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Latin America seeks to protect environmental activists

Judit Alonso
March 9, 2018

The region where most environmental activists die each year is taking action with a new landmark agreement. The "Escazu Accord" is only the second regional agreement on environmentalists' rights in the world.

The agreement was reached in Escazu, Costa Rica
The agreement to fulfill "Principle 10" was reached in Escazu, Costa Rica.Image: Reacción Climática

Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists. Brazil, Colombia and Mexico top the list of countries where the most people die defending a patch of earth, a mountain, or a river. NGOs have documented hundreds of murders per year of regional activists whose work threatens the interests of governments and businesses.

Now, Latin America is hoping to end violence against environmental activists with the approval of the landmark "Regional Agreement for the Access of Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice on Environmental Issues in Latin America and the Caribbean."

The "Escazu Accord" is based on fulfilling Principle 10 of the UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and grants protection to human rights defenders on environmental issues. The agreement asks states to guarantee a safe and auspicious space in which people, groups and organizations that promote environmental issues can carry out their activities without fear, restrictions or danger.

Graphic of where environmental activists have been killed EMBARGOED ENG

Carmen Capriles, General Coordinator of the Bolivian NGO Reaccion Climatica, told DW that her organization hopes the agreement will "help drastically reduce the murder rate of environmental defenders in the region" through its state-led commitment to recognize the work of activists and ensure their protection.

Read more: The deadly price of environmental activism

The accord will provide activists with more access to environmental information to better assess each situation that they work in. Carole Excell, acting director of Environmental Democracy Practice at the World Resources Institute (WRI), said that this can help communities gain access to data on things like water pollution or mining concessions in their localities.

In terms of the accord and its effects, Excell hopes "this means that fewer natural resources will be exploited and fewer communities will find themselves at risk." 

Conference members in Costa Rica
Members of some 30 organizations have participated in six years of negotiations to reach the landmark agreementImage: Ebrel

Historic and Innovative

Excell praised civil society and Latin America and Caribbean governments for taking such a "historic stance" on safeguarding what she believes is the pillar of environmental protection: people.

"The agreement would affect up to 500 million people and shows the region's global leadership. It is only the second regional agreement in the world on environmental rights, after the European convention in Aahrus in 1998."

Rubens Born of the Brazilian NGO Fundacion Esquel, which took part in the negotiations, highlighted the innovations within the accord. Under the agreement, individuals and legal entities will have the power to bring conflicts or disputes to a court of law.

Read more: Plot behind Caceres murder in Honduras, says legal panel

"It is the first binding agreement worldwide that includes an article that compels countries to prevent, legally prosecute and sanction any threats, coercion and violations against environmental human rights defenders," Born told to DW.

It was precisely this binding aspect that caused the most controversy during the talks, as it ran counter to the interest of several countries like Colombia and Brazil, despite both having the highest rates of violence against activists.

A photo of Berta Caceres
A photo of Berta Caceres, the slain Honduran environmental activist, is displayed at the talks Image: Reacción Climática

A long road ahead

The agreement will go into effect immediately and now awaits several more steps, including the signing, ratification and implementation of the text. For Capriles, this part is the biggest challenge because it depends on the will of the countries to "elaborate norms that will allow for the full implementation of the accord."

Read more: Deadliest year ever for environmental activism

Nonetheless, Capriles and her organization believe that "the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) will be key in ensuring that all countries adhere to their commitments."

One year after the agreement is ratified, the regional organ of the UN will convene a new conference and establish regular meetings between signatories to oversee the implementation of the accord.

Carole Excell of WRI believes that, while the agreement represents a step forward, "the work has barely begun." The fact that even "one more person would die protecting the environment is too much."

"It is time for countries to step forward," she says, and come to the defense of the defenders.

2016: Deadliest year for environmental activists