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In February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that Central America, South America, and small island states, such as Caribbean countries, are among the regions most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Indigenous and frontline Campesino communities suffer disproportionately from the consequences of climate change, even though they have contributed the least to the problem. 

The report also highlights that the response to the climate crisis requires a rights-based approach. The Intergovernmental Panel indicates that States must adopt policies that allow the most vulnerable groups to meaningfully participate in strategies to build climate resilience. This is something that countries in Latin America and the Caribbean had already recognized when they adopted the Escazú Agreement in 2018 as a tool to, among other things, contribute to climate action. 

About the Escazú Agreement

The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (known as the Escazú Agreement) is the first treaty to include specific obligations for the recognition and protection of environmental defenders. The agreement’s objective of ensuring the full and effective implementation of environmental participation, with a special emphasis on vulnerable groups, is more important today than ever. The science is clear–States must act now to ensure a sustainable future for humanity.

Today, 12 countries are parties to the treaty.  Civil society is preparing for the first Conference of the Parties of the Escazú Agreement in late April in Santiago, Chile. We’re optimistic about the meeting but also recognize the urgency behind it. The Agreement provides an opportunity to guarantee the implementation of environmental democracy in the region and to protect our right to a healthy environment.

Defending Environmental Rights 

Over the last two years, the pandemic has shown that poverty, inequity, and environmental injustices in the region are intimately connected. In Latin America, three environmental crises are intensifying: climate change, the toxification of the planet, and the loss of biodiversity. This is even more serious in a region with frequent human rights violations.

While the agreement has shifted the narrative around the defense of environmental rights, violence against defenders is on the rise. Last year the region was deemed the most dangerous in the world for environmental human rights defenders. For the second year in a row, Colombia, my home country, was the deadliest for human rights defenders. In the Amazon basin, Indigenous peoples are under constant threat due to increasing violence and state inaction.

A few weeks ago, we mourned the six-year anniversary of Berta Cáceres’ murder in Honduras. Her family is still seeking justice. At the same time, in Colombia, environmental defender Yuvelis Natalia Morales of the Colombia Free of Fracking Alliance had to leave the country due to threats from armed groups. While in Madre de Dios, in the Peruvian Amazon, the Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes (FENAMAD) is facing a case of judicial intimidation by a logging company. We at EarthRights have denounced how this SLAPP is intended to silence FENAMAD’s efforts to protect the human and environmental rights of the Mascho Piro people in isolation.

Expectations for the first COP

In preparation for the first Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Escazú Agreement, countries need to accelerate action on its implementation, and those that have not yet ratified or acceded should continue to work towards becoming a party to the agreement very soon. This is especially true of countries such as Peru and Colombia, where attacks and criminalization against human rights defenders continue to rise. Although Escazú has only been in force for one year, we are already witnessing some of the advances that the agreement has enabled. At the regional level, the agreement’s standards were integrated into the Inter-American Development Bank’s Environmental and Social Policy Framework adopted in 2020. In Mexico and Argentina, Escazú has become an instrument for courts to protect the right to access information and participation in the context of climate-damaging projects. 

As we prepare for the first Escazú COP, countries in the region need to intensify their work and renew their commitment to the agreement. At the first COP, parties will adopt rules to lay the groundwork for the effective implementation of Escazú, including the rules for the Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance, which are fundamental to ensuring the effective implementation of the agreement. The Committee is a subsidiary body created in the treaty to review the compliance of the parties with respect to their obligations under the Escazú Agreement. 

The rules adopted by parties during the COP should ensure an appropriate composition of the Committee with independent members and regional, ethnic, and gender diversity. Most importantly, the public must be able to submit communications to the Committee about the lack of compliance of parties. Additionally, the committee must be able to adopt protective measures for petitioners at risk, including environmental defenders facing threats. If these elements are adopted it would be a major step towards accountability and implementation for the Escazú agreement in the region.

The first Escazú COP is a historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for the effective implementation of the agreement. As the IPCC reminded us a few weeks ago, the window to act on the climate crisis is closing fast. At this historic moment, the Escazú Agreement must become a real tool to protect the environment and the people of Latin America and the Caribbean.