As Peru stalls on Escazú Agreement, environmental defenders are exposed

Coordination on preventing and punishing deaths of environmental defenders is lacking in Peru, as debates over Escazú continue
<p>Demetrio Pacheco walks through his forestry concession in Madre de Dios, Peru, where his son was murdered after facing nearly a decade of threats. The Escazú Agreement could increase protection for environmental defenders in Peru, but the country’s government is yet to ratify it (Image: Jack Lo)</p>

Demetrio Pacheco walks through his forestry concession in Madre de Dios, Peru, where his son was murdered after facing nearly a decade of threats. The Escazú Agreement could increase protection for environmental defenders in Peru, but the country’s government is yet to ratify it (Image: Jack Lo)

The defence of forests in Peru has become a high-risk undertaking, but attempts to help the situation made by a succession of governments have not yet yielded positive results, environmentalists in the country say.

“Do you think paper is going to resist a bullet? The authorities can guarantee lives, but what good is it if everything remains on paper? The murders go unpunished. And we are all subject to threats,” says Victor Zambrano, an environmental leader and president of the management committee of the Tambopata National Reserve, located in the jungle of the southern Peru’s Madre de Dios region.


The number of environmental defenders killed in Peru since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic

Zambrano angrily laments the latest murder committed in Madre de Dios. On 20 March, Juan Julio Fernández Hanco was shot twice in his home near the Tambopata reserve’s buffer zone. Zambrano recalls how Juan and his family had received threats since 2011 for their opposition to deforestation resulting from illegal mining. His death saw the number of environmental defenders murdered since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic rise to 17 – all killed for protecting their territories from the advance of activities such as drug trafficking, logging and illegal mining.

But despite these losses, the Peruvian government’s response has not been one of coordinated action or application of the different powers at its disposal, figures from rights and environmental organisations say.

Environmental defenders still defenceless in Peru

“There are still no culprits for any of the 17 cases of defenders killed during the pandemic. The conditions do not exist in the country to guarantee the rights of defenders,” says Katherine Sanchez, a lawyer with the Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples programme of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), a Peruvian environmental non-profit.

According to last year’s “Last line of defence” report, the annual release from the environmental and human rights NGO Global Witness, 2020 was the worst year on record for land and environmental defenders worldwide, with a record 227 lethal attacks reported. Latin America remained the deadliest region, with Peru no exception: six defenders were killed that year, while dozens of communities were affected.

In 2021, a government decree was issued for the creation of the “Intersectoral mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders”. It links the work of eight ministries, and is headed by the country’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, but does not go as far as articulating other branches of government or regional governments that should be involved in this protective work.

Efforts to protect human rights defenders will be of little use if the Peruvian state does not coordinate the eradication of illegal activities

“The mechanism aims to eliminate risks, but the great outstanding task is to understand what is happening behind [the government’s actions] to generate more structural changes in public policies,” says Sanchez.

As part of this mechanism, a registry of risk situations for defenders was also approved, which seeks to identify the riskiest areas and types of attacks defenders face. However, the data, which would contribute to prevention and protection, has not yet been made public.

The potential impact of other government actions is also unclear. This January saw the enactment of Law 31388, which extends the deadline for small-scale miners to apply to formalise their operations until 2024. It was approved by congress and President Pedro Castillo, and may weaken the fight against illegal mining, environmental and civil organisations point out.

Formalisation could make it possible to regulate this activity and put an end to the informality that attracts mafias that end up taking over the forests. But for this to happen, there must be political will.

“Multiple efforts can be made to protect human rights defenders, but they will be of little or no use if the Peruvian state does not coordinate the eradication of illegal activities,” says Lissette Vásquez, deputy for the Environment, Public Services and Indigenous Peoples at the Ombudsman’s Office, the autonomous constitutional entity designed to protect citizen rights and supervise public services.

Indifference or lack of urgency?

The extension of the deadline for mining formalisation unleashed a series of concerns about the difficulty to adequately supervise mining activities and prosecute crimes.

