Taking into consideration the UN Sustainable Development Goals in terms of environmental matters, the Escazu Agreement, an initiative of Latin American and Caribbean countries, seeks to regulate regional standards in terms of environmental protection. Equally important is the treaty’s aim to protect environmental activists and defenders, as well as guaranteeing the inclusion of marginalised people, or communities.
The initiative was led by Chile and Costa Rica, laying the foundations for a human rights treaty at a regional level. In September 2018 under President Sebastian Pinera, Chile withdrew from the agreement, just three months after a Global Witness report noted that Latin America held the highest percentage of murdered environmental activists – a staggering 60 per cent.
Argentina recently voted to ratify the Escazu Agreement, joining Antigua and Barbuda, Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Nicaragua, Guyana and Uruguay. The treaty needs one more country to become signatory, in order to be enforced in the region. While the window of opportunity for signing regionally has closed, countries can still ratify the agreement through the UN.
Chile, which helped to draft the treaty under former president Michelle Bachelet, has once again refused to sign the agreement, with Pinera calling it “inconvenient” due to the possibility of the country facing international legal action for environmental crimes and conflicts. Several environmental activists have been found dead in Chile following Pinera’s withdrawal from the agreement, raising suspicion that the individuals were targeted by state and multinational interests.
Argentina’s ratification is important for the region. The Italian fashion brand, Benetton, owns 2.2 million acres of land which is considered ancestral territory by the indigenous Mapuche people. The purchase took place in 1991, when the Argentinian government’s adoption of neoliberalism prompted privatisation of land. Since the late 19th century, Mapuche territory had been targeted and the people expelled, thus initiating the imbalance of power between the state and the indigenous population.
Despite Argentinian law recognising the Mapuche people’s ancestral rights to land, the state and corporate interests hold sway over such rights. As happens elsewhere in Latin America, the complicity between states and multinational companies has resulted in militarisation and securitisation of indigenous land, the criminalisation of indigenous resistance, as well as the targeting of environmental and indigenous activists; Argentina having been heavily scrutinised for the killing and disappearance of Santiago Maldonado. Maldonado had been involved in protests against Benetton in which the Mapuche were demanding their ancestral rights to occupied land.
While the Escazu Agreement seeks more civilian participation in environmental decision-making, as well as protection for activists, a change in politics in imperative. The protection afforded to multinational companies, as well as influential lobby groups, such as agribusiness in Brazil and hydroelectric projects in Chile for example, has resulted in widespread impunity. If the Escazu Agreement is to reach its full potential, a political reckoning with human rights is unavoidable, not only by countries which have refused ratification, but also those which have signed and still operate with a discrepancy between protection and violation in the name of profit.
It is also impossible to negate the link between Latin America’s dictatorial past and the current impunity. Decades of dictatorships which ushered in the politics of neoliberalism have left the people exploited by governments whose main priority has been to utilise dictatorship tactics under democratic rule. Access to information on environmental matters, which is part of the Escazu Agreement, is anathema for governments relying upon the exploitation of land and corruption. Security for citizens is not what corrupt governance is seeking, hence the need to consider the Escazu Agreement within the context of local and regional politics, to prevent its aims from being overruled by lucrative ventures at the expense of civilians.