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Escazu Agreement Offers Hope but is Only the Beginning

2020 was a terrible year across the globe, but particularly for Latin America’s environmental defenders. After record numbers of murders in 2019, the perils for environmental and human rights defenders did not decline in 2020. In fact, these threats remained high and even increased during the pandemic, as illegal loggers, miners, and other land grabbers had free reign to encroach upon remote communities. And this time, the intruders brought with them the deadly coronavirus.

In December 2020, the UNHRC Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders noted Latin America is consistently the area where environmental human rights defenders are the most targeted. Colombia in particular has seen a deterioration in security conditions for defenders amidst the COVID-19 pandemic; in many areas of the country, armed groups have filled a vacuum left by the State’s absence, while 2021 has started off as the most violent year for communities since the signing of the peace accord in 2016.

Not all news is bad for defenders, however. On January 22, Mexico and Argentina ratified the Escazú Agreement, thereby crossing the threshold of the 11 countries needed for the agreement to enter into force. The agreement, previously signed by 24 out of 33 countries in the region, is more formally known as “Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Article 9 of the agreement is intended to provide “human rights defenders in environmental matters” with a “safe and enabling environment [...] so that they are able to act free from threat, restriction and insecurity.” In ensuring that the Agreement succeeds in meeting its goals, governments must look to the brave work civil society organizations and communities have undertaken for years to support defenders and document their stories.

One such initiative is a project by EIA’s Colombian partner Agenda Propia, which last November launched its #DefenderSinMiedo (#DefendingWithoutFear) campaign. For this project, Agenda Propia coordinated with 20 journalists from 12 different Latin American media outlets in 10 countries to produce a series of stories on the particular challenges environmental defenders have faced under the pandemic. While the stories span the region, common threads emerge: threats of violence, lack of access to health care, land encroachment, and legal challenges.

In the Colombian department of the Chocó, for instance, armed groups and land encroachers have grown increasingly bold during the pandemic. Communities in this region have been isolated from the rest of the country through both the Colombian government’s national lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the additional restrictions imposed by armed groups in order to assert further control and limit the ability of dissidents to speak out against their illegal activities. Inhabitants of the Chocó’s Cacarica Basin would have been entirely cut off from the rest of the country if not for the installation of antennas to connect to satellite internet and solar panels to provide them with power. This connectivity project, led by EIA’s Colombian partner the Inter-Faith Commission for Justice and Peace, has allowed community members to maintain connection with the outside world in order to send and receive updates during a time when not only armed groups, but also land encroachers have made further incursions into communities’ territory.

Throughout Latin America, decreased surveillance during the pandemic has allowed levels of illegal mining and illegal deforestation to skyrocket. The land invasions that these practices entail have increased as governments have turned a blind eye or even encouraged them in order to stimulate pandemic-weakened economies. Indigenous communities like the Guajajara of Maranhao, Brazil have seen firsthand how their dire circumstances, under which land invasions and murders of environmental defenders were common, have been compounded by the Bolsonaro government’s inaction during the pandemic. Guajajara individuals, who make up the majority of the “Guardians of the Forest,” have simultaneously needed to reduce their patrolling rounds while land encroachment has increased.

Throughout Latin America, the pandemic has also put an untimely pause on many judicial proceedings involving environmental defenders. In Peru, two such cases illustrate drawn out anguish defenders have endured as cases have stalled. Earlier this year, Gonzalo Pio Flores and his wife Maribel Casancho were attacked under murky circumstances likely linked to Pio Flores’ environmental activism and his attempts to gain legal recognition for the Asháninka people’s territory. Casancho survived but is now in hiding, as the pandemic indefinitely postponed both the investigation into her husband’s murder and the land titling process for which he fought. Another Indigenous activist, Diana Ríos Rengifo, whose father Jorge Ríos Pérez was killed in 2014 by illegal loggers, moved to the outskirts of the city of Pucallpa in 2020 to be closer to the judicial proceedings. At the time of publication of this blog, however, the hearings remain indefinitely postponed. These failures in attaining justice have occurred despite the fact that in November 2020, several UN Special Rapporteurs requested that the Peruvian government take action to effectively protect indigenous environmental defenders, after the EIA’s Peruvian partner, Proetica, presented a selection of testimonies at a special hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Edilma Prada, Director of Agenda Propia and creator of #DefendingWithoutFear explains: “It is not sufficient just to share the figures and data of aggressions against environmental defenders. Their voices and stories deserve special attention. Investigative journalism must contribute to this effort, which is what we aimed to do in #DefendingWithoutFear as a group of colleagues throughout Latin America.”

With the Escazú Agreement set to enter into force on April 22 (Earth Day), these environmental defenders, their communities, and many others can hope that it will constitute a meaningful step toward guaranteeing they are not persecuted for something as fundamental as protecting the earth. However the Agreement is not a cure-all for violence against defenders. Key countries in the Agreement’s formulation have not ratified it, and it remains to be seen how participating governments will employ the Agreement to create, strengthen, and give teeth to legislation that effectively protects their citizens and their right to participate in land- and environment-related decision making. The Escazú Agreement presents a promising opportunity for improved conditions for Latin America’s environmental defenders, but it is not the end of the fight to guarantee better protections; it is only the beginning.

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