Fairly or unfairly, Latin America has developed a certain reputation when it comes to the protection of indigenous people and preservation of the environment. To many, its attitude is, at best, lax and, at worst, destructive. But that could soon change.
Through its three key aims – easily accessible information, public participation in decision-making, and active protection of indigenous people and the environment – the UN-backed Escazú Agreement between countries in South America and the Caribbean seeks to bring a new era of environmental governance and justice to the region.
The treaty, which came into effect on 22 April, marking Earth Day, places the onus on governments to raise standards when it comes to acting in the interests of the climate and citizens: its objective is to realise “the right of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy environment”.
The agreement is the first of its kind in the region to focus on protecting the land and rights of indigenous people and environmental defenders, who find themselves in increasingly dangerous circumstances. In 2019, 148 indigenous people in Latin America were killed while defending their land against the combined forces of government and corporate interests, a Global Witness report revealed. The agreement aims to end this by mandating countries to not only guarantee a “safe and enabling” environment for indigenous groups, but to take strong measures against those threatening them.
“As indigenous people… we have a big hope that the [Escazú] agreement could give us access to justice in some of the environmental problems we face in South America,” said the indigenous Nicaraguan climate activist Lottie Cunningham Wren.
“Specifically in Nicaragua, there is [a] lack of access of information and public participation. This is what indigenous people face in particular, because there is no consultation,” she said, referencing the multinational companies mining large swathes of indigenous land in search of lucrative natural resources. “They [the corporations] bring a lot of settlers on to indigenous people’s property, and this has caused a bad situation for my people because we have been facing forced displacement. Many indigenous people have lost their land.”
A new right to access information under Escazú intends to bolster public participation in environmental decision-making, particularly among marginalised indigenous groups. Extra efforts, including providing information in various languages or alternative formats understood by indigenous groups, should facilitate this.
However, there are a few obstacles the agreement will have to overcome, and which could prevent it achieving its lofty ambitions.
The treaty, which took nine years to draw up, is far from being uniformly adopted: only 24 out of the 33 countries across both regions have signed up, with a dozen ratifying their commitment to the cause. The continent’s powerhouse Brazil, however, looks unlikely to ratify the treaty.
“I think the behaviour of Bolsonaro’s government at the moment indicates that he himself is not going to sign this agreement,” said Marina Comandulli of Global Witness.
Given Bolsonaro’s scepticism and belligerence on matters relating to the climate and the treatment of indigenous people, his unwillingness to sign up is unsurprising. Comandulli believes, however, that Brazil’s absence from the agreement will not detract from its potential success, and will perhaps embolden other countries to take the lead.
“I think it’s actually a good political instrument for other countries around the Amazon to not follow the example of Bolsonaro. Just think about the resources they could get,” Comandulli said. “If Bolsonaro is not willing to have a plan to protect the Amazon, the US can start negotiating with Colombia, Peru, Bolivia or other countries. This would diminish Brazil’s political power.”
However, potential loopholes in the treaty itself, coupled with the influence of corporation lobbying, could undermine the agreement, Comandulli warns. Article Five of the agreement reveals countries could refuse to divulge environmental information if there is a conflict with domestic legislation. Other grounds for withholding information include public safety and national security.
“A common problem with any human rights act is that there’s no way of punishing governments that are not acting according to the treaty,” said Comandulli, who believes surveillance from civil society will be essential to holding governments to account.
“If every single line of this agreement is implemented, we’ll see land environmentalists being able to work without threats and attacks,” she explains. “We’ll have governments protecting and respecting their rights, and recognising the important role they play in protecting our environment and preventing climate change.”
For indigenous groups, such as those in Nicaragua, living under the treaty, the promise of access to environmental information and the possibility of justice and, most importantly, protection is a “dream”, said Cunningham Wren.
“With Escazú, we indigenous people… hope we could live in harmony with Mother Nature, access justice, live sustainably and live in medio ambiente sano (“healthy environment”). We need to push for that. For us, environmental rights [are] human rights, and we see Mother Nature as part of our life.”