By Sergio Silva Numa, EL ESPECTADOR, April 22, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The most important environmental treaty signed by Latin American countries will take effect this April 22. Even though only 12 countries have ratified it, many hope that it will be an essential instrument for avoiding the murders of environmental leaders and permit, contrary to what has happened in the last two decades, the environment to be protected. Will that be possible?
Andrea Wulf relates that when the celebrated Alexander von Humboldt was exploring the territories of Latin America, he had a bitter surprise. While he was traversing this new world to observe the geography, the plants, and the animals minutely, he realized that something was not right. The exploitation of natural resources by the colonial powers, he later noted, had caused real chaos. The missionaries treated the locals brutally, the search for raw materials was ruining the environment, and the social inequalities were multiplying. South America, he suggested in his political essay about the Kingdom of New Spain, was being destroyed at the hands of the conquerors.
When in 2015 Wulf, a British historian, published “The Invention Of Nature”, the book in which she condensed the life of Humboldt, the countries of Latin America were still searching for the formula to resolve the same problem that was there when the famous naturalist arrived in the 19th century. The exploitation of natural resources, the base of its economies, continued to be the origin of hundreds of social conflicts. In spite of the promises, no government has resisted a “boom”, that English expression that we use to describe the high prices of petroleum, gold, coal, copper, or nickel.
“Because if we share anything with the Latin American countries, it’s the wealth of nature resources and the contentiousness, the exclusion, and the inequality that has been generated by that exploitation,” says Daniel Barragán, Director of the International Research Center on Environment and Territory (CHAT) at the University of the Hemispheres in Ecuador.
“Even though we are very different countries, we share a long list of environmental conflicts. Look at Peru, at Colombia, Chile, or Mexico and there is great contentiousness in all of them. That’s our shared reality,” added Aída Gamboa. “Partly because of that, April 22 will be a historic day.”
Gamboa is a political scientist and part of the Law, Environment, and Natural Resources (DAR in Spanish) team. DAR is a nongovernmental organization that fights for the protection of the Peruvian Amazon. What she’s referring to is that today, after 9 years of conversations, an Agreement that has been popularized in the region as the Escazú Agreement, will take effect. Its true name is impossible to memorize: Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Access to Justice on Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“We are very optimistic,” says Érica Castro, an attorney and Ph.D in Environment and Land Use. Speaking from Colombia, where she is a researcher at the University of Medellín, she has a good way of summarizing what this day means. “Maybe it’s the beginning of overcoming this environmental crisis. We can’t act the way we’ve been acting.”
But to understand the complexity that this Agreement hides, and not get lost in the confusing branches of the law, we have to look at the past and understand why Latin America needed it so urgently after having a boom.
Joan Martínez Alier is a fellow that needs no introduction. A Catalán with a doctorate in Economics, he has been a visiting Professor at Stanford, Yale, and California universities. His book, “The Ecology of the Economy” is a classic that has been translated into several languages, and he is frequently invited to speak to social science conferences. Even though he doesn’t live in Latin America, he can speak knowledgeably about any environmental conflict in Bolivia, Ecuador or Brazil.
When he was in Bogotá a couple of years ago, we talked for more than an hour about the difficulties in the region. It seemed amazing to him that the leftist governments that were starting to emerge in the first decade of this century hadn’t paid more attention to environmental protection. “Impervious” was the adjective he used to describe not only Evo Morales and Juan Manuel Santos, but also Rafael Correa and Cristina Fernández. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t claimed the “heroes of environmental justice” as their own.
Martinez Alier began to be popular outside of the halls of academia when he published the “Atlas of Environmental Justice” in 2014. With the support of international organizations and a long list of universities and NGOs, he had decided to organize the social conflicts related to the environment into one single platform. Now, seven years later, the map shows 3,385 cases all over the planet. It’s hard to know precisely how many there are in Latin America, but there is an image that outlines the complicated situation better. The majority of the problems seem to result from mining, extraction of fossil fuels, and management of water.
As the “Atlas of Environmental Justice” shows, Brazil is the region with the most conflicts (173). Mexico follows with 149, and Colombia, with 129. Next are Peru (97), Ecuador (65), and Bolivia (42). “All of this has to do with the wealth that each country has,” points out Martínez Alier.
