• Press Release

Americas: States Must Commit to Ending Violence Against Environmental Defenders

April 15, 2024

(Sebastián Vivallo Oñate/Agencia Makro)

A few days prior to the start of the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (COP3), also known as the Escazú Agreement, to be held in Santiago de Chile from April 22-24, Amnesty International notes with concern the worrying lack of protection that environmental human rights groups, organizations and defenders continue to face in the region. The organization therefore calls on all Latin American and Caribbean states that have not yet acceded to the treaty to do so as soon as possible. It also calls on states that are party to the treaty to use this upcoming meeting to reaffirm their commitment to address the grave situation faced by these persons.

“Attacks against environmental human rights defenders in the Americas are constant and often deadly. The fact that some of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders are not yet party to the Escazú Agreement is evidence of their government’s unwillingness to address these threats. States in Latin America and the Caribbean must urgently commit to upholding this regional treaty,” urged Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International.

The Escazú Agreement is the first binding treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean that includes specific provisions for the protection of environmental human rights defenders. Although the agreement, which has the support of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), entered into force three years ago, less than half of the countries of the region are a party. Among those not yet party are some of the most dangerous in the world for defending environmental rights: Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. The last countries to join the agreement did so in June 2023.

Colombia, for example, tops the global ranking for the number of land and environmental defenders killed. Members of organizations such as the Federation of Artisanal Fisherfolk of the Department of Santander (FEDEPESAN) have suffered a number of attacks and death threats, the most recent one this year. Although the Colombian government has acknowledged that the defense of human rights is a high-risk activity and has taken measures to mitigate such risk, including taking steps to become a party to the Escazú Agreement, these have not had the desired effect.

The second most deadly country in the world for environmental human rights defenders is Brazil. In 2022, Bruno Pereira and Dom Philips disappeared and were brutally murdered in the Amazon; more recently, in 2023, Quilombola leader Yalorixá Maria Bernadete Pacífico was murdered in her community. The Brazilian government has been working on a National Plan for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders since 2007, but this is still pending. Honduras has the highest per capita rate of killings of environmental and land defenders in the world. In 2023, for example, three people from the Guapinol community were murdered. A number of human rights organizations have stated that the National Mechanism for the Protection of Defenders is ineffective.

Moreover, states party to the Escazú Agreement still face challenges for the protection of environmental defenders. Five leaders from the Colonia Maya residential community in the state of Chiapas, in México, (Elizabeth del Carmen Suárez Díaz, Eustacio Hernández Vázquez, Lucero Aguilar Pérez, Martín López López and Miguel Ángel López Martínez) are being prosecuted for protesting peacefully against a residential development in a nearby mountain area in 2017. Amnesty International has documented several cases in which criminal prosecution has been used against environmental defenders with the aim of inhibiting the right to protest and without complying with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality. In Chile, the government of Gabriel Boric took office with a marked human rights agenda, including protection of the environment and environmental defenders. While it would have been desirable for the government to establish a legal framework, the recent announcement of a protocol for the protection of human rights defenders is welcome. It is hoped that this instrument will be effective and aligned with the principles and standards contained in the Escazú Agreement.

During COP3, states parties to the Escazú Agreement hope to approve an Action Plan on human rights defenders in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The action plan could be an important step in addressing the risks faced by environmental groups, organizations and defenders in the region. It is imperative that states parties and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean take all necessary steps to reduce the serious risks they face. This includes placing particular emphasis on the collective nature of their work, and recognizing that protection needs to address both the collective and the individual dimension. All other cross-cutting dimensions, such as gender or ethnicity, as well as the underlying causes of the violence they face, including major economic interests, must be taken into account. Finally, it is essential to take steps to eliminate the rampant impunity that is unfortunately a consistent feature when it comes to attacks against human rights defenders,” said Ana Piquer.

Additional Reading

No future without courage: Human rights defenders in the Americas speaking up on the climate crisis, November 2023.

Colombia: Hope at risk: The lack of a safe space to defend human rights in Colombia continues, November 2023.

Mexico: Land and Freedom? Criminalization of Defenders of the Land, Territory and Environment, September 2023.

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