Environmental groups stage a protest to demand the relocation of a pulp mill built on the banks of Uruguay river, in Buenos Aires, January 29, 2009.

© 2009 REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian

All is not well with an ambitious attempt to forge a sweeping treaty on sustainable development across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Earlier this month, representatives of 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries held week-long talks in Buenos Aires to reach an agreement on protecting the rights of millions of people across the region confronting grave environmental challenges posed by economic development efforts. The goal of the talks – the seventh since 2014 – was to secure meaningful participation and access to justice for people who will be affected by economic projects.

But, for the first time in the process, civil society organizations, who had been active in the negotiations announced that, disheartened by what they see as weak proposals to protect human rights, they may pull out.

Many in civil society held high hopes for a strong agreement to support sustainable development in the region. They hoped that a legally binding pact could help end the proliferation of environmental conflicts and address dire problems faced by the millions of people who suffer from pollution and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.

But civil society groups are deeply concerned that negotiating governments are backing off existing human rights standards, and that the negotiations have lost leadership and direction.

To date, the United Nations-led effort has exhibited a level of openness to the participation of the public that is unprecedented at the UN. Civil society organizations have a valuable contribution to make to the negotiations. Should they leave, hopes for a robust agreement will dim.

Not all was somber in the negotiating room, however. In another first, Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru tabled important language to safeguard environmental defenders. The proposed protections for environmental defenders are a step in the right direction, offering hope to those individuals and groups who defend the environment and their communities, and are under threat in the region.

“The agreement on environmental rights cannot succeed if those who defend them are targeted, attacked, or murdered,” said John Knox, the UN expert on human rights and environment, in a side-event co-organized by Human Rights Watch in Buenos Aires.

Governments should embrace the efforts by Costa Rica and others to protect and give hope to those who put their lives at risk in defense of the environment, for the benefit of all.