The first annual summit of the Escazú Agreement, an environmental rights treaty, was held in Chile in April 2022, where civil society successfully resisted attempts to reduce the space for its participation and demanded more space for Indigenous communities. In the deadliest region of the world for environmental defenders, civil society continues working to put pressure on uncooperative governments to sign and ratify the agreement. Civil society remains committed to the long-term enterprise of ensuring states translate the agreement into practical actions, including to protect human rights defenders, and will work to make states accountable for their failings.

Latin American civil society has something to celebrate: on 22 April, exactly one year after the entry into force of the Escazú Agreement, the treaty’s first Conference of the Parties (COP) closed with significant advances made in developing inclusive mechanisms for its implementation.

The first COP of the Escazú Agreement – the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean – was held at the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Chile. It was hosted by Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric, seeking to bring the country back to the leadership role it played throughout the treaty’s development, which the previous administration then walked away from by refusing to ratify it.

Adopted in 2018 in the Costa Rican town of Escazú, this is the only binding agreement stemming from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the first regional-level environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first in the world containing specific provisions on environmental human rights defenders, a potential breakthrough in the region with the highest number of killings of environmental defenders in the world.

Progress at the April meeting could not be taken for granted: civil society faced attempts to reduce the space for participation, but successfully fought back to defend it.

Walking the talk on civil society participation

In a striking departure from business as usual for such international summits, Escazú’s COP1 offered an opportunity for the public to participate and present their arguments alongside state representatives. To channel this participation, six ‘representatives of the public’ – mostly socio-environmental activists or members of organisations working for transparency and participation in environmental matters – were elected through an open vote organised by ECLAC. Their role was to act as a bridge between wider civil society and state representatives sitting at the negotiating table.

All registered participants were also allowed the right to speak, with a large presence of young activists and Indigenous human rights defenders making the event much more democratic than the norm.

The summit focused on three articles of the agreement: the rules for its implementation, including mechanisms for meaningful public participation; the funding needed for its operation and implementation; and the establishment of an Implementation and Compliance Support Committee, which civil society viewed as the heart of the treaty: this body is expected to make the agreement’s international obligations enforceable at the national level and ensure accountability over states.

COP1 agreed the essentials of this committee: it will be made up of experts – to be selected at COP2, planned to take place in Argentina next year – and work in collaboration with civil society, which will be able to call attention to non-compliance by states. It will also be able to adopt protection measures for environmental defenders who alert it to violations of states’ obligations under the agreement.

But there were problems. Some state representatives, notably from Bolivia, tried to block negotiations on the committee, claiming to have an alternative proposal allegedly agreed with Bolivian Indigenous peoples’ organisations. According to independent Bolivian civil society, state-led consultations had been opaque and restricted to government-affiliated groups. In the discussion that followed, Bolivian state representatives even hinted that Indigenous representatives should be handpicked by the government. Civil society was alert to this danger because this is a commonplace problem, especially in highly polarised contexts, and was bound to resurface.

Voices called for the greater inclusion of Indigenous peoples – and not just state-aligned groups – in the process. Nadino Calapucha, a young Kichwa leader of Ecuador’s Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon River Basin, highlighted that Escazú does not yet have a spokesperson for Indigenous peoples, a glaring oversight in a region where Indigenous people are at the forefront of environmental harm, action and repression.

Voices from the frontline

Natalia Gómez is a representative of the public in the Escazú Agreement and climate change policy advisor at EarthRights International, a civil society organisation (CSO) that takes legal action against perpetrators of earth rights abuses, trains activists and works with communities to demand meaningful and lasting change.


Politically the first COP was very important because it renewed political commitment to the Escazú Agreement.

Out of it came several important decisions, such as working rules for the Implementation and Compliance Support Committee. Rules for future COPs also emerged, including a chapter on how the public – civil society – can participate in COPs. In addition, a Declaration on the issue of environmental defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean was produced, which creates a Working Group, an annual Forum, and a Plan of Action for the implementation of Escazú.

These results allow the implementation of the agreement to move forward. Politically, there was a lot of commitment, and the rules adopted are very positive for civil society’s active participation. Already in this COP there was large civil society participation, including by women’s groups, youth groups and Indigenous peoples. Civil society had a direct voice in the negotiations to bring its proposals.

Civil society pushes for ratification

Having entered into force on 22 April 2021, the Escazú Agreement is open to the 33 countries of the region, but has so far been ratified by only 12. A further 11 have signed it but not yet ratified.

Conspicuously absent are several countries with severe environmental and land rights issues, including Brazil, Colombia – the country with the highest number of murders of environmental defenders in the world – Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru. Chile, El Salvador and Honduras – the country with the highest rate of murders per capita – are among those that have not even signed Escazú.

All countries have civil society networks and groups working to share the Escazú Agreement among communities and pushing for governments to sign, ratify and implement it. The Escazú Regional Network, which includes close to 30 CSOs in multiple countries, is coordinating regional efforts to raise awareness on the importance of the agreement and its ratification and implementation.

