Groundbreaking Latin American Treaty Will Protect Environmental Defenders

People hold torches during a march to demand justice for the murder of environmentalist and indigenous leader Berta Caceres, almost a month after her death.
Photo: AP

So far, nine people have been killed trying to protect their environment this year. In 2017, that number totaled nearly 200 people. Since 2014, when The Guardian began reporting this data, at least 117 people have been killed a year just because they believe in clean air, clean water, and land rights.
Many of these killings take place in Latin American countries like Brazil and Colombia.

Now, Latin American and Caribbean government officials are coming together to unite their countries under a treaty—the first of its kind—through the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean that would legally bind them to better protect these activists. Twenty-four countries are being represented in Costa Rica, where they’re attending a series of meetings until March 4, to negotiate the details of this agreement.


The goal, however, is simple: End these killings throughout this region.

“This is a historic moment for Latin America and the Caribbean,” Carole Excell, the acting director for the World Resources Institute’s Environmental Democracy Practice, told Earther. “Countries in the region have an opportunity to pass a legally binding environmental rights agreement that will not only help prevent and punish attacks against environmental defenders, but also make it easier for millions of people to access environmental information, participate in decision-making that affects their lives, and hold powerful interests to account.”

The specifics haven’t been completely hashed out yet, so we’ll have to wait until Sunday to see what countries stick with the agreement when they see its final version. Mexico is already hesitant about signing anything that’s legally binding, Excell said. Chile is spearheading the effort, while countries like Peru and the Dominican Republic have indicated they’ll sign.


Sticking points include how “human rights defenders in environmental matters” is defined and whether the treaty will mandate an independent committee to hold governments accountable.

“It’s all about implementation,” said Excell, who’s attending the meetings. “That’s why these provisions are still being negotiated this week. That’s why we’ll make a decision next week, and we’re hoping it’ll be a strong one.”


If all goes as planned, more meetings will follow the treaty’s signing. These will involve more talk about action and the steps required to begin protecting environmentalists and preventing violence against them.

This issue has become much more urgent in light of the death of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental activist in Honduras who was shot dead at her home in 2016. Many of her friends and family members accused the Honduran government of conspiring with her killers, which officials have denied. That raises the question: How can these environmentalists expect governments to protect them when they believe the governments are involved in the killings?


This has come up during the negotiation process, Excell told Earther. Really, it comes down to how serious will these governments take threats to activists before a serious attack happens? That’s part of what these conversations and agreement will ultimately decide.

If they succeed, perhaps other continents—like Africa or Asia, where these murders also happen all too frequently—will follow suit.


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About the author

Yessenia Funes

Senior staff writer, Earther. The one who "pulls the race card" in the name of environmental justice. You dig?

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