A groundbreaking environmental treaty between Latin American and Caribbean countries goes into effect today, after almost eight years of planning and negotiations. 

The Escazú Agreement, named for the Costa Rican district where it was approved in 2018, is the first environmental treaty in the region, and the first in the world that includes provisions for environmental human rights defenders. The United Nations-facilitated agreement requires participating countries to prevent and investigate attacks against environmental activists, as well as improve public accessibility to environmental information and encourage public participation in environmental decision-making. It also acknowledges that living in a healthy environment is a human right, which could pave the way for participating countries to take stronger climate and environmental actions in the future.

Twenty-four of the region’s 33 countries have signed, or expressed interest in the agreement. It has been officially ratified by 12 — including Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua — making it binding in those countries.

“Its entry into force will mean that the mechanisms for cooperation and for accountability that are embedded in the agreement will begin to function,” said Marcos Orellana, the United Nations special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, who assisted in the development of the treaty. “This is very important because the agreement from its inception has been conceived as an instrument to strengthen capacities at all levels for environmental democracy.”

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These mechanisms include requirements that countries improve vulnerable communities’ access to environmental information, as well as put in place up-to-date systems that allow citizens to easily find documents such as government reports, lists of polluted areas, and the text of environmental laws and regulations. “The idea is one-stop shopping for all the environmental information a person needs,” David Boyd, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, told Grist in an email. Boyd was not involved in the development of the treaty, but was an advocate for its ratification.

The Escazú Agreement also requires countries to publish nontechnical summaries of environmental projects and take timely action to prevent, investigate, and punish attacks on environmental human rights activists. 

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That last provision is particularly crucial in Latin America, where trying to protect the environment often means putting your life on the line — the region was home to more than half of environmentalists killed worldwide in 2018. Last year, for example, two employees at a Mexican butterfly reserve were assassinated, six Indigenous community members were killed at a Nicaraguan nature reserve, and an Indigenous land activist was murdered by an armed mob in Costa Rica. This violence is often associated with conflicts with loggers, petroleum workers, dam builders, gem and metal miners, and members of organized crime, many of whom have interests in controlling the region’s resource-rich lands. 

“The importance of the agreement is that it recognizes there is an issue of impunity in Latin America, that a lot of crimes against Latin environmental defenders go unpunished,” said Marina Comandulli, a campaigner at the environmental human rights nonprofit Global Witness. “To a certain extent, if the states implement this agreement, we are hoping to see a reduction and investigation of the cases where Latin American environmental defenders have been subject to threats, attacks, or have even been killed.”

While she described the agreement as an achievement, Comandulli expressed concern that countries with high rates of violence against environmental activists — like Guatemala, Brazil, and Colombia — have signed but not yet ratified the treaty. Honduras, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists, has not even signed it. “If they are not committed to implementing this agreement, that could actually prevent the agreement from being implemented in the way we were expecting,” she said. 

The treaty’s goals could also be bolstered if companies choose to vocally support it, Comandulli said, since the region’s environmental activists are often stigmatized as anti-development. Some governments were hesitant to move forward with the agreement because they worried it would drive away business — corporate support could quell those fears. 

International treaties are technically legally binding, but countries won’t be punished if they don’t follow through. The implementation of the agreement “rests on the good faith” of the participating countries, Orellana said, and there will be a compliance committee formed to “examine situations of noncompliance.” Camandulli expects implementation to vary in each country and hopes the participating parties can learn from each other as they move ahead.

“Human rights treaties, we see them as aspirations,” she said. “The implementation [of this treaty] will depend on a number of things, especially political will from governments.”