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Bridging the Gap to Protect Environmental Rights

Cerrando la brecha para proteger los derechos ambientales

Gustavo Perez Ara|

This blog is part of a series of thematic blogs produced by the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) during Open Gov Week. Find other blogs in the series here.

The need to address sustainable development and environmental issues in Latin America is increasingly reflected in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) action plans. But while the majority of environmental commitments are ambitious and almost twice as likely to be successfully implemented, their outcomes rarely address the primary objective of the Escazu Agreement: protecting environmental defenders. Focused on increasing access to environmental education and citizen participation, these commitments rarely contribute to the necessary change in the relationship between companies, the government, and communities and to guarantee the protection of environmental defenders.   

For years, environmental defenders have demanded the private sector to respect the consent and consultation rights of affected citizens when developing projects, and that governments guarantee the basic conditions for the protection of their rights. However, killings of environmental defenders are steadily rising, two thirds of which take place in Latin America.

There is a missed opportunity here. OGP can serve as a space to ensure that efforts to enhance information, participation, and accountability translate into concrete outcomes to address the issues that environmental defenders are facing. For those looking to implement initiatives in this thematic area, the assessments of environmental commitments made by the OGP’s Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) provide some relevant lessons learned.  

Greater access to information is a requirement but does not guarantee citizen influence over decisions made by governments and companies.

 Commitments assume that openness of environmental data and information sharing contribute to citizen monitoring and social control. However, they lack specific activities to explain how the shared information will be used to secure a safe space for environmental defenders to exercise their rights.

 According to the IRM and EITI’s International Secretariat, since 2013, the Honduran Institute of Geology and Mines has enhanced the publication of fiscal matters, licenses and land registries, production, and export data, and voluntary social payments. However, citizen participation has progressively decreased due to a decline in trust. In 2019, the Special Rapporteur of the UN alerted the Human Rights Council that human rights defenders in Honduras are operating under a civic space that is subject to serious violations and restrictions of civil and political rights, preventing them to work in a safe environment.

The Escazu Agreement includes specific provisions to improve the environment and relationships between stakeholders. The agreement highlights the types of data that governments should publish for the citizenry to be able to effectively monitor the process (for example environmental licenses or permits granted by the public authorities; an estimated list of waste by type and, when possible, by volume, location and year; and information on the imposition of administrative sanctions in environmental matters). Moreover, Articles 8 and 9 establish key principles and proposals to ensure the recognition and protection of environmental defenders, access to justice, and mechanisms for investigation and punishment.

 Increased citizen participation does not always create a safe space to exercise the rights of environmental defenders

Commitments tend to create tools for open and inclusive participation in environmental matters, but the next step is missing. For instance, commitments do not provide for better equity for citizen participation or clarify the role that companies play to improve justice conditions and the protection of environmental defenders.

Commitment number three in Peru’s 2017-2019 action plan aimed to strengthen spaces to gather the public and private sectors and civil society organizations to join efforts to design, implement and monitor environmental policies. To that end, the Ministry of the Environment created guidelines to strengthen the work of Environmental Municipal and Regional Councils. However, these efforts did not address some of the challenges identified for the proper functioning of these councils that often result in inadequate invitations to meetings and poor inclusion of vulnerable groups and communities affected by environmental decisions, as well as those responsible for development projects.

The Escazu Agreement specifies which moments and for which decisions require citizen participation. It articulates the high-risk moments that could result in social conflict, the importance of identifying stakeholders that need to participate (such as those affected by an extractive project, instead of civil society organizations based in a capital city), among others. In addition, creating a participatory space does not suffice; the agreement provides for the right to submit observations and ensure that these are addressed, and that information includes the affected areas, environmental impact, and mitigation measures, among other assurances. 

The Escazu Agreement lends the region a regulatory framework to help address these two lessons learned with specific and necessary steps to address climate change. 

For those looking to combat climate change and protect environmental defenders, the link between the Escazu Agreement and OGP is clear. OGP presents an opportunity for governments, civil society, and citizens to create effective action plans that include commitments to guarantee a space for human defenders to exercise their rights.

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