Columns / Politics
Ratifying the Escazú Agreement Would Save Lives and Nature

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Ignacio Zavaleta y César Artiga

In El Salvador, it's easy to ignore the social and environmental impacts of sugarcane plantations if you only drive on roads that cut through those plantations or just see images of plantations on TV. The plantation workers, however, can’t so easily overlook the impacts. According to the Association for the Development of El Salvador, of the almost 10,000 cases of chronic kidney failure affecting sugarcane farmers between 2009 and 2018, most are probably related to the indiscriminate use of pesticides, aerial spraying, and intense labor. 

The expansion of sugarcane monoculture, which has a high potential to contaminate water sources, also tends to aggravate water scarcity in a country where more than 70 percent of the territory is susceptible to droughts, according to the Alliance for Solidarity. Climate change threatens to further aggravate the situation.

Finding lasting solutions to these problems, especially harmful to vulnerable communities, would be more effective if El Salvador joins the Escazú Agreement. This regional treaty ensures access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters, and since April 2021is in force in 12 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The Agreement requires that the governments of signatory countries take concrete steps in support of environmental justice. Measures include increasing awareness and clarity with information in the languages of those directly affected regarding environmental impacts of certain economic or business activities, as well as a commitment to facilitate the production of environmental damage tests. 

For example, adhering to the treaty in the case of sugarcane in El Salvador may result in more effective demonstrations of the connection between the misuse of agrochemicals resulting in the contamination of aquifers and the subsequent disproportionate incidence of kidney problems among field workers. 

Martín Quinilla,22, takes a break during the sugarcane harvest day on the Madre Tierra property in the Escuintla department. Guatemala is internationally considered to be a
Martín Quinilla,22, takes a break during the sugarcane harvest day on the Madre Tierra property in the Escuintla department. Guatemala is internationally considered to be a 'low-cost' sugar producer, in part due to its poor compliance with labor laws. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

The case of the town of Jiquilisco is a prime example. Monoculture in this area has invaded the Xirihualtique Jiquilisco Biosphere Reserve, a Ramsar site and protected natural area. Industry has also cut down the mangrove forest and affected the river basins, channels and flows, such as the Aguacayo River, which is a sacred altar for the Lenca people in that territory. All these harmful practices occur with the complete complicity and negligence of the State.

Ratifying a treaty like the Escazú Agreement would give NGOs that have been denouncing these problems a powerful argument to press for solutions. It would also strengthen the campaign to approve the Law for the Prohibition of Aerial Aspersion using Agrochemicals, as well as push to regulate permits and concessions for monoculture throughout the country. 

Costa Rica is often upheld as a country that protects its environmental heritage, where it’s possible to see the importance of ratifying the treaty. The agreement was never approved by the National Congress, despite the strong mobilization of various parts of civil society and the fact that the name of the agreement comes from Escazú, the Costa Rican city where it was signed. 

In the Costa Rican countryside, pineapple plantations have expanded so rapidly that they have already penetrated at least four protected wetland areas. The encroachment can be seen through an image analysis conducted by the Mongabay Latam website, together with the Monitoring of Use Change in Productive Landscapes (Moccup) program. In most cases, these crops are grown without proper environmental impact analysis, without which the regions are exposed to biodiversity damage and the loss of protection that the original vegetation provided to the communities.

A study from the Tropical Agronomic Research and Educational Center (Catie) reported that the drainage of wetlands for agricultural uses may have created the conditions leading to an increase in forest fires. Catie also found evidence that when Hurricane Otto hit the northern part of the country in 2016, the damages to the towns in this region were dwarfed by the presence of wetlands, which indicates that the destruction of these areas may soon prove detrimental to families in rural zones in the face of new hurricanes.

In the event that Costa Rica ratifies the Escazú Agreement, it’s not unreasonable to consider that community efforts to urge the government to improve controls on pineapple monoculture expansion could potentially see greater success, given that the state would be required to generate information on environmental damage caused by plantations and facilitate access for affected citizens to legal institutions.

