Historic Latin American Treaty Protects Environmental Activists

The people on the front lines of protecting the environment need some protection as well.

According to a Feb. 2 report by Global Witness and The Guardian, 197 activists were killed in 2017 for defending their communities and natural resources against agribusiness, mining companies, infrastructure projects and poachers.

The majority of these killings took place in Latin America, where mining or agricultural interests seek to exploit resources in rural, forested areas where legal enforcements are weak. That is why it's so encouraging that 24 Latin American and Caribbean nations have now signed an environmental rights agreement that includes protections for nature defenders.

The treaty, known as The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC P10), is the first legally binding agreement focusing on environmental rights in the region.

The more than six-year negotiation process for the LAC P10 resulted in a final document during a conference that took place in Costa Rica from Feb. 28 to March 4.

The language protecting defenders comes from Article 9, which requires signing parties to both protect activists' "right to life, personal integrity, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, and free movement," and to "take appropriate, effective and timely measures to prevent, investigate and punish attacks, threats or intimidations that human rights defenders in environmental matters may suffer."

Carole Excell, acting director of environmental democracy practice at the World Resources Institute, praised the agreement. "By adopting LAC P10, governments in the region have agreed to legally binding provisions that will help prevent and punish threats and attacks against environmental defenders," she said in a statement.

In addition to protecting environmental activists, the agreement also enshrines rights to "environmental information" and "participation in environmental decision-making."

Excell stressed the importance of these provisions as well. "I cannot understate how critical it is for communities to have access to environmental information, like data on local water pollution or nearby mining concessions," she said.

LAC P10's strong defense of activists' right to assemble in defense of the environment contrasts with legislative trends in the U.S.

For a Feb. 16 photo essay by Zoë Carpenter and Tracie Williams, focusing on the aftermath of the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, The Nation ran the headline, "Since Standing Rock, 56 Bills Have Been Introduced in 30 States to Restrict Protests." These include bills introduced in half-a-dozen states that would protect motorists who hit demonstrators with their vehicles.

As photojournalist Tracie Williams told The Nation, "What happened at Standing Rock is indicative of the U.S. government's historical failures to acknowledge First Nation treaties and the current administration's complete disregard for public health, the environment, indigenous rights, and civil liberties—in favor of the extractive industries."

While the U.S. does not show up on The Guardian's list of dangerous countries for environmental defenders, the current push to criminalize dissent and exonerate those who would attack protesters risks changing that.