The Escazú Agreement: from paper to reality?
The Escazú Agreement, an environmental rights treaty, represents hope for the world’s deadliest region for environmental activists. But since coming into effect in April 2021, only 15 of 33 states have ratified it. Major absentees include Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru, all among the countries with the world’s highest numbers of killings of land and environmental defenders. While progressive political change has led to ratification in Chile and Colombia, this hasn’t happened in Brazil and Honduras. In every country in the region, civil society will keep pushing for governments to sign, ratify and implement the agreement. Without civil society’s efforts, there’s no real chance the Escazú Agreement will make a difference.
When it was adopted in March 2018, the Escazú Agreement represented hope for Latin America, the world’s deadliest region for land and environmental human rights defenders.
Known by the name of the Costa Rican town where it was adopted, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean is the region’s first environmental treaty. Vitally, it recognises the crucial role of public participation in environmental decision-making and the rights of Indigenous peoples, and seeks to protect environmental defenders.
It came into effect in April 2021 once the hurdle of 11 ratifications had been cleared. But since then, ratification has largely stalled. It’s open to the 33 countries of the region, but by its first conference of parties (COP) summit, held in Chile in April 2022, only 12 had ratified.
There’s been a trickle since. Soon after hosting that first COP, Chile ratified. With COP2 fast approaching, Belize and Colombia – since August 2022 under its first-ever leftist government – have followed suit.
But there are still some major absentees. Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru – all in Global Witness’s list of the 10 countries with the world’s highest numbers of killings of land and environmental defenders – haven’t ratified. Despite co-leading the process of developing the treaty, Costa Rica hasn’t ratified either.
Civil society is clear that to strengthen the protection of human rights, states should ratify and implement the treaty. But if political change led to ratification in Chile and Colombia, hopes that similar recent shifts in Brazil and Honduras might also do so have yet to materialise. What are the chances that the upcoming summit, due to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina next month, will see them all seated at the table?
Chile and Colombia change course
When COP1 was held, Chile had just inaugurated a new president, Gabriel Boric, offering a progressive agenda with a strong focus on environmental and Indigenous peoples’ rights. A week after coming into office, Boric fulfilled a campaign promise by signing Chile’s accession to Escazú and sending the bill to Congress. He gave the opening speech at COP1, highlighting states’ environmental responsibilities and their duty to cooperate on issues none can address on their own.
This was a 180-degree turnaround from the policies of his predecessor, Sebastián Piñera, who’d come to power weeks after Escazú was adopted and consistently criticised the treaty, claiming it would expose Chile to international lawsuits on environmental grounds – including from Bolivia, a state it has a historic territorial conflict with. No matter how hard civil society worked to dispel this disinformation the government wouldn’t budge. The situation only changed when the government did.
It was the same story in Colombia, which took more than a year to even sign Escazú. It objected to the treaty’s monitoring committee, which allows anyone to scrutinise government actions and report noncompliance, and was unhappy because its proposal that states should be able to express reservations – choose which treaty articles to respect or ignore – was rejected.
Under civil society pressure, Colombia’s outgoing conservative president, Iván Duque, finally sent an accession bill to Congress in July 2020. But his party seemed reluctant to approve it, and the process dragged on. Hopes for movement rose when progressive candidate Gustavo Petro won the runoff presidential election in June 2022. In late July, the Senate passed the accession bill and it moved to the other chamber of Congress, the Chamber of Representatives, where it would need two positive votes before going for presidential approval.
With renowned Afro-Colombian environmentalist Francia Márquez by his side as vice-president, Petro campaigned on a platform that prioritised climate action, pledging to suspend oil exploration, accelerate the transition towards renewable energies and curtail deforestation. Petro was sworn in in August, and less than a month later his party reintroduced the ratification bill. The Alliance for the Escazú Agreement in Colombia, a coalition of civil society groups and academic institutions, joined the signing ceremony and handed over thousands of signatures collected in support of the bill.
Still, opposition politicians remained determined to portray Escazú as controversial. One senator launched a social media campaign arguing that the treaty would unacceptably ‘cede sovereignty’. All the same myths and disinformation were mobilised that civil society had worked for years to dispel. But the correlation of forces had now changed, and the bill passed with just one vote against.
Brazil on hold
In contrast, Brazil again looks set to be the big absentee at the next COP – despite having a new leftist president, Lula da Silva.
Lula narrowly defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in a runoff vote in October 2022 and was sworn in amid deep polarisation, with political discourse marred by disinformation on themes ranging from the credibility of the voting system to LGBTQI+ rights and climate change. Within a week of taking office, the new president faced a far-right insurrection by disgruntled Bolsonaro supporters.
