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Protecting Environmental Defenders This Earth Day

Latin American, Caribbean States Adopt Groundbreaking Treaty on Environmental Rights

Indigenous people arrive in Quito after marching for 10 days to protest new mining and water law initiatives, as well as a constitutional reform project that would have allowed for indefinite re-election of the president. August 12, 2015. © 2015 José Jácome/EFE
Last month, Latin America and Caribbean countries adopted a landmark regional agreement on environmental rights – the first to offer specific protections for people who stand up in defense of their right to a healthy environment.

On Earth Day, the effort is a good reminder of the dangers and challenges that still face environmental defenders around the region.

The treaty, adopted in Escazú, Costa Rica, will require states that ratify it to take measures to recognize and promote the work of environmental defenders, as well as measures to prevent and investigate attacks or threats against them.

Take the case of Agustín Wachapá, a Shuar indigenous leader in Ecuador. In December 2016, after a clash between police and opponents of a mining project, then President Rafael Correa singled out Wachapá – who was president of the Interprovincial Federation of Shuar Centers– on his nationally broadcast TV show, depicting him as violent. Shortly after the broadcast, Ecuador’s Interior Ministry filed a criminal complaint against Wachapá and a prosecutor charged him with “incitement to violence.”The case has loomed over Wachapá’s head ever since, even though the prosecution has presented no meaningful evidence to sustain the charges. The court is expected to deliver a verdict on his case on May 16.

Or the case of Berta Cáceres, an environmental activist and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous organizations of Honduras, who was murdered in 2016. By then, Cáceres had endured years of death threats for defending her people’s lands.

The Escazú Agreement recognizes that the work of environmental defenders, like Wachapá and Cáceres, is important for democracy and sustainable development. It requires parties to guarantee that people defending their environment and communities can work safely without restrictions or threats.

The work of Human Rights Watch, together with our partners, was critical in securing these protections for environmental defenders in the treaty. We worked with environmentally-oriented representatives from Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, in the elaboration of text for dedicated protections to environmental defenders. We helped form a coalition of non-governmental partners—including human rights and environmental organizations from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries in the region -- that advocated on the importance of those protections.

The inclusion of these protections is an important step in protecting our environmental defenders, whose work keeps land healthy, for the people who depend on it and for us all.


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