This year the Earth Day, celebrated on April 22nd, has been marked by an exceptional event: on that day, indeed, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, also known as ‘Escazú Agreement’, has entered into force. The regional agreement was adopted in March 2018 and has been open for signature to all thirty-three Countries of Central and South America; according to article 22 of the agreement, eleven ratifications were required for the agreement to take effect. On January 22nd, 2021, the threshold was reached.
Why is this agreement so relevant for the entire world and what are the problems related to it? After a brief review of the environmental situation and environmentalists’ conditions in the LAC, the aim of this article is to evaluate the effects of the implementation of the Escazú Agreement and the weaknesses related to the reluctance of the national governments.
ENVIRONMENT AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS IN CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA
First of all, America is the greenest continent in the world: according to the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FAO, 2020), Brazil, United States and Canada control about one third of the world’s forests; given that in Brazil, in particular, there are 497 million hectares of forests – about 12% of the total amount in the world –, it follows that the protection of Central and South American green territory is a matter of crucial importance. This issue becomes increasingly pertinent considering that South America has experienced a forest loss equal to 2.6 million hectares in the past ten years (FAO, 2020). Additionally, despite the progress achieved in terms of sustained economic growth, the region is still affected by high levels of poverty – in 2020 the level of poor people reached 209 million (Bárcena A., 2021); as a matter of fact, the Latin American population is extremely vulnerable to climate changes. These issues lead to a variety of consequences, such as environmental migration, which is a serious issue that should be dealt with more effectively: more than one million people are expected to be displaced after 2020, due to floods, earthquakes, storms etc. (UNDP, 2020).
Furthermore, another crucial issue is the protection of environmentalists: according to the Global Witness Report (2020). The number of environmentalists killed in Central and South America has reached critical levels, with 64 and 24 deaths respectively in Colombia and Brazil over the last year. In total, over two-thirds of the environmentalists’ killings took place in Latin America, making the region one of the most dangerous places for activists. Two exemplary cases deserve a mention: the murder of the activists Berta Cáceres in Hunduras in 2016 (Lakhani, 2020) and the killing of the Nasa indigenous human rights defender Sandra Liliana Peña Chocué on 20th April 2021 (Frontlinedefenders, 2021).
THE ESCAZÚ AGREEMENT: OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
Certainly, the Escazú Agreement marks an important step in ensuring environmental protection in Latin America for two main reasons: it is the first regional binding environmental agreement in LAC, and it is the only deal that builds upon the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), thus based on the principles of the Rio declaration on the environment and development of 1992. Undeniably, it implies an innovative approach to environmental governance because it ensures public participation in the decision-making process, it contains provisions on the protection of the right of access to environmental information and on the protection of environmental activists and indigenous people.
However, the treaty has been criticized due to vague terminology in the text that could grant authorities too much control. In addition, even though the agreement is based upon the Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, the negotiations between the parties led to the elimination of many norms referred to the principle of non-discrimination, thus making it less effective (Stec S. e Jendroska J., 2019). Another factor that should be taken into consideration is the non-ratification by some key States, namely Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Cuba, and Chile. Some reasons include, political instability, high levels of inflation and corruption in many LAC countries, the prioritization of economic growth at the expense of the environment and the fear of cession of national sovereignty because of the constraints imposed by the treaty.
In conclusion, as it has been argued by António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Escazú Agreement is an “historic achievement for the region and for the world” (Guterres, 2021); it could change the state of things and ensure the protection of the environment and those who fight for it. However, many shortcomings and the absence of important countries might influence the treaty’s effectiveness; it still can be seen as an important step forward, but further evaluations will assess its real effects.
Written by Laura Sparascio
Bárcena A. (2021) Launch of flagship report Social Panorama of Latin America 2020. CEPAL. Consultabile al linkhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsuZP1F87Vs
FAO (2020) Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020: Main report. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9825en
Frontlinedefenders (2021) Killing of NASA woman human rights defender Sandra Liliana Peña Chocué. Consultabile sul sito https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/killing-nasa-woman-human-rights-defender-sandra-liliana-pena-chocue
Global Witness (2020) Defending tomorrow. The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders.
Guterres A. (2021) Secretary-General’s message marking the Entry into Force of the Escazú Agreement. Consultabile sul sito https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2021-04-22/secretary-generals-message-marking-the-entry-force-of-the-escaz%C3%BA-agreement
Lakhani N. (2020) Who killed Berta Cáceres? Behind the brutal murder of an environment crusader. Consultabile sul sito https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/02/who-killed-berta-caceres-behind-the-brutal-of-an-environment-crusader
Marengo et al (2014) Central and South America. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1499-1566.
Stec S. e Jendroska J. (2019) The Escazu´ Agreement and the Regional Approach to Rio Principle 10: Process, Innovation, and Shortcomings. doi: 10.1093/jel/eqz027
UNDP (2020) Human Development Report 2020 – The next frontier – Human development and the Anthropocene. 1 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017 USA