Escazú: A Call to Action on the Environment

Tuesday, May 03, 2022
One year after the entry into force of the Escazú Agreement—a regional treaty designed to protect the environment and those who defend it—Chilean President Gabriel Boric called for urgent joint action to confront the climate crisis. “Either we save ourselves together or we sink separately,” he said, “and I believe that the Escazú Agreement points precisely to the idea of saving ourselves together, of working together.”


The new Chilean head of state, who took office in March of this year, stressed that Chile will work alongside the rest of the region to address the effects of climate change and environmental degradation while promoting climate justice.

“When a part of the Amazon region burns, or when the melting of a glacier in the Chilean or Argentine Patagonia accelerates, it’s not the Chilean state, it’s not the Brazilian state, it’s not the president in office who suffers, it’s all of humanity,” he said. “And, therefore, we have a responsibility that we must take on, and a responsibility that it is not possible to address only within the framework of nation-states.”

Boric was speaking at the first meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP1) to the Escazú Agreement, which took place April 20-22 in Santiago, Chile, at the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The United Nations agency serves as technical secretariat of the Escazú process.

Gabriel Boric, President of Chile, at the first meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Escazú Agreement (COP1)

The formal name for the treaty is the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was adopted in Escazú, Costa Rica, on March 4, 2018, and entered into force on April 22, 2021.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described the legally binding agreement as “the region’s first treaty on environmental matters and the world’s first to include provisions on human rights defenders in environmental matters.”

Mario Cimoli, Acting Executive Secretary of ECLAC, called the Escazú Agreement “an instrument for social transformation and the deepening of democracy,” in remarks at the meeting in Santiago.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former President of Chile, said in her virtual presentation at COP1 that the Escazú Agreement provides an effective tool for states to meet their responsibility to safeguard the planet and the rights of people.

“We could sum up the spirit of Escazú by saying that if we want to defend the environment, we must start by protecting those who defend it,” she said.

Citing data from the agency she leads, she noted that three out of every four murders of people who defend the land and the environment take place in Latin America and the Caribbean. She added that many environmental activists face lawsuits and judicial actions, often brought against them by companies in the extractive sector.

In his remarks, President Boric of Chile invoked some of the names of environmental activists who have lost their lives in the region, including Berta Cáceres of Honduras, Macarena Valdés of Chile, Estela Casanto of Peru, and Breiner David Cucuñame of Colombia, who was only 14 when he was killed earlier this year.

Environmental activists gathered outside the White House in Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of the 2016 killing of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres.  (Jahi Chikwendiu / Getty)

“There are hundreds who today are no longer with us, the ones who can no longer fight,” he said. “It is for them, and for those who continue to raise their voice, who continue to do so despite living under threats, that today we have the imperative to mobilize ourselves to protect them and to protect ourselves,” he added, calling this effort “the most basic act of survival.”

On the final day of the meeting, which was International Mother Earth Day, Nadino Calapucha, representing the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), led the delegates in a moment of silence for those who have died defending the environment. One of the names he singled out was that of Ulises Rumiche, who had been killed in the Peruvian Amazon just two days before.

“We cannot talk about fighting climate change if we are not protecting the lives, protecting the rights, of those who are defending Mother Earth,” he said.


Access Rights


At the heart of the Escazú Agreement are so-called “access rights,” defined in the text as “the right of access to environmental information, the right of public participation in the environmental decision-making process and the right of access to justice in environmental matters.”

Article 9 covers the issue of environmental defenders, specifying that each state party “shall guarantee a safe and enabling environment for persons, groups and organizations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters, so that they are able to act free from threat, restriction and insecurity.” It also requires each state party to “protect and promote all the rights of human rights defenders in environmental matters,” and to “prevent, investigate and punish attacks, threats or intimidations that human rights defenders in environmental matters may suffer” while exercising the rights set out in the treaty.

More than 780 delegates participated either virtually or in person in the three-day meeting, according to ECLAC. They included representatives of states parties and observer countries, as well as of regional and international organizations and civil society.

Delegates to COP1 of the Escazú Agreement met in April in Santiago, Chile.

The Escazú process includes six elected representatives of the public, who have a voice but not a vote in proceedings. Several of them spoke at the meeting, urging more countries in the region to join the treaty and stressing the importance of continued public input into decision-making in environmental matters.

“The Escazú treaty is not a magic wand, as no legal instrument is,” Andrea Sanhueza of Chile, one of the elected representatives of the public, said at the opening session. “But,” she added, “its implementation offers an institutional means to channel existing conflicts [and] protect environmental defenders, providing the opportunity for greater governance and social peace. That is why it is so important.”

The meeting included the consideration and adoption of several documents, including rules related to procedures moving forward; the election of presiding officers; the establishment of a committee to promote implementation and compliance with the agreement; and the creation of a voluntary fund to support implementation, among others.

At the time of the meeting in Santiago, 24 countries in the region had signed the Escazú Agreement and 12 had ratified it: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Uruguay.

President Boric explained to participants that Chile’s role was that of observer and host, adding that he hoped that his country would soon become a state party. That happened a few weeks after the meeting, with the treaty’s approval by Chile’s s Chamber of Deputies on May 11 and  the Senate on May 31.

The treaty has also been under debate in the past few weeks in the Colombian legislature. Colombia has signed but not yet ratified the treaty.

One signatory that will apparently not be joining anytime soon is the country that gave the Escazú Agreement its name. Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves, who took office on May 8, said just days before his inauguration that he did not believe the Escazú Agreement would benefit the country and that his administration would not ratify it.

According to the news agency EFE, Chaves said that most of the provisions contained in the treaty are already enshrined in Costa Rican law. He expressed concern that the Escazú Agreement could make it too easy to hold up potential investment projects, at a time when economic reactivation is needed.

“The private sector should rest assured that the Escazú Agreement is not on the government’s agenda,” he said.

Cover image: A burned rainforest in Colombia, the deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, according to the organization Global Witness. (Alamy)