The Escazú Agreement: Protecting Latin America’s Environmental Defenders

By Lucy Jordan, Deputy Editor

‘Our house is on fire’. Seven months on from Greta Thunberg’s global address, and the world was awakened to the far-too-literal reality of her statement. Flames raged through the depths of the Amazon, and with their embers plastered across every newspaper, one could do little else but gawp.

Beneath the smoke resided over 300,000 Amazonian indigenous people, whose 422 demarcated territories (according to the Instituto Socioambiental) make up nearly a quarter of the forest floor. For them, Greta’s words hold holds far greater dimensions than we could ever know. For Latin America’s indigenous peoples, their metaphorical intent remains well and truly lost.

A brush fire burns next to grazing land in the Amazon basin in Ze Doca (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

During the fires’ five most destructive days, the flames were found to have spread to over 130 indigenous reserves. Among those, the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reserve, situated in the state of Rondônia, is known to home three indigenous groups; the Araribóia indigenous reserve, situated in the state of in Maranhão, is known to home the isolated Awá indigenous people, also known as the world’s most endangered tribe.

The fires were said to be perpetrated predominantly for agricultural and farming purposes, and could be perceived as yet another illustration in the persistent narrative of dwindling autonomy for Brazil’s indigenous groups. With the Latin American pandemic of environmental deregulation ongoing, and a weakening capacity to demarcate their lands, prospects for indigenous peoples continue to darken, much like Sao Paulo’s blackened sky. 

It is due to these threats that indigenous peoples, in many cases, now fall under a secondary term: environmental defenders’ or, alternatively, ‘environmental human rights defenders’. Why? Typically, these terms are used to denote any individual or community experiencing harm to themselves, their land, or their culture, as a result of environmental degradation. Environmental defenders will also, oftentimes, be removed from such decision making, rendering them powerless against such degradations. The result: an emphatic term, conjuring images of profound heroism, in the face of pervasive oppression.

However, the need for such a term should ring alarm bells. Its verb, to defend, renders the mere existence of indigenous peoples as something of an active stance, born ever to exist in combat. Under such a guise, one becomes burdened with labour set to yield a lifetime of mental, emotional, and physical tolls. The death toll of environmental defenders has almost doubled within the past 15 years, with such figures neglecting further incidences such as threats, non-fatal harm, and sexual abuse.

Rosa Dahua (pictured below), of the Sápara peoples in Ecuador, helped lead her community’s protests of oil drilling within their ancestral Amazonian home. With a population of a mere 500 individuals, the Sápara Nation is recognised by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, due to growing threats to their language, people and culture. However, with oil blocks planned to impose upon 500,000 acres of their territory, the threat to the end of their cultural lineage grows. Whether chosen or not, such indigenous groups become burdened to face the brunt of the environmental fight, rendered in a state of conflict, for their lands, heritage, and ultimately, their future.

Rosa Dahua of the Sápara people (Santiago Cornejo, Amazon Watch’s Portrait Series ‘Women Defenders of the Amazon’)

So, what protection currently exists for indigenous peoples? Why is it that the vulnerability of their nations continues to grow, despite the growing urgency of the issue at hand? The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2016) noted that, in almost every affected country in Latin America, both ‘government and corporate actors are involved in the crimes committed against human rights defenders’. As a result, indigenous peoples often find themselves confronted by a “double vulnerability”, as their home becomes the target of many an influential name. 

 This, in turn, perpetuates a culture of impunity, as corruption begins to undermine regular systems of justice, and social rights, such as transparency and accountability, begin to crumble. Such neglect, moreover, is not merely domestic, as failures on the part of the foreign companies and states to enforce human rights protections in projects abroad can contribute to the agglomeration of these issues within certain regions.

Salome Aranda of the Kichwa people (Santiago Cornejo, Amazon Watch’s Portrait Series ‘Women Defenders of the Amazon’)

Take Salomé Aranda (pictured above), of the Ecuadorian Kichwa people of Moretecocha. She acts as a Women and Family leader within her community, and has helped to lead their arudous fight against decades of oil drilling within their forests. Resource extraction projects in the region are predominantly pursued by the Italian oil and gas corporation ENI; the world’s 11th largest industrial company.  Consequently, Aranda has faced multiple threats and attacks with little justice or recompense for the violence inflicted against her. However, with the inability to prosecute the company beyond her home nation, and a state indifferent to her concerns, defenders like Aranda have little capacity to protest the offences against them.

