Environmental defenders around the world are facing an onslaught of criminal and state violence, but the international response to this global issue is fragmented. The Escazú Agreement, which held its third Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Chile from 22 to 24 April 2024, has raised hopes for better international cooperation, but while it ushers in more regional cooperation, it lacks implementation capacity.

The exploitation of the environment and its natural resources is a catalyst for conflict and crime, not only causing biodiversity loss and contributing to the climate emergency, but also harming local communities and putting those who protect the environment at great risk. Since 2012, globally, nearly 2 000 land and environmental defenders have been killed for their activism. According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Assassination Witness programme, most of the victims were killed defending natural resources from industries such as illegal mining, illegal logging, large-scale agriculture and infrastructure projects.

The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) – the first environmental treaty in the region – is a landmark collective effort to uphold environmental rights. This legal instrument, which was adopted in 2018 and entered into force in 2021, demonstrates states’ commitment to protect environmental defenders.

A number of other resolutions and conference outcome documents have been adopted in international forums, highlighting concerns about the harm caused by environmental crime. However, despite widespread recognition that environmental crimes are an obstacle to achieving sustainable development, upholding human rights and mitigating climate change, there is a lack of substantive dialogue on how such crimes enable violence and impede the protection of rights. Discussions gained significant momentum in July 2022, when the UN General Assembly recognized that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right, following a recognition by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2021. These two resolutions represent a milestone in the international toolkit to protect the environment, enabling individuals to hold those responsible for environmental degradation accountable. The Escazú Agreement is an example of this right being enshrined in a legal instrument. But it may face challenges in its implementation.

Outcomes of the Conference of the Parties

Article 9 of the Escazú Agreement obliges states to provide a ‘safe and enabling environment’ for individuals, groups and organizations working to promote and defend human rights in environmental matters, so that they can be ‘free from threat, restriction and insecurity’. This is often a challenge in Latin America, as the region is ranked as the most dangerous in the world for environmental activists and is a hotspot for environmental crime. The 2023 Global Organized Crime Index found that South America has the second highest levels of non-renewable resource crimes (Western Asia tops the list), while Central America ranks third for flora and fauna crimes. These scores can be attributed in part to widespread illegal logging and wildlife trafficking in the Amazon region, which has bred a complex underground economy that feeds growing global demand while fuelling violence and crime.

At the third CoP, Chile, Ecuador and Saint Kitts and Nevis led the formation of a working group to advance the implementation of Article 9 and develop an action plan on environmental human rights defenders. The action plan is an unprecedented roadmap that seeks to identify a series of measures to implement the obligation to protect environmental defenders. The plan was agreed upon as an ethical imperative given the dire situation facing defenders in the region. As the plan moves forward, the inclusion of the perspectives of environmental defenders and civil society is crucial for its effective implementation. Civil society has drafted recommendations for what should be included in the plan and a public consultation was held across the region. These practices should continue.

The agreement also attaches importance to ensuring access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters, and the CoP held a special session on this topic. The promotion of such rights can reduce risk for defenders fighting environmental crimes, as it protects their ability to exercise these rights, free from reprisals and retaliation. In fact, conflicts with local populations, especially indigenous people, are frequently sparked by the introduction of development projects that lack transparency and that neglect to consult with the affected community.

The rights granted to communities by the agreement go beyond simply being involved in or informed about plans, but include the power to ultimately reject proposals if the results of negotiations are unsatisfactory. This is essential not only to amplify community voices, but also to compel companies to respect indigenous practices, systems and traditional law. However, questions remain about its feasibility, as community voices are often disregarded in favour of corporate interests. This illustrates the vested interests of actors involved in such processes. Communities may face obstacles to their rights from a number of sources, including powerful corporate interests, criminal networks and government agendas. Furthermore, their involvement in these economies is complex: community members may engage in informal or illegal activities out of a lack of alternative socio-economic opportunities, where they are often vulnerable to exploitation, extortion, forced labour and human trafficking.

Way forward

Although the Escazú Agreement is a historic step forward for the protection of the environment and those working to conserve it, challenges remain in its implementation, and its acceptance by countries in the region has been slower than expected. Since the treaty entered into force, only 16 states have ratified it (Dominica became the latest to do so at the CoP). Key countries grappling with environmental crimes, including Brazil, Colombia and Peru, have yet to become parties, although all three have signed.

This slow pace of ratification diminishes the treaty’s effectiveness, hinders its ability to achieve its goals, and leads to loss of momentum and enthusiasm among participating states and stakeholders. Delays in ratification can also lead to missed opportunities for cooperation and collaboration on critical global issues, as some countries advance their own national plans to protect the environment.

In addition, communities should be involved in the design and execution of extractive projects, and their perspectives should be incorporated into national and regional strategies to combat environmental crimes and protect natural resources. The approach must be gender-sensitive and intersectional, recognizing the differential impact of environmental crimes on women, men, youth, and indigenous, black and farming communities. A gendered perspective is absent from the Escazú Agreement, and countries at the CoP agreed on the urgency of integrating it. Including the voices of those most affected by environmental crime will be key to the agreement’s effective implementation.

This analysis is part of the ECO-SOLVE series of articles that aims to showcase solutions for monitoring and disrupting illicit environmental flows as well as strengthening international cooperation. ECO-SOLVE is a project implemented by the GI-TOC as part of the European Union’s Global Illicit Flows Programme.

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