Latin America and the Caribbean – a region rich in wildlife and natural resources – is also the deadliest part of the world for environmental defenders. Sixty per cent of the 197 people killed in 2017 for defending their right to land and a healthy environment worked in the region, according to the watchdog group Global Witness.
“The majority of conflicts that threaten the lives of environmental defenders are ultimately linked to mining, major infrastructure projects or the expansion of the agricultural frontier,” says Leo Heileman, UN Environment’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“That is why mechanisms of prior consultation and public participation and specific legislation are key to prevent these conflicts. We call it environmental democracy,” Heileman explains.
On 4 March, 24 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean took a historic stand that many hope will help stop the wave of violence against defenders: they adopted the world’s first binding agreement on environmental democracy.
“This is an opportunity to give environmental rights the same legal standing as human rights at the global level.”
The treaty, formally called the Regional Agreement on Principle 10, was adopted in San José, Costa Rica, after four years of negotiations.
The legal instrument aims to protect people’s rights regarding access to information, public participation and justice on environmental matters, derived from Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which was adopted during the Rio + 20 conference in 2012.
“The great merit of this regional agreement lies in placing equality at the centre of rights of access and, therefore, of the environmental sustainability of development,” stated Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations regional organization that acts as technical secretariat of this agreement.
“This is a second-generation accord that links the environment to human rights and rights of access, and which undoubtedly will contribute to the attainment of the 2030 Agenda,” Bárcena said.
This pioneering agreement will be open to the signature of all of the region’s 33 countries at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, from September 2018 until September 2020. It will be subject to the ratification, acceptance or approval of the States that have signed it.
The first conference of the parties will be convened by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America no later than one year after the agreement has entered into force.
“This is an opportunity to give environmental rights the same legal standing as human rights at the global level,” says Heileman, who participated in the adoption ceremony in San José.
“The people have the right to be listened to. If we fail to support the efforts to conserve the environment and protect defenders, it will be impossible for us to fully enjoy human rights, as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” Heileman argues.
UN Environment provided support to the regional negotiations on this instrument, and on 6 March announced in Geneva a new global initiative against the ongoing intimidation and murder of environmental defenders.
The UN Environmental Rights Initiative aims to help people to better understand their rights and how to defend them, assist governments to better safeguard environmental rights, and mobilize the private sector to champion the rights of everyone to a clean and healthy environment.
Explore UN Environment’s work on environmental governance.