A Wayuu protest. Translated to state: ‘No to coal in Guasuare’ (Luisbi Portillo)

How, therefore, is such silencing allowed to persist? The answer can be found in one word: prejudice. Indigenous peoples exist within a ‘culture of stigmatisation’, as companies, governments, and even regular citizens, brand indigenous peoples as anti-development, state enemies, or ‘free-riders’. This branding, the Universal Rights Group argues, is a key trigger in the use and tolerance of violence against indigenous peoples, as onlookers remain indifferent to the abuses inflicted against them, or, even more concerningly, believe them in the nation’s interests. Hence, as a stifling entity, prejudice is a key tool in rendering one’s voice without legitimacy, and for masking gross injustice, enabling it never to even appear as such. What then can be said for the prospects of such communities, once so consciously ousted from society?

The health and wellbeing of indigenous individuals often becomes neglected and dismissed in the face of such vilification. In La Gaujira, home of the Wayuu people, more than 4,000 children have died as a result of malnutrition, as their access to clean water diminishes (photo above). Such health concerns coincide with plans to mine 500 million tons of coal from beneath their riverbed, after the region’s three most recent governors are underwent prosecution for inter alia; the mismanagement of power and resources.

So what, exactly, is being done to solve this crisis? Although well-known frameworks exist to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and those of human rights defenders, due to the modern nature of the issue, there has never existed any specific protection for environmental defenders – until now.

 The Escazú Agreement, first proposed in 2012 by the Chilean and Costa Rican governments at the Rio+20 conference, seeks to adopt Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. The treaty will be the first of its kind, as the first environmental treaty in the Latin Americas, and the first worldwide to explicitly protect the rights of environmental defenders.

Its aim? To ensure a safe environment for defenders to act, ensure prevention and prosecution in response to attacks, and grant defenders the urgent access to information and resources they desperately need. The success of the treaty will therefore require a great deal of political will from governments ahead of this year’s COP25, set to be held in Santiago, Chile, where a call will be made for countries to ratify the treaty, to ensure that nation states will be legally obliged to follow its mandate at a national level. 16 countries have currently signed the treaty, though of these two have yet to ratify. These sixteen do not include, ironically, the treaty’s originator, Chile, as well as historically unsafe states, such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. 

Furthermore, the treaty can be seen to be important in more than insuring the empowerment of indigenous peoples across the continent. A study conducted by the World Resources Institute found that that indigenous community forests, specifically looking at those within the Amazon, contain 36% more carbon per hectare in comparison to other areas. In complement, rates of forest loss in such regions were found to be 140 times lower, thus demonstrating that the ownership of legal forest rights by indigenous communities tended to both lower carbon dioxide emissions as well as reduce deforestation. Measures to protect environmental defenders could therefore prove to be an effective contributor to climate mitigation efforts.

This sentiment has been echoed by the World Bank, which stressed the importance of indigenous peoples for creating sustainable systems of agriculture and land-use, currently the cause of one quarter of net anthropogenic greenhouse emissions. Indigenous peoples care for roughly 22% of the Earth’s surface, with their territories containing nearly 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Indigenous peoples successfully provide for their communities without damaging the complex ecosystems within which they live: a lifestyle which we would be naïve not too learn from – one within which humans can live in harmony with their natural surroundings, and cultivate a relationship with nature greater than mere economic exploitation.

A Pataxo indigenous woman performs in front of police during the Indigenous Peoples Ritual March outside the National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil, April 27, 2017 (AP/Eraldo Peres)

So, in conclusion, as far-right ideologues pervade Latin American states and fossil fuel projects continue to scourge their lands, the battle does not appear to be letting up for the continent’s indigenous nations any time soon. However, with progressive frameworks such as the Escazú Agreement beginning to be put into place, and growing support from around the world, their voice is growing in the halls of power, where once they stood silenced. If we must learn one lesson from their plight, we should remember that this issue is one, on its most fundamental level, of morals.

Environmental defenders help to remind us that we shouldn’t need further justification to act with care and respect for our environment. Ideas such as ‘economic incentives’ or ‘development’, which neutralise the idea of nature, and simply provide a valuation of its component parts, are blind to the real motivations we should use to put the progressive environmental policies that we urgently need in place. It is here that environmental defenders remind us that there need be no better reason to protect the environment than the fact that it holds our history, a life, and a majesty. Anything more than that, frankly, should be window-dressing.

Protect nature, because, with it, we are inextricably linked. Protect those who defend it, as they are the only ones who need not learn this lesson.

If you are interested in learning more about indigenous peoples, and their fight as environmental defenders, click here to read fellow GLOBUS correspondent, Safiya Hassan’s, take on the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the response from local indigenous people to the controversial project.

Moreover, if you are interested in learning more about the Escazú Agreement, ahead of COP25, click here to watch an short, informative video on the topic by Amnesty International, or here to read more.

Header Image: Photo by Filip Gielda on Unsplash


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