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A New Pact to Defend Latin America’s Environmental Activists

People and flowers in a cemetery
Relatives and friends place flowers at the grave of indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceres in La Esperanza, Honduras, on March 3, 2018. © Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty

Two years to the day after a prominent Honduran environmental activist was murdered, 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries agreed to a legally binding agreement that will help protect environmental activists from attack and harassment.

The measure, known as The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin American and the Caribbean, is also intended to give people affected by development projects a voice in the deliberations around their approval, and some recourse if a project harms them. The agreement is the first binding legal treaty on environmental rights in the region.

“This was done with ordinary people in mind,” said Karetta Crooks Charles, a communications officer of the St. Lucia National Trust, who helped negotiate the measure.

Berta Caceres, a Honduran environmental activist gunned down in her home on March 3, 2016, was also on the minds of negotiators. A winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, Caceres was one of Latin America’s most prominent environmental activists. She was killed after spearheading an effort to block the development of a controversial hydroelectric dam in Honduras.

She was the 120th environmental activist to have been killed in Honduras since 2010, making the country the deadliest in the world for environmental activism, according to Global Witness.

Worldwide, almost 200 environmental activists were killed in 2017, the group says, a fourfold increase since data was first compiled in 2002. Sixty percent of the killings, they say, were in Latin America.

“Justice is rare,” Global Witness said in a news release announcing the data. “Assassins are usually hired by businessmen or politicians and usually go unpunished.”

This new agreement seeks to reverse this trend. Signatories to the convention are obliged to guarantee “a safe and enabling environment for persons, groups and organizations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters.” And signatories are legally bound to investigate and punish attacks whenever they occur.

The agreement will help address more subtle forms of intimidation and harassment aimed at environmental activists as well, experts say. NGOs are often sued for defamation as a result of the legitimate concerns they raise about development projects, directors are sued in their personal capacity, and governments have been known to withdraw or block funding to NGOs which question projects.

“This is not just a Latin American issue, it is also an issue in the Caribbean,” explained Danielle Andrade, an environmental lawyer from Jamaica. “We have seen a lot of social conflict in the region when people feel like they don’t have a voice in how decisions are made that affect their lives.”

In addition to compelling stronger protections of environmental defenders, the convention is designed to:

  • increase access to information about pollution and development projects
  • guarantee public participation in the assessment of a project’s impact
  • ensure that all stakeholders—especially vulnerable populations who may face barriers due to language and costs—have an opportunity to contribute to deliberations
  • provide technical and legal assistance to individuals and groups who are harmed by a project

“The declaration puts the needs of vulnerable people front and center,” explained Nicole Padda, an environmental lawyer, who participated in the negotiations.

Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solis told the Guardian that the pact was “crucial for the very survival of our species.”

“This never would have happened without the active engagement of civil society,” said Carole Excell, a director of the Access Initiative at the World Resources Institute, who played a coordinating role, and offered technical insight, in the negotiations. “An amazing network of activists from throughout the Caribbean and Latin America have worked for six years to bring about this agreement.”

Now that the convention has been adopted, states can ratify the agreement at the United Nations in September. Once 11 members have ratified the agreement, the agreement will come into force.

“The agreement is a critical step forward, but there is more work to do,” said Andrea Sanhueza, a Chilean expert on public participation in government decision making. “We need governments to ratify the agreement and then ensure compliance and implementation.” 

Global Witness and the Access Initiative at the World Resources Institute are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.

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