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Information, participation, and access to justice can save lives, protect territories and achieve sustainable development

La información, la participación y el acceso a la justicia pueden salvar vidas, proteger territorios y lograr el desarrollo sostenible

Andrea Sanhueza|

The Environmental Justice Atlas currently has registers of 2,089 cases of socio-environmental conflict due to mining, and oil and gas extraction. This is yet another of the many striking figures that we see everyday about unemployment; malnutrition; displaced, migrant and refugee groups; terrorist attacks; and many other issues that our society is facing.

I am inspired to write about the so-called environmental conflicts because behind them, as is the case of every other conflict, lie people in specific territories that have their own livelihoods, traditions, plants, animals, air, clouds and rivers.

The majority of these conflicts have risen as a result of investment and exploitation projects that invade peoples’ territories, such as mining and hydropower efforts. These projects severely threaten the local groups’ lives. The great paradox is that, although local communities have the greatest stake, they tend to have little to no power to make any decisions about the project. In fact, they often do not even have access to basic information about the project: What is it about? Where will it take place? Who are the project managers?

It is often nearly impossible for them access the information regarding the potential impacts of the project. This information tends to be seen by governments and investors as a “secret of State.” The possibility to have a say, express their concerns and maintain informed and significant dialogue with the government and investors about the project is a luxury, almost a miracle. Whenever this happens, it is the exception and not the rule.

In other words, and from a rights perspective, affected communities have very few opportunities to exercise their right to information and participation in the decisions that will impact the territories they inhabit. Access to information is a human right and a crucial element of democracies. According to the Inter-American Model Law, public information is “any type of data in custody or control of a public authority.” Citizen participation, in turn, is defined as the opportunity for the citizenry to engage, in a timely and significant manner, in the creation of public policies, strategies and plans at different levels on projects with potential environmental impacts (CEPAL, 2013).

There are many reasons behind the lack of democratic governability and respect for human rights. I would like to highlight one in particular: the legal frameworks of Latin American countries that poorly outline duties and procedures for access to information and citizen participation in environmental matters.

An example is the legal analysis carried out in 17 Latin American countries that showed an uneven level of acknowledgement of the right of access to information. While some countries promote this right, some others guarantee it. Legal frameworks that  guarantee this right include obligations such as: a defined timeframe for information delivery, adequate methods for delivery that take into account local needs, and the need to roll out information using clear language. Only 35% of countries have incorporated these standards in their legislations.

With regard to citizen participation, the research analyzed the provisions about public hearings of projects that are registered in the Environmental Impact Assessment System (SEIA in Spanish) as a basic requirement for engagement. The result is quite daunting. Only 4 countries (21%) are obliged to undertake public consultation regarding projects registered in the SEIA. In 7 countries (41%) consultation is voluntary.

What can people do about this? They organize to defend their territories. Another painful reality is the assassination of many territory leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean who have called themselves environmental advocates. According to the Global Witness’ report of April 2015, in 2014 at least 166 environmental advocates were assassinated. The majority of these killings happened in Brazil (29), Colombia (25) and Honduras (12). Forty seven (40%) of them were members of an indigenous group. Also, in 2014 assassinations related to hydropower projects spiked. A prominent example was the assassination of the Honduran advocate Berta Caceres, who had been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.

This is where the ongoing negotiation among 23 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean becomes critical to the region. The promise of a future agreement – I emphasize the word promise since negotiations have not been finalized and certain governments have shown very conservative positions – is that the States will acquire stronger obligations in terms of information, participation and access to justice for the citizenry to be able to participate in environmental matters.

This negotiation is a part of the commitments established by the Chilean Government in their first OGP National Action Plan. This commitment was put forward by the civil society, and accepted and supported by the Government.

I think it is hard to truly understand the potential impact of this agreement in the medium term, as it is laid out in the National Action Plans, which is understandable given the ambition of the task. However, the fact that this negotiation is rooted in Chile’s National Action Plan is a critical element, as it has provided visibility and a stronger stance, as well as reflected the political will to act.

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