The case of Costa Rica also demonstrates that environmental goals seem to be related to social justice and issues of community vulnerability. The Escazu Agreement is globally recognized as the first regional agreement in the world to provide for protective measures for environmentalists and human rights, as well as determining concrete actions to facilitate the exercise of said rights and establish mechanisms to ensure their enforcement.

A shield for environmentalists

It’s never wise to make historical assumptions, but it’s difficult not to regret that if Escazú had been in force and if Honduras had been a party to the agreement, the case of Berta Cáceres would probably have been handled differently. 

Berta was assassinated in 2016 after denouncing corruption, the destruction of the environment, and the displacement of Indigenous communities in her country for years. Berta informed the authorities and the press of the numerous death threats against here, but the help she received from the state to guarantee her safety was insufficient. The alleged mastermind of the crime, who was the director of a hydroelectric company denounced by Cáceres, was sentenced to prison only five years after the murder.

In Article 9, the Escazú Agreement requires states to protect defenders, create a safe environment to carry out their work, and take measures to prevent and punish attacks. The Honduran state would have had an extra obligation to protect Berta and safeguard her life.

Unfortunately, the case of Berta Cáceres is far from being an exception. According to the report Global Analysis, published in February 2021 by the NGO Frontline Defenders (FLD), three out of every four deaths of human rights defenders registered in the world in 2020 occurred in Latin America, with Honduras (3rd) and Guatemala (7th) among the 10 countries in the world with the most murders. 

The 2020 Report from another leading organization on this topic, Global Witness, confirms the terrifying status of Latin America as the worldwide epicenter of global attacks against environmentalists and on community-held lands. In the per capita assassination ranking of environmental defenders, the four main locations are Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

The Escazú Agreement is clearly necessary because it requires states to take 'appropriate, effective and timely measures to prevent, investigate, and sanction attacks, threats or intimidation that human rights activists and environmentalists may be subject to.' Its implementation represents a regional legal resource for groups who feel threatened or persecuted.

Pressure from citizens is fundamental

In addition to the examples we mentioned, it is important to highlight that the Escazú Agreement is not a panacea for problems that Latin America has faced for centuries. We run the risk, in different situations, of the treaty being transformed into a paper tiger if we do not continue putting pressure on governments and institutions so that they build a culture of peace, justice, and equity. However, we have no doubt that the agreement already represents a historic achievement for the social movements that participated in its construction for almost a decade and will help consolidate a series of transformations, ranging from the specifics to the more structural changes.

We see that environmental activists and governments themselves are already gradually incorporating the treaty into their toolbox. In July 2021, we had an interesting example in Argentina, the 10th country to ratify the treaty. In a public hearing on the disastrous projects for oil exploration in the Argentine sea, not only did the NGO representatives opposed to fossil fuels invoke the agreement, but also the Ministry of the Environment itself, which helped to keep the Argentine coast protected, at least until now. 

There has also been a proliferation of groups and citizens organized in Committees or Steering Teams participating in the Escazú Agreement, such as that of El Salvador, which are taking the principles of Escazú to communities and territories. They have multiplied throughout the region and are already carrying out relevant work to mobilize communities to push for the ratification of and adherence to the treaty in countries that have not yet become member states. In addition, Legislators for the Environment endorsed the ratification and adherence to the agreement as a priority issue. Legislators for the Environment is a participatory forum created by the global environmental NGO to promote the exchange of experiences between lawmakers and environmentalists from Latin American and Caribbean countries. By learning from each other, legislators and activists are developing better skills and strategies to advance the ratification agenda in various states.

The expansion and strengthening of citizen participation in the application of the treaty, involving and supporting groups and collectives of civil society and citizen activism, is an unavoidable, urgent and necessary commitment that the states, the United Nations system, and multilateral organizations should uphold. Anyone can contribute by seeking information and raising awareness on the Escazú Agreement in the educational, professional, civic, and political spaces that they are part of. Our attitude towards this issue can make a difference between remaining trapped in a long history of massacres and environmental extractivism or taking a meaningful leap towards the creation of sustainable societies with global responsibility, as a legacy for current and future generations. 

*Ignacio Zavaleta is an environmental activist and campaign coordinator for in Latin America and the Caribbean. César Artiga is coordinator of the Escazú Advocacy Team in El Salvador.

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