Environmental activists have reason to celebrate – the Escazú Agreement is the first ever multi-national commitment to protecting environmental defenders.

Heads of state in 14 Latin American countries have signed the first international treaty pledging specific protections of environmental activists to shield them from persecution.

The treaty, named the Escazú Agreement, was signed on September 27, just ten days after the trial focusing on the death of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was suspended indefinitely by the Honduran Supreme Court.

Berta Cáceres, Murdered for Protesting Dams

Cáceres emerged as a public leader in opposition to the development of four hydroelectric dams, which were projected to be one of Central America’s largest hydropower projects. Her campaign said the project would flood and destroy land belonging to the Lenca indigenous group and ultimately displace their community.

Cáceres was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, but in March 2016 she was shot and killed in her home. Eight men were charged for the assassination, including Honduran military personnel and former employees of Desarrollos Energeticos SA, the hydroelectric company planning the project.

Now, the family of Cáceres is struggling to find a fair trial against those suspected of killing her.

Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of the deceased, speaks at a vigil following her mother’s assassination.

Hope for Environmental Defenders with Escazú Agreement

The Escazú Agreement was created as a response to citizen demands for transparency and inclusion regarding developmental projects impacting communities and their environments. It declares that people should be provided with reliable information concerning their surroundings, and should be participants in the decision-making process of environmental affairs.

It is also the first legal agreement in the world to ensure the protection of environmental activists.

“Each 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,” reads Article 9 of the Agreement.

An online petition that parallels the state-signed agreement collected more than 33,000 signatures. Through the petition, citizens urged their government leaders to officially join the treaty that was being established.

14 States Sign Escazú Agreement, Many More Could Follow

The multi-national commitment to the Escazú agreement occurred in a ceremony at the United Nations in New York, and was led by UN Legal Advisor and Deputy Secretary General Miguel de Serna Soares.

The chief of state or representing minister of 33 different countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were present. Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Saint Lucia and Uruguay ratified the agreement immediately, and the Dominican Republic and Haiti added their commitment later in the afternoon.

“The fact that 14 countries have already signed today is extraordinary,” said Epsy Campbell, Costa Rica’s Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship. “This agreement was necessary.”

“It makes reference to something that for Costa Rica is very important, because it places citizen action and environmental defenders at the center, something that is fundamental for confronting all the challenges we face in environmental matters,” Campbell continued.

Epsy Campbell on the campaign trail for her position 2017.

The agreement has been in stages of preparation for more than six years, according to Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). It was adopted by Costa Rica in March 2018, and will remain open for signature as it proceeds through the UN.

“In seeking to guarantee the right of present and future generations to a healthy environment and to sustainable development, the Escazú Agreement aims to strengthen capacities and bolster cooperation among the countries of the region,” Bárcena wrote in the St. Lucia News. “It also expresses our shared priorities and aspirations and demonstrates the continued relevance of regional multilateralism to sustainable development.”

According to a report by Global Witness, 207 environmental activists were killed in 2017 and Latin America witnessed the most killings. In Brazil alone, 57 environmental defenders were murdered in 2017.

 

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