Escazú Agreement: so close, but made distant by coronavirus

The Escazú Agreement was about to come into force, but Covid-19 stopped it. How is it advancing in each country?

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Escazu Agreement

The Escazú Agreement was opened for signature in September 2018 and could enter into force in the coming months. Photo: ECLAC.

The Escazú Agreement was very close to entering into force. But the new coronavirus has ground progress to a halt.

In the last month, three new countries in Latin America and the Caribbean ratified the regional treaty, despite the imminent social and economic crisis generated by the Covid-19 epidemic. The Escazú agreement is a globally unprecedented accord that aims to improve access to public information and citizen participation on environmental issues and to protect environmental defenders.

This agreement is particularly urgent to stop attacks against leaders and communities defending the environment, for whom Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world. The journalistic project Land of Resistance documented 1,356 attacks against these defenders between 2009 and 2018 in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, 56% of which were against members of ethnic minorities.

With these ratifications, the ground-breaking agreement reached a total of eight, approaching the 11 needed to become reality. However, quarantines, social distancing and other emergency measures taken by Latin American countries to halt the new coronavirus, have slowed the pace.

Though legislative procedures are different for each country, with some requiring a constitutional review by the Supreme Court, the process was progressing well when the pandemic struck. In Ecuador, for example, it needs only to be submitted to the UN. 

Here, we track the status of the Escazú agreement in signatory countries:

Escazu Agreement ratification

Escazú progress

Argentina: awaiting a suspended congress

Argentina’s newly constituted congress, which opened on March 1, was ready to debate the ratification of Escazú before President Alberto Fernández decreed a nationwide quarantine on March 20.

The bill is already with the senate’s foreign relations committee, chaired by presiding Senator Jorge Taiana, a foreign minister from 2005-2010 under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is now vice president. From there it will go to the lower house. At least 40 organisations wrote to Taiana reminding him that Argentina was the driving force in negotiations and had kept up pressure with campaigns like “My voice and yours for Escazú”.

“We believe that Argentina ratifying the agreement it is a great opportunity, given that its internal policies and legislation are aligned with what Escazú establishes. It is a large federal country, which has a lot of work to do in implementing the regulations”, says Andrés Nápoli, executive director of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN).

Brazil: ministries analysing

Brazil signed the Escazú agreement under the previous government of Michel Temer and has yet to send the agreement to congress for ratification.

As far as social and environmental organisations involved in negotiations are aware, it is still being processed internally before Jair Bolsonaro’s government can submit it to the legislature. After signing, the text was sent to the ministries of environment, agriculture, livestock and food supply, and of transparency, which recently merged with the office of the comptroller general of the union. Its backers are unaware of whether Escazú has been approved or of the ministries’ feedback to the executive tasked with presenting it to congress.

The challenge is to make the legislative project more visible. “Few people know about the agreement in the country and efforts are being made to continue promoting it, so that more people are aware and will defend it”, says Joara Marchezini, an access to information project officer at Article 19, an NGO.

Colombia: late to the party

Colombia was the last country to join Escazú, following persistent calls for dialogue from civil society after massive protests against the Iván Duque government last year.

Duque signed it on December 11, reversing his original position that the Escazú agreement offered no new measures and exposed the country to international scrutiny. Both houses in congress must now approve it, before it then faces a constitutional court review. The government was supposedly ready to present it on March 17 at the start of the legislature’s new term, but has been interrupted by the preventive isolation and mandatory quarantine measures in place until 13 April.

8

countries have signed and ratified the Escazú agreement

In any event, congress members have had no news. “We had a discussion this week in the Amazonian caucus, but we haven't heard anything from the government, or from the foreign ministry, or from environment or justice”, says Carlos Ardila, a lawmaker from the Amazonian region of Putumayo. 

The biggest stumbling block is that even with the text, the Congress has not yet decided what platform would allow it to legislate virtually. To avoid being shelved, it has to survive one of four debates before June 20.

Costa Rica: midway through

Escazú is a city from Costa Rica that hosted initial negotiations and lent its name to the agreement. There, ratification was well underway.

The legislative assembly approved the agreement in a first debate on February 13. It is currently under consultation in the constitutional chamber of the supreme court, which has one month to examine its constitutionality and return it to the legislature for a second and final debate.

That month of constitutional review is nearing completion, but the epidemic has altered the schedule of the chamber, which is not in session, instead resolving emergency matters such as appeals for protection and habeas corpus. The assembly is also focused on issues related to the health emergency.

This traceability allows for transparency in the production process, rewarding those that have faced the challenge of sustainability

“We are only in the second week and we don't know how the long the coronavirus will take to peak, but we are hoping that after a couple of weeks, we will return to normality,” said deputy Paola Vega, who chairs the environment committee.

Ecuador: everything ready, just need to submit

Ecuador would have been the ninth country to ratify Escazú if it weren't for the coronavirus.

The process began in the constitutional court, which last year determined that it should go through the national assembly and then approved its constitutionality in April 2019.

In May, it began its passage through the legislature, having been approved on February 4 by the national assembly. On February 27, President Lenín Moreno signed an executive decree ratifying it, meaning that it only needs to be submitted to the UN’s treaty office in New York. 

For the Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry to do this, it needs only to be published in the official government gazette. Since the UN is in telework mode and formal deposit ceremonies are not being carried out, an alternative mailing mechanism will be used.

“This is the only formality left for the UN to consider Ecuador as the next country to ratify the agreement. In any case, we have to honestly admit that at the moment the priority on which the government is focused is the response to the epidemic,” said Daniel Barragán, director of the International Centre for Environmental and Territorial Research (CIIAT) at the University of the Hemispheres.

