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Larissa Soto on the potentials and pitfalls of the Escazú Agreement in Latin America

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Chile's President Gabriel Boric, accompanied by Foreign Minister Antonia Urrejola and Environment Minister Maisa Rojas, takes part in a signing ceremony for the draft agreement to approve the Treaty of Escazú in Santiago, Chile on 18 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Esteban Felix

The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation, and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, popularly known as the Escazú Agreement, is an international treaty that evolved from the Rio+20 process around the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. It aims to support access to environmental information and protect environmental defenders.

So far, it has been signed by 25 countries and ratified by 12. It entered into force in April 2021 after Mexico and Argentina ratified it. One year later, in April 2022, the first general meeting of the agreement’s signatories, the Conference of Parties (COP), took place in Santiago de Chile. Gaya Sriskanthan of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office spoke with Larissa Soto, a Costa Rican social anthropologist working with the organization La Ruta del Clima, about the effects and the potential of the new agreement as a tool to enhance climate action from a human rights perspective.

Larissa Soto is a Costa Rican social anthropologist who collaborates with La Ruta del Clima, a Central American non-profit civil society organization that works at different levels to encourage public participation in climate decisions and promote climate justice.

The Escazú Agreement entered into force one year ago. Can you tell us more about it?

Rights to participation have been central in the agenda of Latin American and Caribbean countries since the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992, and through the long process of negotiations on the international level that followed. Twenty years after the first conference, a second one took place in Rio de Janeiro. The Principle 10 of the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development that came out of this Rio+20 process states that “environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all citizens involved”. The Escazú Agreement focuses on operationalizing this principle.

What are the aims of the agreement?

Firstly, it encourages the adoption of concrete measures to facilitate access to information and effective participation in environmental issues at all levels. Secondly, it promotes the role of the public in environmental democracy and highlights the importance of protecting the human rights of environmental defenders. Lastly, it urges states to guarantee access to justice regarding environmental matters.

In fact, the Escazú Agreement efforts have already begun to pay off. It provides a platform to standardize access, rights, and protection across Latin America and the Caribbean. The agreement is an innovative instrument because the public has a central role. For the ratified countries, the agreement is an opportunity to level the playing field in terms of access rights.

The protection of human rights of environmental defenders is crucial — over the last few years the incidences of persecution and murder of environmental activists in the region have been shockingly high. How can the Escazú Agreement help to protect them?

Currently, getting involved in these issues is difficult and at times risky for a lot of people, particularly indigenous peoples and local communities. Many who do become politically engaged in environmental issues do so out of necessity because the livelihoods and existence of their communities depend on it.

A comprehensive implementation of the agreement has the potential to enhance the public’s inclusion on environmental issues, because it creates channels for the participation of a larger number of people underpinned by a protection of their rights to act on the environment. In Article 9, the agreement obliges parties to ensure a safe environment, as well as to prevent, investigate and punish any attacks on people.

However, the agreement alone is still an empty vessel. It would require serious mechanisms of review and a funded effort to implement its principles at a national level. The key element strengthening the protection of environmental defenders is the fact that these issues will be addressed regionally, and that there will be a possibility to make them public and discuss them at regional and international forums.

The Escazú Agreement has a strong focus on increasing participation and access to information. How will this be achieved?

The Escazú Agreement is still developing its basic structures and rules of procedure. However, due to how it has been structured, it holds the promise of generating innovations that could inspire other processes. The agreement is innovative in the way it defines civil society more expansively as the “public”, which includes civil society organizations but also creates different systems of participation through public representatives. This is a significant change to the NGO observer’s mechanism that most UN bodies use. However, the mechanisms for this are still being developed and many questions remain to be answered. It is also unclear how soon countries will build these new participatory structures.

At a national level, the process of increasing participation and access to information will not be rapid or uniform across the countries of the region even as they commit themselves to compliance with the agreement, and the countries will implement the agreement in accordance with their capacities and available resources. The agreement itself seeks to accelerate this process by focusing on capacity building. For example, it provides a Clearing House, a platform to share and exchange information to support the implementation, and has created a Voluntary Fund to assist the process. Furthermore, at the first COP, a Committee to Support Implementation and Compliance was established.

What lessons can that hold for other environmental and climate agreements?

Thanks to the aspects mentioned above, the implementation of the agreement could create positive synergies for countries to meet their obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the International Convention on Biological Diversity, and others, as it seeks to operationalize the participatory and human rights principles that are also reflected in other international legal instruments.

