SANTIAGO – When in September 2018 the Escazú Agreement was signed, those involved talked about “a historic day for environmental equality in the region.” Sixteen countries across Latin America and the Caribbean have signed so far, among them Argentina, Peru, and Brazil. Chile, however, drew back; and, after the last UN Assembly, reiterated that it did not intend to sign the treaty.
The Escazú Agreement was signed over a year ago by the majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries. The treaty was called “an historic agreement” by the United Nations Environment Program: it was the first time so many countries from a region full of environmental conflicts managed to reach an agreement that combined “the rights of access to environmental information, public participation in the environmental decision-making process and access to justice in environmental matters.”
One of the countries that took the initiative for the talks that led to this treaty was Chile. And to this day, despite promising speeches from the president and being the organizer of the global climate summit in December, Chile has refused to sign.
What Exactly Is the Escazú Agreement?
The Escazú Agreement was signed after six years of negotiation and focuses on protecting those defending the environment. In Latin American and the Caribbean, where every week four environmental defenders are killed according to the World Justice Project, this was a necessary step. The treaty became the first multilateral agreement that considered environmental rights to be human rights and was the first environmental treaty for Latin America and the Caribbean region.
The agreement has various components, but its three main goals are:
- The protection of environmental human rights defenders. Governments that signed and implemented the treaty are obliged to take precautions for the safety of their community leaders and investigate and prosecute any threats and crimes against them.
- Poorer communities, indigenous peoples, small farmers—all those who could feel the impact of certain projects in their environment—will have the right to information and justice. Governments must provide legal assistance, transparency, and communication regarding the environment of these people, so that they can exercise their rights.
- Participating governments are obliged to offer opportunities for public participation in projects that will significantly impact the environment. Early on in the decision-making process, the public must be involved, and after a decision has been made, they must inform citizens of how their input shaped the final outcome.
So far, 16 countries have signed the Escazú Agreement. Chile is not among them and that is remarkable, considering its role in the creation of the agreement. Also, Chile leads in other climate-friendly initiatives: it was the first country to ban plastic bags in Latin America, President Piñera won a Global Citizen Award for his environmental efforts, and Chile organized and is hosting a global climate summit in December, called the COP25. So why don’t they sign?
Why Doesn’t the Piñera Administration Sign the Treaty?
Although the Bachelet administration promoted the Escazú Agreement, it was the second government of President Sebastián Piñera that decided not to sign, just a few days before the ceremony took place. Recently, the president reaffirmed that, even with the COP25 underway, his government would not sign. “We have everything that the Escazú Agreement establishes already in our national legislation. It adds nothing,” he said.
However, Foreign Affairs Minister Teodoro Ribera said to Radio Cooperativa that there were reservations from the governments’ side. “We need time to analyze what the specific impact Escazú can have on our (environmental) protection and development.”
Two articles in the agreement explain those reservations. The first one is about Bolivia and the ongoing battle for sea access. According to the Escazú Agreement, landlocked countries in Latin America, which in this case are Bolivia and Paraguay, should be given “consideration and cooperation” in their struggles. Articles as these make the alarm bells ring in Chile, where the matter of sea access for Bolivia is taken to a matter of national pride. Chile does not want to be taken again to International Court.
The protection for environmental defenders, their rights to information, legal assistance, and even participation in projects opens doors for the indigenous communities in Chile. Among them the Mapuche, who could become an even bigger thorn in the side of what the government calls economic development. Projects as hydroelectric plants – the government has dozens of these planned – could become a struggle to construct with Mapuche people opposing under the Escazú articles. It seems that Chile, at least under the current government, must wait for environmental justice.