They account for 5% of the global population and protect 80% of the planet’s biodiversity in their day-to-day lives.
But Indigenous communities and their lands have been under attack for centuries. In recent decades, increasing rates of deforestation, infrastructure development, and resource extraction have encroached on and destroyed their lands, threatening the broader stability of the planet.
When community activists try to oppose these trends, they’re often arrested, attacked, or even killed. The nonprofit Global Witness documented 212 murders of environmental defenders in 2019, the majority of which took place in Latin America.
This is the background that informs the Escazú Agreement, a groundbreaking environmental human rights treaty signed by 22 countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018.
The treaty has been ratified by the governments of nine countries so far, short of the legally binding threshold of 11 countries. Ahead of a regional decision-making process for the agreement on Sept. 26, environmental advocates are calling for the final two ratifications that would allow it to enter into force, and for the remaining 11 holdouts in the region to sign the agreement so they can participate in the talks.
“We have an urgent responsibility to fight for a sustainable future, with prosperity and respect for all forms of life and their rights in present and future generations,” youth organizations wrote in a recent letter in support of the Escazú Agreement.
“Therefore, we demand the signature of the remaining states and the necessary ratifications for the prompt entry into force of the Escazú Agreement, which would signify a historical milestone in the protection and progression of human rights and environmental justice.”
The Escazú Agreement was developed over a six-year period with input from civil society groups and community groups and is based on principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration of Environment and Development.
The treaty pursues three primary objectives — providing citizens with full and transparent information about activities affecting the environment; allowing citizens to have a greater say in how land and marine resources are used; and guaranteeing full legal rights and protection to environmental defenders.
“Above all, this treaty aims to combat inequality and discrimination and to guarantee the rights of every person to a healthy environment and to sustainable development,” Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote in a foreword to the agreement. “In so doing, it devotes particular attention to persons and groups in vulnerable situations, and places equality at the core of sustainable development.”
The Escazú Agreement ultimately seeks to transform how countries throughout the region engage with nature at a time when climate change, pollution, and overdevelopment threaten the very foundation of life.
Rather than treat the environment as an economic commodity to be exploited and carved up for private wealth, the treaty calls on countries to develop a more harmonious relationship with the earth, drawing on Indigneous principles of reciprocity and stewardship.
This means listening to and incorporating environmental defenders in key decision-making processes involving potentially disastrous industrial actions such as the building of new dams, the razing of forests for mining projects, and the extraction of oil and natural gas deep within the earth’s crust.
In the past, environmental defenders have been silenced, prevented from having control over their own livelihoods. The Escazú Agreement envisions a new era in which these community activists will be able to effectively mobilize against actions that would affect their homes.
This is a bold vision that even some of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders have signed up for, including Brazil, Mexico, and Ecuador. Countries such as El Salvador, for instance, refuse to publicly acknowledge the agreement.
How the Escazú Agreement will play out in the years ahead is unclear. But providing environmental defenders and all citizens with the legal support to fight for and secure their environmental rights could lead to more sustainable societies.
“Protecting environmental defenders and improving democratic participation in environmental decisions is crucial to halting the destruction of the environment and solidifying the commitment to action on the climate crisis,” the youth organizations wrote.
“We have an urgent responsibility to fight for a sustainable future," they added, "with prosperity and respect for all forms of life and their rights in present and future generations."