In many Latin American countries, environmental protests can be a matter of life and death for the activists involved. In a tally put out last year, the non-profit Global Witness reported that 200 people had been murdered in 2016 defending their land and the environment — a full 60 percent of whom were in Latin America. The numbers for 2017 were similar.
But a new, multinational agreement aims to prevent many of those deaths.
Earlier this week, 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries adopted the “Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean” — or the LAC P10. The agreement is the first in the world to put in place legally binding rules to protect environmental activists — or, as the UN and many civil society groups call them, “environmental defenders.” The agreement would also increase governmental accountability, and require authorities to investigate more aggressively when defenders are murdered.
The agreement also has provisions to encourage countries to share information about environmental conditions, and to involve those who would be affected by a government’s decisions on the environment — including indigenous communities — in policymaking.
“I cannot understate how critical it is for communities to have access to environmental information, like data on local water pollution or nearby mining concessions,” said Carole Excell, the acting director of the World Resources Institute’s Environmental Democracy Practice and a negotiator of LAC P10. “Hopefully LAC P10 will mean fewer natural resources exploited and communities at risk.”
The pact was six years in the making, with a growing number of countries joining the negotiations over time. It asserts that environmental defenders have the right “to life, personal integrity, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and free movement.”
Countries have a two year window — from Sept. 2018 until Sept. 2020 — to sign on. Though 24 countries participated in the negotiations, it is open to all 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Once 11 of those 33 have ratified the agreement, it will go into force. Environmental groups active in each country are planning to push hard to encourage their respective governments to sign the agreement as soon as possible.
There are a range of factors that bring Latin American environmental defenders into conflicts with governments, landowners, gangs and corporations. According to Global Witness, disputes related to mining, agribusiness, other land use issues and the development of new hydroelectric dams have all caused violent conflicts in recent years.
In one such case, in 2016, Honduran activist Berta Ceres was gunned down in her home, just weeks after she criticized a major dam project underway in the country. She was perhaps the most prominent environmental activist in Latin America and had considerable success in holding up this project. Here is how the Guardian reported on her work at the time of her murder.
The campaign has held up the project, which is being built by local firm DESA with the backing of international engineering and finance companies, and prompted the withdrawal of China’s Sinohydro and the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation.
Cáceres had called for other foreign partners, including the Dutch Development Bank, the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation and German companies Siemens and Voith, to pull out.
She has also won plaudits from international NGOs for standing up to powerful landowners, a US-funded police force, and a mercenary army of private security guards in the most murderous country in the world for environmental campaigners.
In an interview with the Guardian at the time of her award, Cáceres was realistic about the risks she faced, but said she felt obliged to fight on and urged others to do so.
“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action,” she said.
“With this agreement, Latin America and the Caribbean attests to its firm and unequivocal commitment to a foundational democratic principle: the right of people to participate in a significant way in the decisions that affect their lives and their surroundings,” said Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). The hope is that an increase in protected, democratic participation will decrease the death toll documented by Global Witness and other NGOs.