Together with Mariana Walter, they explained it better in a book, “Environmental Governance in Latin America”, some months later. Since 1970, they wrote, the exploitation of raw materials in Latin America had been intensified. While 2,400 million tons had been extracted that year, in 2013 the figure rose to 8,300 million tons. The extraction of metals, after the production of biomass, was the activity that had grown the most. For 2012, when prices were at their best, the countries in the region fulfilled 45% of worldwide demand for copper, 50% for silver, 21% for zinc, and 20% for gold. “Extractivista” is the best word to define this part of the continent.
“We think that tendency was related to the boom in conflicts in Latin America,” opined Walter and Alier in one of their conclusions.
Those who have dedicated themselves to the study of this process usually use this term to describe one of the biggest paradoxes that generated that boom in raw materials. “The curse of natural resources.” In simple terms, it suggests that, in spite of having abundant resources, these countries don’t always achieve good economic development. Besides, they occasionally weaken the economy by going back to dependence on one single source of income, while at the same time motivating numerous social conflicts.
The consequences, as the World Bank pointed out in 2014, can be summarized in a couple of statistics: 93% of the population of Latin America, and 97% of their economic activity, reside in countries that are net exporters of “commodities”. The news that was not too bad was that such dependence had diminished by 86% in 1970, to 50%.
On the other side of the coin, as the economist and expert in matters of energy policy, Francisco J. Monaldi, wrote in the “Harvard Review of Latin America”, the boom in the raw materials markets that the planet experienced from the first years of this century until 2014, approximately, allowed Latin America “to have the best economic performance in decades, helping to increase its public spending, reducing poverty, and expanding the middle class.”
But, as Monaldi also pointed out, “the macroeconomic and social achievements can’t hide the significant challenges and negative effects.” “For years economic policies and results were given priority, while the social and environmental effects were left behind,” Attorney Érica Castro says. “Much of this was done behind the backs of the communities and civil society. They had no access and no information. It was the denial of the other side of it.”
It was just when the minerals and the petroleum reached historic prices in 2012 (USD $120 per barrel; USD $1,742 per ounce of gold) that some conversations began in Río de Janeiro, Brazil, looking for an escape from the difficult Latin American situation. While the United Nations Río+20 Conference was going on, the representatives of the countries agreed to create a pioneering treaty for environmental and human rights protection.
“In a moment of increasing uncertainty and profound economic, social, and environmental inequality, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have demonstrated the value of regional action,” wrote Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, years later, in the preface to the document that today, April 22, takes effect. The public has baptized it as the Escazú Agreement.
WINDS OF CHANGE
On March 4, 2018 in Escazú, in San José, Costa Rica, there was a minute of silence. The delegates of 33 countries and of several organizations of civil society decided to close the meeting with a tribute to Berta Cáceres, the indigenous activist who was murdered in Honduras in 2016 because she had opposed the construction of the “Agua Zarca” hydroelectric project. Her enormous photo also reminded the group that environmental leaders in Latin America were passing through a bad time.
In the year in which that historic meeting took place, which culminated in the signature of the Escazú Agreement, 164 people in the world were murdered because of their environmental leadership. The data, collected by the English NGO Global Witness, indicated that half of those murders had taken place in Latin America. Colombia, where 24 people had been killed, was in second place on the world list, followed by Brazil.
When I asked Berlin Diques, an Asháninka leader and President of the Aidesep Regional Organization (ORAU) in Peru, what the Escazú Agreement can accomplish, the first thing that came into his head had to do, rightly, with this situation. “It’s an indispensable tool for guaranteeing the security of the people that are defending human rights and the environment.”
He’s speaking from Ucuyali, the place where two leaders were murdered at the beginning of this year. Herasmo García Grau and Yenser Ríos Bonzano were shot to death for opposing illegal activities and trying to stop deforestation. And first, according to local media, they were kidnapped and tortured.
–But, do you think this situation will change with the Escazú Agreement?
–The indigenous peoples hope so. But we know that our communities are of little or no importance to the governments in power. To them we are a group of humans at a lower level of society. So, when the Agreement takes effect, it will be clear that we will have to keep on fighting to get them to listen to our voice—was Diques’ answer.
Many people share his fear. Even though the final document that was signed in Costa Rica is, in some ways, revolutionary, there is still a long way to go until it can begin to show effects. Daniel Barragán, for the International Center for Research on Environment and Territory, in Ecuador, prefers, for example to take the side of prudence.
