Giving citizens a voice is essential to environmental and development progress - from reducing greenhouse gases to curbing deforestation to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
At the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20), nine Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) governments took a giant step in this direction. Together, they pledged to begin negotiations leading to a groundbreaking Regional Convention that will enshrine public rights of access to environmental information, public participation, and justice.
As coordinator of The Access Initiative (TAI), an international network of hundreds of civil society groups, WRI played a pivotal role in the agreement by Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. Since then, Ecuador and Brazil have also joined the pledge.
Building Environmental Democracy
The rights of all citizens to information, participation, and justice on environmental issues that affect their lives were enshrined at the 1992 “Earth Summit” in the form of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. But in many countries, these principles have not been converted into practice, including in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Much of the region is plagued by escalating conflicts over natural resources, mining, and new infrastructure such as highways and dams. In such situations, legally binding international agreements play an important role in strengthening citizens’ access rights, driving the development of national legislation and practices.
Making Change Happen: WRI’s Role
With Rio+20 providing an ideal launch pad for such an agreement, WRI created an international task force to promote a LAC Regional Principle 10 Convention.
In our role as TAI Secretariat, we made submissions to the United Nations that were reflected in the draft declaration by heads of state. WRI and our partners also engaged LAC governments and regional bodies such as the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, both of which declared their support.
Following our high-level advocacy efforts, Jamaica and Chile took the lead in publicly calling for a regional, binding legal instrument to implement access rights.
The nine countries announced their agreement at a TAI event at the Rio+20 summit, underlining our key role. Chile hosted the regional governments in November 2012 to develop a road map to achieve the convention.
A regional convention in Latin America, following on one in Europe, will also promote the spread of access rights worldwide. TAI seeks to scale such regional models into global learning and action.
UPDATE, 4/19/13: Fourteen Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries adopted an ambitious Plan of Action to improve access rights on April 17, 2013. Read WRI's press release for more details about the Plan of Action for the LAC Principle 10 Regional Declaration.
Many of these conflicts occur because countries lack strong laws and practices that encourage the public’s access to information and early participation in government decision-making. Without these laws in place, citizens can’t legally obtain information on projects like proposed oil wells or highways—or engage in the decision-making processes about developing and approving these projects. Governments can then make decisions without considering the impact on local citizens. The resulting social, environmental, or health costs often fall disproportionately on the affected communities. (See our video, "Sunita," for more information on the need for access to information laws).
But the situation in the LAC region could be poised to change, depending on what happens at a meeting this week. Representatives from 13 countries and two observer countries will meet with civil society groups in Guadalajara, Mexico, to finalize a two-year action plan on implementing the LAC Principle 10 Regional Declaration. If attendees come up with a strong plan, several LAC countries will come closer to adopting a plan for improving environmental justice and public participation rights across the region.
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by Lauretta Burke, Richard Waite, Benjamin Kushner, Emily Cooper, Peter Edwards, Nathalie Zenny, Ava Maxam, Parris Lyew-Ayee and Karen McIntyre - June 2011