Colombia’s signing of Escazu accord brings hope to land defenders

Bogota, Colombia – Sikuani Indigenous leader Benilde Carreno likens the destruction of her community’s native plants to “losing an arm or a leg”.

Her people, located in the Colombian Orinoquia, an eastern region on the border with Venezuela, have suffered not only from the rigours of 50 years of civil war and its aftermath, but also environmental damage from poorly planned reforestation projects and the opening of drug trafficking routes by illegal armed groups.

Carreno is now displaced from her reservation, living in exile in the capital, Bogota, due to threats against her life resulting from her activism. But she hopes Colombia’s ratification of the Escazu Agreement on the environment will usher in a new chapter.

The accord, she tells Al Jazeera, can be “a fundamental tool that will protect the leaders and caretakers of Mother Earth, of our environment, water and life”. It will also allow her to qualify for state protection so that she can return to her community.

“The protections set out in the Escazu Agreement are fundamental for us,” she says. “We fought for this agreement and we are going to push it forward because I believe that if it is not enforced, ongoing killings of the defenders of Mother Earth will continue.”

The agreement

The Escazu Agreement, adopted in Costa Rica in March 2018, is a legally binding international treaty that aims to promote transparency in environmental decision-making. The first of its kind in Latin America and the Caribbean, it also includes protections for environmentalists like Carreno — a welcome development in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land defenders.

The agreement enshrined the rights of citizens to get information on industrial projects; ordered the creation of mechanisms for environmental justice and law enforcement, and required signatories to monitor socio-environmental conflicts and provide mitigation and resolution strategies for them.

“This law gives power to the citizens, in the function of the defence of nature, the defence of the planet, the defence of life,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro said during a signing ceremony on November 5.

Colombia’s Congress ratified the Escazu Agreement on October 11 – making it the 14th country in the region to do so – and Petro’s signature, pending a review by the Supreme Court, enshrines the treaty into Colombian law. His predecessor Ivan Duque signed the accord in 2019, but Duque’s administration never sought Congressional approval for formal ratification.

Claudia Vasquez, director of The Nature Conservancy, an NGO that advocates for the protection of biodiversity in Latin America, said the accord will be key to environmental protections in the country.

“The participation of our Indigenous peoples and local communities and the guarantee of their territorial rights must be an indispensable pillar of conservation efforts,” she told Al Jazeera. “The Escazu Agreement strengthens guarantees of the rights of these communities so that both participation and land rights are more effectively recognised.”

‘A step towards peace’

Aida Quilcue, a senator with the left-wing MAIS party, which is part of Petro’s “Historic Pact” coalition, and a Nasa Indigenous leader from the region of Cauca, hailed the agreement’s ratification. She said it is a crucial step towards protecting activists, as well as advancing real peacebuilding in regions long-neglected by the federal government.

For years, Colombia was ranked as the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. Global Witness, an environmental watchdog, said in a September report that 322 environmental activists were murdered in Colombia between 2011 and 2021.

And Cauca, where Quilcue is from, has emerged as one of the epicentres of such attacks, recording one of the highest rates of violence since a 2016 peace deal was signed by Bogota and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. On October 29, Quilcue was the victim of an attack herself when unidentified gunmen fired on the government car she was travelling in.

“I strongly welcome the ratification,” she told Al Jazeera. “If we do not protect Mother Earth, humanity will go extinct. We Indigenous people have been on the front lines of this struggle. But perhaps just as importantly, this is a step towards peace. Without real peace [in Colombia], we will not be able to achieve lasting solutions for saving the environment.”

Petro has promised to reign in surging violence in the country through dialogue with armed groups, provide protection for social leaders, and make long-promised investments in areas racked by conflict as part of what he dubbed a plan for “total peace”.

He also has promised to target deforestation, which rose considerably under the previous administration, and to find economic alternatives to oil and mineral extraction — both industries that will be subject to more oversight under Escazu.

Mayerly Lopez, an environmental leader and defender of the Santurban Paramo, an alpine wetland region in Santander, in eastern Colombia, described the new accord as a sharp departure from past policy.

“Under previous governments, the approval process [for extractive projects] was opaque and dominated by powerful industrial interests, and occurred with little public oversight,” she said. “The process for creating environmental protections has been top-down and haphazard, rather than democratic, and heavily favoured large companies.”

Challenges ahead

Both Lopez and Carreno believe the Escazu Agreement presents an opportunity for developmental projects to be carried out hand-in-hand with residents, rather than imposed upon communities, a dynamic that in the past has led to violent land conflicts, as well as the displacement of local residents and killings of activists.

Although hailed as a symbolic victory for Petro’s administration, implementation and enforcement of the new law may present significant challenges — especially in regions like Cauca and Choco where there is little state presence, illegal armed groups are fighting for territorial control, and land defenders continue to be killed.

It also is not yet clear how Colombia intends to enforce the agreement, including which state agencies will lead investigations or bring charges in the case of potential violations. While the process will be led by the Ministry of Environment, enforcement also seems to fall under the jurisdiction of other governmental departments, as well as the Colombian security forces.

Meanwhile, some business leaders and politicians have strongly criticised the accord. Maria Fernanda Cabal, a congresswoman with Centro Democratico, the right-wing party of former President Duque, has opposed ratification, claiming that the Escazu Agreement puts the country’s “national sovereignty as well as the business sector at risk”.

But for Lopez, the accord provides a sense of hope that she and other activists will face less persecution and violence.

“I have received death threats via social media as well as physical pamphlets,” she said. “I hope as part of the Escazu Agreement, the state creates mechanisms to provide protection for land defenders and to investigate these threats, which currently happen in an environment of total impunity.”

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