“It has generated high expectations, but we have to be clear. Things aren’t going to change on April 22. We have to be conscious of the fact that the Agreement calls for a process of implementation. Every country must reform its rules and policies. The region is not starting at zero, but we will have to see how we can bring this document into the territories. The changes won’t happen over night,” he explains.
“A second phase of implementation takes effect starting today. It’s a long road. But it’s been a process that will have a great impact on the law and on environmental democracy,” says Mauricio Madrigal, Director of the Environmental and Public Health Clinic at the University of the Andes, in Colombia.
To explain what the Agreement consists of and not get lost in the terminology of statutes and codes, Madrigal uses an analogy. Imagine, he says, “that you establish a ‘minimum level’ that every country should have in certain matters. That would allow strengthening environmental democracy in the region. Besides, the important thing is that it’s built with a lot of people, with civil society and government representatives participating. That allows consolidation of something key to this process: a big network of cooperation.”
These “minimum levels” that Latin American government should stand on can be divided, as constitutional scholar Rodrigo Uprimny wrote in 2019, into four big groups. The first permits the increase of transparency on environmental matters, because it enhances access to information. The second is to strengthen environmental democracy, broadening participation by the citizens in all of the discussions. The third will improve environmental justice by creating environmental legal mechanisms. And, finally, the fourth will be essential so that there won’t be more crimes like the murders of Berta Cáceres, Herasmo García Grau, or Yenser Río Bonzano. “Establish,” stresses Uprimny, “a special protection for defenders of the environment.”
In other words, wrote Madrigal along with Attorney Luis Felipe Guzmán-Jiménez in one chapter of the book “Information Participation and Environmental Justice” (2020), the Escazú Agreement “tries to generate common standards in the area of environmental information, citizen participation, and access to justice on environmental matters for nearly 500 million people in the region.”
On that point, the big question is what happens if a country, simply, doesn’t want to comply? As Barragán explains, the Agreement does not set forth sanctions because it doesn’t have a punitive focus. “Infractions are judged on the internal regulations of each country; but, in international terms, it did not create an international environmental jurisdiction, so no government can be taken to any court in case of noncompliance,” says Érica Castro.
However, all of the people interviewed for this article agree that the Agreement helped create something much more important than a list of hopeful paragraphs. Since many leaders, organizations, and academics took part in its construction, watching over the process and suggesting changes (they had a voice, but not a vote), that allowed, says Castro, the creation of a big platform of environmental actors from all over Latin America.
“That is important, because there’s work to be done by civil society that will be both medium and long term. It’s up to us to follow up and guarantee that this is not just a piece of paper. The idea is that there can be co-creation between the government and society in a place for permanent dialog. We have to push that, adds Aida Gamboa, of DAR.
Daniel Barragán has a good manner of synthesizing these reflections: “What the Agreement does is change the relationship between the government and the citizens.” In words a bit more practical, that means that in an ideal world, the administrations of Jair Bolsonaro, of Alberto Fernández, or Sebastian Piñera, cannot or should not push new exploitation of natural resources projects without keeping in mind the participation of the communities. Neither can they hide any kind of information. If they don’t dodge their responsibilities, the governments also ought to, as Madrigal and Guzmán have noted, adopt measures to prevent, investigate, and penalize attacks and threats against defenders of the environment.
In 2018, the Argentinian attorney who specializes in environmental matters, Gaston Medici Colombo, published an extensive article in the Catalán magazine “Environmental Law” where he detailed the process behind the Escazú Agreement. It had, in his view, many points to emphasize. Besides what this Agreement will mean as a tool for cooperation among countries, it can be an instrument for international agencies like the Inter-American System of Human Rights or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and that is very valuable in his view, and should be underscored.
“It would have been difficult,” he noted, “to achieve this result without the magnificent participation of the public,” that accompanied all of the meetings (like Érica Castro, Aida Gamboa, Daniel Barragán, or Mauricio Madrigal). “They were demanding standards and remembering the commitments that had been undertaken. They really deserve our recognition,” he concluded.
Now that the Escazú Agreement is taking effect, they are only hoping that all of the Latin American countries will ratify it, in spite of the disinformation campaigns, the political games, and the changes in Presidents. Up to now, only twelve have ratified it: Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panamá, Santa Lucia, San Cristóbal and Nieves, San Vicente and the Grenadines, Uruguay, and most recently, Argentina and Mexico. More than half are missing.