Two rights groups, the Regional Association of Indigenous Peoples of the Central Jungle (Arpi-SC) and the AIDESEP Ucayali Regional Organization (ORAU), spoke out against “the wave of violence experienced by indigenous communities caused by the advance of illegal activities, boosted by unsubstantiated infrastructure projects and state corruption.”

Environmental defender Demetrio Pachecho agrees. He considers that the murder of his son, also a defender, during the pandemic is the fault of the government for not acting, despite the various complaints they filed since 2012.

A man next to a cut tree
Demetrio Pacheco works on the forestry concession his family has managed for more than three decades. Even before the murder of his son, he lamented the sluggishness of action to protect environmental defenders. (Image: Jack Lo)

Roberto Carlos Pacheco was killed while walking through the 842-hectare sustainable forestry concession in Madre de Dios that the family has managed for more than three decades. “We know who they are, we have evidence in which they identified themselves, but they were only detained for a few days,” says Demetrio, who is also lieutenant governor of the San Juan Agricultural Producers Association and vice-president of the Tambopata National Reserve management committee. “They are acting on all their threats. They identify us as the denouncers, and what they do is denounce us as if we were the criminals,”

It was only after Roberto’s death that the public prosecutor’s office gave Demetrio the security he requested because of the continuous threats. However, police protection lasted only a few weeks. In the absence of clear policies, the cycle of threats and danger repeats.

Recently, a year and a half after Roberto Carlos’ death, the prosecutor’s office approved an internal protocol for the prevention of crimes against human rights defenders. “This protocol includes specific obligations for prosecutors, who will attend cases where it is suspected that the person was a defender and was attacked as a result of that activity,” the attorney Katherine Sanchez comments. “It also mentions another element that does not exist in any other national instrument: reparations for the defence of rights.”

But for Demetrio it is too late. He feels alone in his struggle to find justice for his son. Meanwhile, the defenders’ complaints remain unresolved, deaths are increasing and the government’s initiatives continue to be ineffective.

And what of the Escazú Agreement in Peru?

The Escazú Agreement, ratified by 12 Latin American countries, has been hailed as an historic instrument for the protection of environmental defenders in the region. But despite favourable opinions from various corners of government, including the Ombudsman’s Office, the public prosecutor’s office, the judiciary and ten ministries, the agreement did not even make it to the plenary of congress for discussion in October 2020. The proposal was shelved within the country’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and the report summarising the technical discussions around its approval was forgotten.

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Following the spill of more than 10,000 barrels of oil by the Spanish company Repsol, a request was made by the parliamentarian and Minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism, Roberto Sanchez, to raise the possibility of a second Escazú debate in the congress. But, once again, the inclusion of the issue on the agenda was rejected.

The parliamentary group that should be debating the issue is currently presided over by congressman Ernesto Bustamante of the right-wing populist Fuerza Popular party. He opposed the agreement because he considers it to go against “national sovereignty”.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Escazú Agreement is the first of its kind in the world to include specific binding provisions for the protection and promotion of those who defend human rights in environmental matters. Peru signed the agreement in 2018, but its congress has not ratified it.

Katherine Sanchez remarked upon the urgency of ratifying the agreement. “We could have a human rights treaty with a constitutional sway that would guide all levels of government and all branches of government. We could strengthen what [protection] is already available, we would have clear protection obligations, and more order between different sectors and the executive,” she said.

In the midst of a government fighting for its survival amid multiple scandals, there is still an opportunity for debate. In his first message to the nation, President Castillo committed to fulfil responsibilities to protect the Amazon, but this is still pending. “There have been several months of silence, the issue has not been put on the agenda. It has been presented again in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the congress, but it has not been a matter of discussion,” Lissette Vásquez comments.

As the first conference of the twelve signatory countries of the Escazú Agreement gets underway in Chile, Demetrio Pacheco will attend another meeting he has been waiting for in search of justice and consolation: the hearing for the trial of his son’s murder. Slow progress, but a glimmer of hope in the face of ceaseless threats.