Source: La Silla Vacía

By: María Alejandra Aguilar

On March 4th, 2018, in Escazú, Costa Rica, a regional instrument was adopted for access to information, participation, and justice for environmental affairs. It is a binding international treaty that primarily focuses on strengthening environmental democracy, defining and guaranteeing standards for the fulfillment of human and environmental rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, and shifting the hemisphere towards more inclusive and transparent sustainable development.

The foundation for the Escazú Agreement is Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, on the right to a healthy and sustainable environment for present and future generations. One of its pillars is an effective enjoyment and recognition of the rights to access.

After the Rio Declaration, the Santiago Decision was approved in 2014, which sought to apply Principle 10 of the Declaration by means of a regional instrument. Negotiations began in 2015 with the Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean  (ECLAC) as the technical secretariat.

The Escazú Agreement is an instrument with important characteristics that distinguish it from other treaties in the region.

It is the first multilateral environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean

It enjoyed direct public participation, by means of elected representatives, giving civil society a voice during the four years of negotiations.

 For the first time it included a provision on environmental and human rights defenders, giving international visibility to a serious problem in the region, the systematic murder of leaders, as Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, and Mexico (see) hold the top spots in the world.

It is an instrument that is connected to the fulfillment of several Sustainable Development Goals, SDG 11 Reduced Inequalities, SDG 12 Sustainable Cities and Communities, and in particular SDG 13, Climate Action, by insisting that the countries provide effective protections for its citizens human right and environmental rights, and SDG 16, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions as it promotes transparency and a strengthening of Rule of Law.

Since it was opened for signature on September 27th, 2018, 22 countries have adhered and seven have already deposited the instrument’s ratification. It must be ratified by four more countries, for a total of eleven, for the Agreement to go into effect.

As of December 12, 2019, Colombia is one of the signatory countries and it is hoped that in March 2020 the ratification process will begin, which represents challenges and opportunities for the country.

On one hand, the Agreement promises to contribute to an improved implementation of previously recognized constitutional principles, such as access to public information, to resolve asymmetries in citizen participation processes, allowing them to be truly effective and have a direct influence on environmental decision making.

On the other hand, the Agreement shows institutional insufficiencies on material access to environmental justice, and the need to develop new mechanisms to reduce social-environmental conflicts, to adequately train justice operators on this type of issues, for the codification, prosecution, and sanction of new criminal categories for environmental and connected human rights violations, among others.

According to experts there is a close relationship between the over 300 social-environmental conflicts reported in Colombia and the state’s incapacity to guarantee participation and informed consultations for Afro-descendant, indigenous, and peasant communities in relation to governance and territorial development (see).

There are increasing conflicts between ethnic and peasant communities regarding the management of territories and an elevated number of murdered leaders from these groups, with over 174 killed  between 2002 and 2017 (see).

This is a clear call to review the country’s environmental democracy and the most urgent reason to incorporate the Escazú Agreement into Colombia’s legal framework.