The worldwide number of environmental activists killed reached a record high of 212 in 2019, over half of which occurred in Latin America, with most of the incidences not investigated nor punished. Latin America was also the world’s most dangerous region for human rights activists, with 208 killed in 2019 including LGBTQ+ and women’s rights advocates. More recently, activists have also found themselves being targeted for simply providing COVID-19 relief to their communities.
A proposed solution for the massacre of environmental defenders in Central America is the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, otherwise known as the Escazú Agreement. The treaty was adopted in March 2018 and came into force on the 22nd of April 2021. It is the first environmental treaty to be adopted in Latin America and the Caribbean and is also the world’s only agreement to include provisions on human rights defenders in environmental matters.
Although the Escazú Agreement requires involved parties to investigate attacks against those who defend environmental rights and establishes guidelines on effective measures to ensure their safety, corruption has been named the predominant problem facing Latin America and therefore the practicality of the treaty could be questioned. For example, illegal logging scandals worth around $500 million in the Brazilian Amazon have been reported to involve top officials within the state environmental agency. Furthermore, the rich biodiversity in Latin America and the lack of global attention on the region compared to Africa and Asia makes it a prime target for thriving wildlife crime, allegedly involving bribed officials and even diplomats at various stages.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 turtles are hunted in Nicaragua each year for meat consumption and souvenirs crafted from the shells, despite the killings being prohibited by law. Local authorities in coastal towns are reluctant to forbid the sale of turtle meat in markets due to its high demand and lack of economic alternatives. This provides a typical example of a battle between tradition and conservation efforts alongside virtually no enforcement by local officials.
The key to provoking positive change is offering education and providing an economic alternative, for example, tourism income generated by marine turtles is three times the value of selling products derived from the reptiles.
A similar concept could be applied to the Escazú Agreement, whereby although the gap between the law and implementation may still exist and sadly activists might remain at risk, it acts as a step towards deeming environmental, social impact and corporate governance (ESG) as an increasing point of importance. Over 70% of the public in Latin American countries agree that climate change is of equal long-term concern as the COVID pandemic.
The treaty is significant because it shows the growing awareness and increased appeal surrounding environmental governance in the region and demonstrates the commitment to protect the people who speak out about these issues. Last year it was confirmed that companies with enhanced ESG show better returns and so the fact that Latin America is focussed on transparency, social justice and access to public information the treaty is a worthy contribution to laying the foundation for substantial future growth.
Teresa de Miguel, a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City with over ten years of experience investigating environmental issues, believes that the sense of overall international pressure is likely to have the most positive impact on Latin America: “Right now, the treaty is just a document that was signed… and you can see that in Mexico just last week, there were two more environmental defenders killed.”
“The treaty is a very important tool because it was created together with civil society,” and, “it also gives an opportunity for the international community, such as the European Union or the United States, to say to Mexico and other countries who signed have the treaty – you are not complying.”
The Escazú Agreement was opened for signature by the 33 countries of the Latin America and Caribbean region, and although 24 countries signed it, only twelve have ratified it. Colombia was very active at the conferences and notably had the highest reported number of murders of environmental leaders globally in 2019, however, disappointingly the country has not yet ratified. Perhaps the prospect of guaranteeing rights for people rather than for polluting industries that has caused the shying away of many countries from the environmental obligations that they helped to create.
Additional ratification is essential for the agreement to effectively function as a widely respected multi-lateral instrument and to continue promoting the idea of ESG across the region.