2020 is proving to be an extremely deadly year for environmental activists in Latin America. Between January and April, those murdered include 2 employees at a butterfly reserve in Michoacan, Mexico; six members of the Mayangna community in Nicaragua; a Colombian national park ranger, a Costa Rican indigenous land activist; and five members of the Guajajara tribe in Brazil. With plentiful resources, land control in Latin America becomes essential for loggers, petroleum workers, gem and metal miners, and members of organized crime organizations.
Environmental activists stand in the way of the aforementioned actors by literally standing in the way of infrastructure projects, interrupting activity. Others apply political pressure on governments by organizing communities and protesting the government’s disregard for increased environmental protections. These activists are women, indigenous peoples, Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+.
“In Honduras, like in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, women are the first line of offense that advances our rights, against racial discrimination and for the defense of our existence and survival.” Miriam Miranda, leader of a Garifuna community on the Caribbean island St. Vincent, demonstrates the important role that women take on in environmental activism.
With development projects in rural and impoverished areas of Latin America becoming more common, untouched land becomes a vital part of development projects. More specifically, environmental activists are in direct defiance of the interests of agribusiness, mining, and logging, all of which dominate Latin America’s development activities.
The journalistic project Land of Resistants captures the gravity of the situation:
“These advocates not only protect the land that gives them life, but also mountains that provide us with water and forests that clean the air from cities. They are being threatened and murdered at a frightening rate. Each one of them are more than a number. These are their life stories, a life of struggles and resistance.”
In response, 50 individuals (journalists, developers, and photo/videographers) from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela came together to produce a database that documents the 2,367 attacks from 2011 to 2019.
From this project, the following findings are essential to highlight:
- 1,679 attacks were against men and 441 attacks were against women. Since men are more likely to hold community leadership positions, they become prime targets
- Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples are disproportionately represented in these attacks (1,146 cases). Moreover, 893 attacks against members of 59 different indigenous ethnic groups were documented
In reaction to this, Latin American leaders have begun to coordinate their efforts at protecting environmental activists by signing and ratifying the Escazú Agreement (also known as the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean), which was adopted at Escazú, Costa Rica, on March 4th, 2018.
The Escazú Agreement’s creation was led by Chile and Costa Rica, with the public, experts, and academics participating in the agreement’s design. Initial lack of participation and lack of information in the decision-making process of approving infrastructure projects in Latin America led to the agreement’s development at the start of the 21st century.
The Amazon region is a clear example of indigenous communities displaced and exploited by companies such as Cargill, JBS, and Mafrig. Building off of Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which seeks to ensure access to information, citizen participation, and access to justice in environmental matters, the Escazú Agreement seeks to do the following:
“The objective of the present Agreement is to guarantee the full and effective implementation in Latin America and the Caribbean of the rights of access to environmental information, public participation in the environmental decision-making process and access to justice in environmental matters, and the creation and strengthening of capacities and cooperation, contributing to the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy environment and to sustainable development,” Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, pg. 14, Repositorio.
So far, 22 countries have signed the Escazú Agreement, and of those 22, 9 have ratified it. By signing the Escazú Agreement, a state declares that it has agreed upon the content of the treaty, and intends to work towards its implementation. Only ratification legally binds a state to oblige by the terms of the agreement.
Of special concern here is Chile. Despite being an encouraging actor in the agreement’s formulation, in October of 2018, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Chile would not sign the Escazú Agreement. Two of the provisions in the agreement would require Chile to share information and resources with South American landlocked countries, and grant the International Court of Justice jurisdiction over international disputes concerning the environment. “If we sign Escazú, the conflicts that arise with Bolivia, or with Bolivian citizens, or with any other country go directly to the International Court.” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera’s words are concerning and reflective of Chile’s desire to avoid the international court from intervening in South American affairs.
As the deadliest country for environmental activists, leading the death toll with more than 100 murders in 2019, Colombia’s signing of the Escazú Agreement is a major step forward. With congressional hearings concerning the agreement’s ratification expected to resume in July, a recent interview with Colombian NGO, Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad (AAS) provided a clearer picture of the Colombian government’s response to the surge in killings:
“With coronavirus and quarantine measures, we have not been able to move to the ratification stage. We are still campaigning and making public acts through online sessions on Facebook. But July will be a critical month for applying the most pressure on Congress to make sure the appropriate mechanisms that are outlined in the agreement are established. What worries us, however, that even in the midst of coronavirus, the death toll of environmental activists in Colombia continues to increase since government resources are now increasingly dedicated to COVID-19 relief.”
AAS seeks to generate positive environmental change within Colombia by sharing technical and traditional knowledge on climate change, monitoring national and international agreements that respond to climate change, calling attention to environmental mitigation actions that directly affect black, indigenous, and small-scale farmer communities, building participation and advocacy on social and environmental decision-making processes with affected communities, supporting communities affected by the financing of infrastructure and hydrocarbon projects in their territories, and shaping opinion and promoting citizen access to information, participation, and action initiatives using online and journalistic communications.
Below are some of AAS’s projects and communications:
Despite being hopeful about the prospect of ratification, there remain three distinct challenges in Colombia: (1) the creation of participatory mechanisms that provide direct and significant discourse from citizens; (2) the creation of courts specializing in environmental issues; and (3) guarantee access to protections for environmental activists. What this would mean for Colombia is more public forums that would directly intervene in the approval of infrastructure projects and increased resources for law enforcement and the court system to process the murders of environmental activists.
As participating countries slowly ratify the Escazú Agreement, the coming months will be critical for environmental activists in Latin America.
Angel Ornelas | Claremont McKenna College
Angel is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations at Claremont McKenna College. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, Angel is the son of Mexican immigrants. His father is from Leon, Guanajuato, and his mother is from Juárez, Chihuahua. On campus, Angel is actively involved with the Chicano Latino Student Affairs center and the Queer Resource Center as a mentor. Throughout his undergraduate career thus far, Angel has done fieldwork in Los Angeles and Mexico City. As a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, Angel plans to pursue a Ph.D. program in Anthropology in the hopes of becoming an anthropologist. He hopes to make significant contributions to Latina Republic and is excited to forge friendships with leaders in América Latina.