The first annual summit of the Escazú Agreement was held at the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Chile from 20 to 22 April 2022. The Escazú Agreement is a regional treaty concerned with environmental rights with a focus on access to information, public participation, and environmental justice and transparency.
This first Conference Of the Parties or COP1 of the Escazú agreement follows a similar logic as the “climate COPs”, uniting all concerned parties under a common framework. For the “climate COPs” it is the UNFCCC framework but for the “Escazú COPs,” it is the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement.
At the Escazú COP1 civil society successfully resisted attempts to reduce the space for their participation and demanded more space for indigenous communities with support by Chile’s new president, Gabriel Boric. President Boric seeks to return to a time when Chile played a leadership role when developing and implementing international treaties, which the previous administration was opposed to and contravened the Escazú agreement by not ratifying it.
The Escazú COP1 offered an opportunity for the public to participate and present their arguments together with state representatives; Six “representatives of the public” were chosen, most of them socio-environmental activists or members of organizations that work for transparency and participation in environmental matters. Its function was to act as a bridge between civil society in general and the state representatives sitting at the negotiating table.
All registered participants had the right to speak, which allowed for an inclusive and participatory atmosphere where young activists and indigenous human rights defenders contributed significantly.
The summit focused on three articles of the agreement: the rules for its implementation, including mechanisms for meaningful public participation; the necessary financing for its operation and implementation; and the establishment of an Implementation and Compliance Support Committee, this committee will be made up of seven independent members of the States Parties, it will be in charge of receiving cases in which the communities feel a violation of the treaty and of delivering recommendations to the countries to enforce the four central principles of the Agreement: guarantees for citizen participation, access to public information, access to justice, and protection and shelter for environmental defenders.
COP1 will implement the basic elements of this committee: it will be made up of experts who will be selected at COP2, scheduled for next year in Argentina, and will work in collaboration with civil society, which will be able to draw attention to breaches of the States may also adopt protection measures for environmental defenders who raise the alarm about violations of the States obligations under the agreement.
Each State may nominate candidates to fill the seven seats on this Implementation and Compliance Support Committee, but civil society can also do so. The committee is will be able to receive cases to consider, one year after its final organization chart has been drawn up. The date for the election of its members has not yet been defined.
Politically, the first COP was very important because it renewed the political commitment to the Escazú Agreement. Several important decisions arose from there, such as the working rules of the Implementation and Compliance Support Committee. Rules for future COPs also emerged, including a chapter on how the public, civil society, can participate in COPs. In addition, a Declaration was prepared on the issue of environmental defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean, which creates a Work Table, an annual Forum and an Action Plan for the implementation of Escazú.
Voices were raised demanding greater inclusion of indigenous peoples in the process, not just groups aligned with their governments. Nadino Calapucha, a young Kichwa leader from the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin of Ecuador, pointed out that Escazú still has no indigenous peoples’ spokesperson, a glaring oversight in a region where indigenous peoples are at the forefront of environmental damage, action and repression, and demanded a presence on the board of directors, as well as representation and voting rights.
Civil society lobbies for ratification. All countries have civil society networks and groups working to share the Escazú Agreement among communities and push for governments to sign, ratify and implement it.
Chile, a country that along with Costa Rica led the treaty process for years, refused to ratify Escazú under right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, but under his new government on Tuesday, May 31, 2022, Chile ratifies the Escazú Agreement, the process completed all its legislative stages, being approved on the Senate floor by 31 votes in favor, 3 against and 11 abstentions; Thus, the Escazú Agreement becomes the first treaty and bill on environmental issues of the Government of President Gabriel Boric to obtain the green light.
Under pressure from civil society, Colombia’s outgoing president also sent a bill to Congress which was received with much reluctance and little enthusiasm to pass. Days after the end of COP1, the Senate finally discussed it and gave it preliminary approval. If progressive candidate Gustavo Petro wins the upcoming presidential elections, hopes for quick ratification would significantly increase.
El Salvador, despite continued civil society advocacy, populist President Nayib Bukele has consistently rejected ratification, opposes Escazu and does not want to become a state party.
In Honduras, dozens of community groups and CSOs have worked tirelessly within and alongside the Honduran Network for the Escazú Agreement to promote and discuss the agreement and urge the government to ratify it. With the new government that was elected in early 2022, signs of willingness to join Escazú have finally begun to show.
Despite the fact that Bolivia is the country with the highest percentage of indigenous population in Latin America and the Caribbean, during the COP1 it presented a proposal that excludes indigenous peoples.
Bolivia requested the elimination of the clause that contemplates the participation of the public in the board of directors. At the end of the day, Bolivia gave way in the negotiations and it was agreed to approve the proposed rules of procedure proposed by the other States Parties in conjunction with civil society.
The realization of environmental rights and the protection of environmental defenders does not begin and end with the ratification of a treaty. Once the campaign for ratification is won, a new ongoing battle awaits civil society, which can only realistically hope to advance little by little in domesticating international standards and translating them into actions that attack the root of the problem of criminalization and violence against environmental defenders: an extractivist model of development that prioritizes profit over people and the environment.
The process of turning the Escazú Agreement into action has made a promising start, but it is only the beginning. Civil society across the region will continue to engage in the Escazú process to defend and expand its space and realize the ambitions of the agreement on the ground, where it really matters.
We call on Latin American and Caribbean states that have not yet signed or ratified the Escazú Agreement to start the process to do so as soon as possible.