These efforts are yielding results, particularly in changing political contexts where electoral shifts towards more progressive governments have opened up opportunity. Chile, a country that alongside Costa Rica led the treaty process for years, refused to ratify Escazú under right-wing president Sebastián Piñera, but under its new government is in the process of doing so.

Under pressure from civil society, Colombia’s lame-duck president also sent an accession bill to Congress, although his party seemed reluctant to approve it. But barely days after the end of COP1, the Senate finally discussed it and gave it preliminary approval. If, as polls consistently predict, progressive candidate Gustavo Petro wins the upcoming presidential election, hopes for rapid ratification will rise. Petro has picked renowned Afro-Colombian environmentalist Francia Márquez as his running mate and made the fight against climate change one of his campaign pillars, pledging to suspend oil exploration, accelerate the energy transition and take decisive action against deforestation.

However, in El Salvador, despite continued civil society advocacy, populist President Nayib Bukele has consistently refused ratification, stating that some clauses of the agreement are not ‘appropriate’ to his country’s context. He’s particularly objected to clauses he views as ‘affecting development’, which he interprets to mean obstructing housing and infrastructure projects. Under Bukele the government has removed environmental protections while accumulating powers and restricting civic space, leaving environmental human rights defenders completely unprotected. From the perspective of civil society, this only makes the adoption of Escazú all the more necessary and urgent.

Voices from the frontline

César Artiga is coordinator of the National Driving Team of the Escazú Agreement in El Salvador.


Restrictions on civic space are becoming normalised in a very dangerous way. People think it is normal to suspend rights and live in a permanent state of emergency. We have seen a series of attacks and smear and defamation campaigns against CSOs, perpetrated by the executive branch, but also by sectors that support the current administration.

We have also seen a deliberate intention to abandon the environmental dimension of public policymaking. The government is relaxing environmental regulations to adapt them to its megaproject strategy. All deadlines and procedures for public consultation and citizen participation have been violated.

Throughout Latin America there is a strong dispute over access to natural common goods such as water and land. As a result of climate change, El Salvador has a very critical water situation and is experiencing extreme weather events with increasing frequency. All of this will be exacerbated by the socio-environmental vulnerability that is being generated by the relaxation of regulations and the imposition of megaprojects.

El Salvador does not have any regulations on human rights defenders; the very concept does not exist here. Although they carry out a key task for the common good, human rights defenders in El Salvador live in a situation of total state neglect. This is why it makes sense to provide the country with robust instruments such as the Escazú Agreement.

But the Salvadoran government is opposed to Escazú and does not wish to become a state party. The state does not guarantee any conditions, protection or security for the full exercise of defenders’ work. There is no safe or enabling environment. We need specific protection measures, and our country does not have them because it does not even recognise the figure of the human rights defender, nor is it taking steps towards such recognition.

Honduras: light at the end of the tunnel?

Next door in Honduras, dozens of community groups and CSOs have worked nonstop within and alongside the Honduran Network for the Escazú Agreement to promote and discuss the agreement and urge the government to ratify it.

But a government in cahoots with extractive companies and complicit in the criminalisation of environmental rights defenders and violence against them had little incentive to sign up to mechanisms aimed at creating accountability. While the government that came out of the 2009 military coup remained in place, presiding over the assassination of more than 130 environmental defenders, there was little chance of seeing progress.

A window of opportunity opened in early 2022 as Honduras elected its first female president, Xiomara Castro of the left-wing Libre party, ending a long period of conservative dominance. Elected with an impressive 51 per cent of the vote in an election with record voter turnout, she delivered an energising inauguration speech promising freedom for the Guapinol political prisoners – a group of eight environmental defenders detained for resisting a mining project, and justice for Berta Cáceres, the prominent Indigenous leader and activist assassinated in 2016. As a further step in making good on this promise, the government has now finally started to show signs of its willingness to join Escazú.

Voices from the frontline

Edy Tábora is director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.


The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Edy. Read the full interview here.

The realisation of environmental rights and the protection of environmental defenders neither begins nor ends with the ratification of a treaty. Once the campaign for ratification is won, a further ongoing battle awaits civil society, which can only realistically expect to make inch-by-inch progress in domesticating international standards and translating them into actions that attack the root of the problem of criminalisation and violence against environmental defenders: an extractivist model of development that prioritises profit over people and the environment.

The process so far of turning the Escazú Agreement into action has got off to a promising start – but it’s only a start. Civil society across the region will keep engaging in the Escazú process to defend and extend their space and make the agreement’s ambitions a reality on the ground, where it really matters.


  • States in Latin America and the Caribbean that have not yet signed or ratified the Escazú Agreement should launch the process to do so as soon as possible.
  • Civil society across the region should continue working together to put pressure on reluctant governments to sign and ratify the agreement.
  • Civil society should remain vigilant to ensure states that have adopted the agreement further translate it into actionable policies and mechanisms, including for the protection of human rights defenders.

Cover photo by Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images