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Brazil Must Support Environmental Defenders

Ratifying the Escazu Agreement is key to strengthening environmental policies.

Published in: O Globo


Launch of the Escazu Brazil Movement, in Brasilia on April 14, 2023. © 2023 Anna Livia Arida/Human Rights Watch

Latin American and Caribbean countries are meeting next week in Argentina for the second meeting of the countries that have ratified of the Escazu Agreement – COP2, a treaty that seeks to protect the environment and its defenders. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should use the opportunity of this conference as a backdrop to send the treaty to the National Congress and engage in a forceful effort to ensure legislators approve it.

The Escazu Agreement is the first environmental human rights treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean to promote the rights of participation, access to information, and justice in environmental matters. So far, 15 countries, including Chile, Argentina and Mexico, have ratified the treaty, which entered into force in 2021. Every country in the region should join.

The treaty requires governments to ensure that people can participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect their lives and their environment. Crucially, it requires governments to take measures to prevent, investigate, and impose sanctions for attacks against environmental defenders.

Brazil signed the treaty in 2018, but neither the president at the time, Michel Temer, nor Jair Bolsonaro, who followed, sent it to Congress for ratification, which is necessary to make its provisions binding in Brazil.

President Lula has pledged to put Brazil back on track when it comes to protecting the environment and environmental defenders. He has vowed to increase regional cooperation, including by organizing a summit specifically on the Amazon, to promote “integrated development of the region, with social inclusion and climate responsibility.” But Lula has yet to commit to Escazu.

The situation in Brazil´s Amazon is critical due to accelerating deforestation, illegal mining on Indigenous lands, and violence against environmental defenders. More than 300 people have died in conflicts over the use of land and resources in the last decade, according to the Pastoral Land Commission. Many environmental activists and community leaders have been  threatened for speaking up about environmental destruction through illegal logging, mining, and land-grabs. Those responsible for the threats and violence are rarely brought to justice.

The Bolsonaro administration undermined the agencies responsible for promoting and protecting the environment, land tenure, and Indigenous rights and issued regulations that facilitated encroachment into Indigenous territories. It also weakened transparency practices and prevented civil society from meaningfully participating in environmental policymaking. Notably, it sidelined nongovernmental groups from contributing their expertise for decision-making at Conama— the National Environmental Council and other deliberative bodies.

More than 27 civil society organizations are taking part in the Escazú Brazil Movement, to urge Brazil to ratify and implement this treaty.

Ratifying the Escazu Agreement would be a key sign that the new government is committed to correcting course. It would help shore up Brazil’s democracy on environmental matters, by increasing transparency, access to information and public participation. Carrying out the access rights required under the treaty would enhance credibility and integrity in both public and private spheres, by allowing greater monitoring by civil society organizations, journalists, and public prosecutors.

Brazil's economic interests are at stake as well. For example, the European Union has agree to adopted a new law mandating that products sold in the EU, including those imported from countries like Brazil, are not linked to deforestation. 

Ratifying and implementing the Escazú Agreement would send a much-needed message to Brazilians—and to the international community—that the country is truly committed to fighting deforestation, defending the rights of forest peoples, and playing a leading role in responding to the climate crisis.

* A version of this article has been published in O Globo

** This article is co-authored by: Raul Silva Telles do Valle, lawyer and public policy specialist for WWF Brazil; and Renato Morgado, program manager at Transparency International Brazil

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