27 Sep 2018 Editorial Environmental rights and governance

Latin America and the Caribbean can make history by signing an environmental democracy treaty

Leo Heileman, UN Environment Regional Director

Living on a healthy planet is a fundamental right of every human being. We cannot postpone the benefits of environmental democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean anymore. That is why UN Environment calls on all countries in the region to ratify the historic Escazú Agreement.

The region can make history by signing this agreement, the first binding treaty in the world that grants environmental rights the same legal status as human rights. On September 27, an official opening for signature ceremony will take place at the United Nations headquarters in New York, in the framework of 73rd session of the global organization’s General Assembly.

This regional consensus, signed on March 4, 2018 in Escazú, Costa Rica, is the product of four years of negotiations and is derived from Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted during the Rio + 20 conference in 2012.

Its bold content is a response to an authentically Latin American and Caribbean clamor: that development is the product of citizen participation and that it is inseparable from the protection of the environment.

The treaty addresses specifically the access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters. It is the first of its kind to include the protection of environmental defenders, those who have been paying the ultimate price for a healthier and more sustainable planet. This is especially relevant at times when the region is the scene of multiple crimes and conflicts related to land property and natural resources.

In 2017 alone, 60% of the 207 murders of environmental defenders occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to Global Witness. Around 25% of murdered defenders came from indigenous communities, especially in the Amazonia.

Many more people are mistreated and expelled from their homes because of their defense of environmental rights intimately related to other human rights, such as life, health or work. Tolerating these intimidations undermines the rule of law. To protect these anonymous heroes, UN Environment launched the Environmental Rights Initiative.

The levels of violence against Latin American defenders are paradoxical, since many countries in the region have given lessons to the world in terms of environmental jurisprudence and that shelters emerging and promising economies with incredible "green" potential.

This contradiction must end. The Latin American and Caribbean countries have precisely committed themselves to do so through the Escazú Agreement, which strengthens the mechanisms for prior consultation and public participation, regulates the role of private enterprise and guarantees that development is the fruit of democracy.

This is a strategic step now that extreme weather events are intensifying and the world is accelerating efforts against climate change and all forms of pollution on Earth.

Through the Escazú Agreement, Latin America and the Caribbean has the opportunity to trigger a new era in the relationship between rights and the environment.

This Op-ed was originally published during the month of September 2018 in these dailies of Latin America and the Caribbean: Clarín, Argentina, La Razón, Bolivia, Caribbean 360, in the Caribbean, El Comercio,Ecuador, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, La Tribuna, Honduras, Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador, El Universal, Mexico, El Nuevo Diario, Nicaragua, La Prensa, Panama, El Observador, Uruguay.