In his four years in office, Bolsonaro dismantled environmental protections, paralysed environmental agencies and slashed their budgets. He denied the reality of climate change and publicly vilified civil society, criminalised activists and discredited the media. His government allowed deforestation to proceed at an astonishing pace and emboldened businesses, often linked to organised crime, to step up land grabbing and illegal logging and mining. Already embattled Indigenous communities and activists faced a rise in attacks, including lethal violence. But this was of no concern to Bolsonaro, who failed to send the Escazú Agreement to Congress and doubled down by systematically eroding the principles the treaty promotes of transparency and participation in environmental issues.
Lula now faces the enormous tasks of bringing the country back together, implementing a progressive social agenda and reversing Bolsonaro’s harmful environmental actions – in a context of severe fiscal restraint and while falling far short of a congressional majority. Little wonder there’s been no progress in ratifying Escazú.
As president-elect, Lula signalled his commitment to bringing Brazil back onto the global stage by participating in the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt last November. Brazilian environmental campaigners pushed to get Brazil back on track as soon as possible: when Lula’s presence at COP27 was confirmed, the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development, a national coalition, requested that he offer to host the 2025 climate COP in Brazil.
In February, at a meeting held at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Brazil’s human rights minister offered an assurance that the government is committed to ratification and will work with civil society to put together a national protection plan for human rights defenders. But there’s been no further news on Escazú.
What’s holding up Honduras?
In Honduras, long considered the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activism, dozens of community groups and civil society organisations are working with and as part of the Honduran Network for Escazú, a civil society coalition, to promote and discuss Escazú and urge the government to ratify it.
In late 2021, Hondurans put an end to a long period of conservative dominance by electing Xiomara Castro of the left-wing Libre party. In January 2022, 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, who were released the following month – and justice for Berta Cáceres, the prominent Indigenous leader and activist assassinated in 2016, and the many more who have been killed before and after her.
The government has so far given some signals of its willingness to join Escazú. Top officials have recognised that the agreement offers an opportunity to put in place measures to protect and benefit human rights defenders – but they have also spoken of the obstacles to ratification.
In September 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras, the European Union and the Honduran Network for Escazú held an international forum to highlight the importance of the treaty and share experiences of accession and implementation from other countries.
This extra push is much needed. Although the new government has made progress in holding internal consultations with the various state agencies that would be involved in implementing the treaty, ratification wasn’t part of its election pledges. Unlike in Chile and Colombia, in Honduras the task of pushing Escazú up the public agenda has fallen exclusively to civil society, in a context where conservative elements are deeply embedded in the state apparatus and extractivist elites exert a strong influence. There are just too many with an interest in preserving the status quo.
Honduran civil society recognises that the road ahead may still be long, but is determined to pry open the window of opportunity created by the change of government.
A challenging road ahead
In February, Belize ratified the Escazú Agreement, becoming its 15th state party. But things seem to be heading in the opposite direction in Costa Rica. That same month, the Costa Rican Congress ignored civil society demands and rejected a motion of ratification.
Under the administration of former president Carlos Alvarado, the country co-led the treaty negotiations. But his more conservative successor inaugurated in May, Rodrigo Chaves, opposes the agreement, saying that Costa Rica already has the environmental regulations it needs. As president-elect, Chaves told businesspeople they could ‘rest assured’ that Escazú wasn’t on his government’s agenda. The vice-president under the previous administration acknowledged the difficulties posed by political polarisation. Now even the bare minimum political will to push forward is lacking.
In every country there are civil society groups and networks pushing their governments to sign, ratify and implement the agreement.
If anything, the political climate is even less conducive in El Salvador. Despite continued civil society advocacy, right-wing populist President Nayib Bukele has consistently refused to ratify, stating that some parts 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. Bukele’s government has removed environmental protections while accumulating powers and restricting civic space, leaving environmental human rights defenders unprotected – a situation that makes the adoption of Escazú all the more necessary.
Peru is also major unfinished business. Despite sustained civil society efforts, in July 2022 the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee decided for the second time to shelve a ratification bill, citing concerns over national sovereignty and the protection of the country’s natural resources. No progress seems likely amid the country’s current political crisis.
Even when the hurdle of ratification is cleared, the challenge of implementing the agreement arises – as seen in Mexico, where environmental defenders are still being killed in numbers. But in every country there are civil society groups and networks pushing their governments to sign, ratify and implement the agreement. Many of them are working together as part of the Escazú Regional Network to coordinate efforts regionally, raise awareness and learn from one another.
Progress is hard but the need is great. Without civil society’s efforts, there’s no real chance the Escazú Agreement will make a difference.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
States in Latin America and the Caribbean that have not yet 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 states to ratify the agreement.
Civil society should remain vigilant to ensure states that have adopted the agreement translate it into actionable policies and mechanisms, including for the protection of environmental and Indigenous human rights defenders.
Cover photo by Sebastián Vivallo Oñate/Agencia Makro via Getty Images