Guatemala: mired in bureaucracy

Although the Guatemalan government highlighted the importance of the agreement from the moment it was signed, organising awareness-raising workshops with the environment minister and senior foreign ministry officials since August 2018, it has stalled.

A year and a half later, the government has still not taken it to Congress. When Jimmy Morales left the presidency at the end of 2019, the Escazú agreement was still theoretically under consultation. The new President, Alejandro Giammattei, took office in January and has not referred to the issue. “There are deep interests in the dispute between the environment, indigenous peoples and the private sector,” said a human rights worker who asked to remain anonymous.

Mexico: also stalled by bureaucracy

Mexico has yet to send the agreement to the legislative branch for ratification, a process that will be slowed by the recently declared health emergency.

For the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to present the text to the senate, one missing signature, that of the ministry of finance, is required. The ministry of foreign affairs’ legal department needs this before it can issue the presidency with a necessary document signed by 16 government entities.

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more countries need to ratify the agreement for it to enter into force

Two weeks ago, organisations backing the agreement issued a letter calling for the process to be expedited. However, officials from the finance ministry told them in a meeting, without giving details, that they are still short of an economic impact analysis of the ratification. “This is the last signature left to obtain the approval. Everything is at a standstill as it is their responsibility and all the players are clear on this,” said Tomás Severino, director of the NGO Ecological Culture. Norma González Benítez of Amnesty International added; “We have not been given a clear answer as to why it is being held up.”

On March 3, the senate itself publicly urged the government to speed up the process, although the text hadn’t been approved before the end of this period on March 31. This means that it could be delayed until September, when the new legislative period commences.

Paraguay: stalled by religious and business groups

Ratification was progressing in Paraguay’s congress, but, as documented by independent news platform El Surtidor, it stalled due to opposition by religious and conservative groups.

Problems began when the Archbishop of Asunción, Edmundo Valenzuela, argued that the environmental agreement would allow for legalisation of the so-called ‘gender ideology’, a vague concept coined by conservative sectors to encompass progressive policies on gender. “We are facing a threat from the United Nations Organization (...) practically imposing on us the acceptance of all previous resolutions on abortion, gender ideology, euthanasia,” said the Catholic leader, without offering evidence.

I think the possibilities are good with the interest shown by senators

His statements led President Mario Abdo Benitez to withdraw the bill on December 2. Foreign minister Antonio Rivas announced consultations with various sectors, such as religious groups and the Union of Production Guilds (UGP), which feared that production would be affected. The newspaper ABC Color reported that the foreign ministry was ready to take the text back to Congress in the first week of March, but that didn’t happen because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Meanwhile, the bill’s promoters have attempted to show its value to industrial sectors. “Not only does it serve to protect the environment, but it’s an excellent letter of introduction to open new markets, since it facilitates the traceability of the products that Paraguay exports. This traceability allows for transparency in the production process, rewarding those that have faced the challenge of sustainability,” says Ezequiel Santagada, director of the Institute of Environmental Law and Economics (Idea).

Peru: ready to move after political crisis

In Peru, another of the countries that led the negotiations, the agreement progressed until it was paralysed by last year's political crisis.

In August, the government of Martín Vizcarra sent the file to congress recommending its approval, including favourable reports from the ombudsman's office, the attorney general’s office, the judicial branch and ten ministries. However, in the midst of the political conflict between the government and the legislature, it was not even discussed in the foreign affairs committee before a congressional plenary voted on it.

This paralysis was exacerbated when Vizcarra dissolved Congress in September. His government, which had the power to legislate until a new legislature was installed, did not prioritise ratification. The new Congress, elected in January, only took office in mid-March and has not yet formed a new foreign relations committee.

Meanwhile, civil society has set the scene for discussion. “Since we met with the elected congressmen we have been carrying out advocacy actions to position the ratification of the agreement in their legislative agendas, we have created public petitions and we have presented the matter to congressmen at a working breakfast,” says Fátima Contreras, an attorney at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA).

Dominican Republic: between elections and quarantines

Discussions in the Caribbean country have been slowed down by this year's hectic electoral calendar, with municipal elections taking place a week ago and two presidential and legislative rounds scheduled for May and June.

In February, a group of organisations promoting ratification met with a committee of senators, including the chairman of the senate's environmental committee. “I think the possibilities are good with the interest shown by senators who participated in the meeting with civil society,” says Euren Cuevas, executive director of the Institute of Lawyers for the Protection of the Environment (Insaproma).

Again, progress has been hampered by quarantine and night-time curfews. Once it leaves the legislature, it must be reviewed by the constitutional court.

The reluctant ones

Chile: from a driving force to scepticism

Chile has been the surprise package of the region. It led the negotiations with Costa Rica under the Michelle Bachelet government, but her successor Sebastián Piñera refused to sign it.

Piñera has given several reasons for not doing so. “Everything that Escazú establishes is contained in national legislation. Therefore, it does not add anything,” he said in September. Days before, he had said that “he has some problems that need to be resolved” such as “problems with the transfer of sovereignty or problems that could lead to Chile being sued in international courts without justification”. His position does not seem to have changed since then, despite pressure from social and environmental organisations. 

In January, environment minister Carolina Schmidt once again alluded to the “risk of internationalising conflicts that are and should be internal”.

El Salvador: total silence

Nayib Bukele’s government is still reluctant to sign the agreement and does not even speak about it publicly. “El Salvador is living under conditions of growing environmental deterioration and accelerated effects of climate change, being the second most deforested and environmentally degraded country on the continent after Haiti [in terms of percentage of forest cover lost]”, a dozen environmental and social organisations wrote to him last November, urging him to sign.