foreigners who enter their territories to plant coca or commit other illegal acts threaten them. If they complain they simply disappear. "Despite the threats, we continue to denounce them because we don't see an immediate reaction from the Peruvian state," he says.
Congressman Alberto de Belaunde of the Partido Morado is not very optimistic, but he is still hopeful. That is why, when in October 2020 the majority of members of the Congressional foreign relations committee decided to send the Escazú Agreement to the back burner, he drafted, along with two other parliamentarians, a minority opinion in favour of this pact, aiming to provide valuable input for the new parliament to reconsider the controversial decision.
De Belaunde's written opinion explains the importance of the Escazú Agreement in strengthening environmental institutions in the country, and strengthening the rights of access to justice in environmental matters, to information and participation, as well as the protection of environmental defenders. In addition, it is dedicated to “busting the myths that were generated around the agreement and not letting lies remain as truths”, such as the claim that this agreement is an attack on the country's sovereignty and that the Amazon was going to be given away as a gift.
Far from guaranteeing the lives of its citizens, the state plays a role in favouring the big elites, the legal and illegal economies, which violate rights
Although Fujimori and Castillo have not spoken about the Escazú Agreement during their election campaigns, De Belaunde highlights the rejection of the treaty by the Fuerza Popular party and Castillo's critical position on multilateral mechanisms, such as the Inter-American Human Rights System. Currently there is not much optimism about what the new government would do next, the congressman acknowledged.
De Belaunde says that if ratification is achieved under the next government, it will be thanks to young people who are driving the environmental agenda, to their capacity not only for activism but also for strategic advocacy within parliament. “Just as I am not very hopeful about the role of the next government regarding the Escazú Agreement, I am very hopeful about the role that young people can play in changing this panorama,” he said.
Looking towards the second round presidential elections, De Belaunde proposes trying to obtain commitments from the two candidates and asking them whether or not they will ratify the Escazú Agreement, “in order to have a clearer picture and give the collectives that have been promoting this environmental agenda greater tools for citizen pressure”.
As many threatened Indigenous leaders feel they cannot wait for change under the new government, De Belaunde has submitted a bill to Congress for the protection of environmental and human rights defenders. The proposal is still in a parliamentary committee.
Aída Gamboa, coordinator of the Amazonía de Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR) programme, sees it as an opportunity for the new members of Congress to incorporate this discussion in the Foreign Relations Commission. However, she recognises that there is a risk, once again, of a counter-campaign, as several political parties who will have a strong presence in Congress have spoken out against the Escazú Agreement, such as Renovación Popular, led by Rafael López Aliaga, a member of Opus Dei.
“Opponents are prevailing, but I think it will depend on the advocacy that civil society does, such as having meetings with congressmen, participating in congressional debates, discussing the issue at the local and regional level. It could be an opportunity to, once again, demonstrate that the agreement can be beneficial for our country, especially to include the voices of young people and indigenous peoples, who have demanded that Congress ratify it,” says Aída Gamboa.
Opposition from business
Among the main opponents to the ratification of the Escazú Agreement are business people. On 15 July 2020, the National Confederation of Private Business Institutions (Confiep) issued a communiqué against the ratification of this treaty, with the aim of getting Congress to shelve the bill sent by the executive branch.
"We will be exposing more than 60% of the national territory, which is the Peruvian Amazon, as well as the Andean, coastal and marine territory, to a treaty that generates legal instability in the country, undoubtedly affecting investments and the very development of the populations of our national territory," the communiqué argued.
Confiep argued that it was not advisable to ratify the Escazú Agreement, “in the interest of protecting our national sovereignty and providing legal certainty to the country's economic activities”.
Indigenous leader Cauper says that this treaty is not a threat to companies that comply with international standards and the country's norms, and who respect the environment and the rights of peoples. “For a company that pays congressmen, prosecutors, journalists, police, to act in its favour, this agreement is bad,” he warns.
Peru was one of the leaders of the negotiations for the Escazú Agreement and one of the first to sign it, on 27 September 2018. As such, the international community expected it to be one of the first to ratify it. But it wasn’t. There’s not a definite timeframe for its ratification, and the sides can keep fighting until Congress ratifies it.
This story is republished from the project Tierra de Resistentes, coordinated by the Consejo de Redacción, with the support of the Ambiente y Sociedad organization and funded by Rainforest Foundation Norway.