Regarding the Paris Agreement on climate change, what can be learned from the Escazú Agreement is that public participation must be meaningful and incorporate the language of human rights with much greater consistency. Parties also have the obligation to promote the principles of the Escazú Agreement and public participation in international forums, and to promote the discussion of international forums and commitments at the national level.

You mentioned that the Escazú Agreement is supported by some innovative mechanisms, such as Regional Public Mechanisms and networks or groups of social actors. How will these mechanisms help coordination both at local and regional levels?

As part of the implementation of Principle 10 above, a Regional Public Mechanism was created where stakeholders are informed about and engaged with the Escazú Agreement, and public participation in international meetings is coordinated. The role of this mechanism in this early stage of the agreement is yet to be defined, but its role will be to increase transparency and inclusion. One of the early activities of the mechanism is a regular newsletter informing any interested individuals or groups of meetings and organised events.

Another provision states that anyone can join independent efforts to call for the ratification and implementation of the Escazú Agreement in any of their countries. In this way, civil society campaigns, such as Escazú Ahora/Escazú Now have been created in a number of countries in the region, such as Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica. These campaigns have been important in generating public discussion and pressuring legislators for ratification. They may have played an important role in the countries where the agreement has already been ratified. Currently, some campaigns for ratification are still going strong, such as in Peru, but in other countries like Costa Rica they have slowed down.

There are also efforts to create additional participatory mechanisms, such as indigenous special delegates and specific working groups, which will be advanced in the next meeting to advance the agreement. However, the national and regional coordination between these initiatives, and how they will really influence the implementation of Escazú, is something that is still unclear and must be developed in future Conferences of the Parties.

And how would this function in the country where you work, Costa Rica?

For Costa Rica, the first challenge is to convey political will and dialogue between sectors for the ratification of the Agreement. Organizations such as La Ruta del Clima have promoted discussion through various activities including campaigns, radio programmes and podcasts, blog articles, and participation in panel discussions.

Other organizations and movements have also been interested and have sought to support the ratification of the Agreement in the Legislative Assembly, but they have encountered opposition from the business chambers, which have not correctly understood the benefits that the agreement would generate for them. Most political parties are against or disregard the importance of ratifying the Escazú Agreement.

International solidarity is essential for our grassroots work. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s support for our engagement in the first Conference of Parties, for instance, enabled one of the few Central American voices at COP that took place in Santiago de Chile this April.

Who else attended the meeting?

The Escazú COP1 was attended by delegates from the signatory countries, representatives of national NGOs, mostly from Chile and Argentina, and international organizations. The participation of the public, especially the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), various youth organizations from Chile and Argentina, and the country delegations’ interventions were decisive in ensuring participation of the public in the steering committee of the agreement. However, in general, the participation of the public was not regionally balanced or diverse. There is much room for improvement.

What are the main issues that were discussed?

As this is a new initiative, a basic governance and procedural framework and financial arrangements were set up for the COP. A committee, which was formed to oversee the implementation of the agreement by countries, will support countries in their compliance. Each country delegate shared what their country has achieved so far and their intentions towards the full implementation of the agreement.

On the last day, it was decided to establish an open working group on human rights defenders, with the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples. In terms of next steps, to speed up progress on the issues agreed, it was agreed to hold an extraordinary meeting in April 2023 in Argentina, while the second COP will be held in April 2024.

It has been stated that the involvement and participation of everyone, including young people, is necessary to ensure that the Escazú Agreement is widely ratified and implemented in each country. Do you see a pathway for young people in your country to get involved?

The participation of young people will only be possible if there is a process of raising awareness of the agreement and its implications in the region. So far, those who have been most involved in promoting the agreement are young people with prior interests in environmental issues, with access to the necessary information and media.

Coordinated efforts should be made to increase awareness of the benefits of the agreement to young people, without homogenizing their interests or concerns. Communication campaigns should be made context oriented, according to the different economic sectors and with respect for cultural and political diversity. Otherwise, it will continue to be a space dominated by urban youth who have had access to resources to learn about the Escazú Agreement and NGOs that had the means to position themselves in the process and with parties.

What are your hopes and expectations for the agreement’s progress in Costa Rica over the next few years?

Looking to the future, we should, firstly, evaluate and strengthen the communication platform of the organizations that have already been promoting the Agreement. Secondly, we need to address the concerns of the private sector, so that they become a driving force rather than an obstacle. Thirdly, we should place the ratification of the Escazú Agreement in the Legislative Assembly as a priority, and lastly, we have to organize diverse and inclusive public participation that is well-informed, experienced, and able to prioritize actions in the Costa Rican context.