Escazú at 3: Latin America’s first environmental treaty is a work in progress

As the regional agreement defending environmental rights marks its third anniversary, four experts speak to Dialogue Earth about its implementation and next steps
<p>A man at an Indigenous rights protest in Brasília in April 2019. Brazil is one of the deadliest countries in Latin America for environmental defenders, but has yet to ratify the Escazú Agreement. (Image: Mateus Bonomi / Alamy)</p>

A man at an Indigenous rights protest in Brasília in April 2019. Brazil is one of the deadliest countries in Latin America for environmental defenders, but has yet to ratify the Escazú Agreement. (Image: Mateus Bonomi / Alamy)

In recent years, Latin America and the Caribbean has consistently ranked as the world’s most dangerous region for environmental defenders. In 2022, 88% of all murders of such activists worldwide took place in the region, continuing the grim trend of a deadly decade since 2012, during which nearly 1,200 killings were recorded.

The goal of stopping this violence is at the core of the Escazú Agreement, the region’s first environmental treaty, which has so far been ratified by 15 countries, and this year commemorates its third anniversary since entering into force.

Escazú seeks to guarantee the “full and effective” implementation of the rights to access information, public participation and justice in environmental matters, and to protect citizens’ right to live in a healthy environment. However, its implementation, as well as the active participation of states and citizens in its processes, is still a work in progress, experts tell Dialogue Earth.

Brazil, Colombia and Peru are among the region’s deadliest countries for environmental defenders. All have signed the Escazú Agreement, but are yet to fully ratify the treaty. Meanwhile, countries that are already parties to the agreement are still working on setting up their plans for its implementation. The latest nations to have ratified were Belize and Grenada in mid-2023.

As the Escazú Agreement’s third Conference of the Parties (COP3) kicks off in Santiago, Chile, running until 24 April, Dialogue Earth speaks with four experts from different countries in the region for their take on the state of the treaty and the prospects for the meeting, during which a regional action plan to protect environmental defenders is likely to be approved.

Andrés Nápoli

Executive director of the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), and Argentina’s representative on the Escazú Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance

After the Escazú Agreement was ratified by 11 countries in 2021, it was required to be implemented, and the steps that were foreseeable then are now being taken. This includes the creation of the Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance – of which I am a member, along with other representatives from the region – and the approval of an action plan for environmental defenders, which is expected to be achieved at the Escazú COP in Santiago.

The big challenge now is to get more countries to endorse the agreement. Much of the persecution of environmental defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean takes place in countries that have yet to approve it. Escazú has to be a beacon leading the way for better access to environmental information on investments in the region, with direct involvement of civil society. There has to be a response from the countries that promote the agreement and show commitment to its implementation. Argentina was one of the first to ratify, and has already announced an implementation plan, which the government must now develop and implement.

César Artiga

Escazú public representative from El Salvador, and Latin American representative for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP)

Escazú was not brought about to create or bring in new rights, but rather, it seeks compliance with those rights that have already been agreed upon. It seeks to fill all the procedural gaps that exist in the environmental laws and regulations of our countries so that, ultimately, access to justice is guaranteed, and the patterns of impunity that have historically been the norm in Latin America and the Caribbean can somehow be broken.

We have to break away from the idea that all human rights instruments are a matter for lawyers or NGOs

On the other hand, I believe we have a very great opportunity to promote legal empowerment and community advocacy. When I say that, I mean we have to break away from the idea that all human rights instruments are a matter for lawyers or NGOs. It is essential that people take ownership of this instrument; that they exercise their citizenship and advocate for the rights of their community under what is already established within national and international standards. So, I believe we must also be skilful in maintaining our pressure, demands and calls to governments, to make it clear that what is within the Escazú Agreement is also regulated in other existing instruments.

Joara Marchezini

Escazú public representative from Brazil, and project coordinator for the democracy and human rights NGO Nupef Institute

The Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance of the Escazú Agreement is moving fast. It will receive future complaints of non-compliance with the agreement and queries around its interpretation. But it is not a punitive entity; if this committee doesn’t work well, then we won’t have a truly regional agreement.

Some court sentences have already quoted Escazú, particularly in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This is important because it sets a precedent in terms of access to justice. Sometimes we expect too much from the executive branch of governments; progress can be made in other areas, such as the judiciary.

man behind stand at court
A public hearing during the Tagaeri and Taromenane Indigenous peoples vs Ecuador case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in Brasília, August 2022. It is the court’s first-ever case concerning the rights of communities in voluntary isolation. (Image: IACHR Court CC BY-SA)

In Brazil, at least 30 organisations have advocated for the implementation of the Escazú Agreement. Unfortunately, however, the treaty remains largely unknown in the country – and this also gives space for misinformation. It took four years for the bill ratifying the agreement to be sent to congress, and is still to be voted on in the Chamber of Deputies. The Brazilian congress is extremely fragmented and reluctant to act on environmental issues. But how can a country that will host the COP30 climate summit remain outside of the Escazú Agreement?

There has been general progress, but despite that, we still have some points that need to be improved: many communities, especially the most isolated ones, are still unable to actively participate in the implementation of the agreement. We need to work in their native languages, using the appropriate vocabulary, to guarantee their rights. We also need an action plan for environmental defenders that gives countries specific responsibilities, so that it can be implemented immediately. [The action plan is currently being drafted, and will likely be approved at COP this week.] We also need to discuss the possibility of having a gender plan, since this has been worked on strongly with UN Women and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – but this will probably be left for a future meeting.

Natalia Castro Niño

Lecturer and researcher in international law and human rights at the Externado University of Colombia

On 26 April, coinciding with the closing of the COP in Chile, a public hearing will be held in Colombia, convened by its constitutional court, to clarify issues on the relationship between the Escazú Agreement and the principles of legal security and national sovereignty.

According to the constitutional court, this is the main source of controversy among those [NGOs and politicians, among others] who have expressed their opinion during Colombia’s process of ratifying the agreement. [President Gustavo Petro approved a law to ratify it in 2022, but legal delays are holding up its final confirmation.] The hearing thus constitutes a historic scenario in which doubts and fears about the potential effects of the agreement’s ratification can be cleared up.

This is, undoubtedly, the main challenge facing Colombia. A proper understanding of the agreement’s scope depends on this, and it is a crucial opportunity to clarify the rights of citizens, protect the environment and fight one of the most serious scourges affecting the country: threats and aggressions against environmental defenders.

The ratification and subsequent implementation of the regional framework presented as part of the agreement will allow Colombia and all the region’s countries to ensure a stable and secure basis in which their inhabitants can be aware and act appropriately, with the support of the authorities, given the risks they face amid our planet’s environmental crisis.