Air pollution can threaten the health and well-being of entire communities. Perhaps no one knows this better than villagers from Quinteros and Puchuncaví, Chile.

The two towns have been dealing with air pollution from nearby industrial parks since the 1970s. High levels of sulfur dioxide and particulate matter have damaged crops and sickened children, elderly people and animals. While the government has prepared a decontamination plan, there have already been at least two more air pollution episodes just this year that affected local schools and communities.

While citizens from Quinteros and Puchuncavi have demanded a limit on industrial expansion, their power is limited: Chile lacks laws that ensure citizens’ rights to participate in decontamination planning and standard-setting.

The plight of citizens from Quinteros and Puchuncavi highlights the need for the Escazú Agreement, a historic treaty that guarantees environmental rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. Also known as the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters, or LAC P10, the Agreement presents three fundamental rights for sound environmental governance: access to information, access to public participation and access to justice. Twelve countries committed today to sign the Agreement, enough to ensure that it will move forward and be brought into force once ratified. Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Guatemala and Argentina have signed so far, with more expected to join today. The Agreement is open for signature for the other 21 countries in the region until 2020.

Why the Escazú Agreement Is So Important

Environmental conflicts are particularly rampant in Latin America. In 2017, four environmental defenders were killed every week in the region, according to a report from Global Witness. The Escazú Agreement provides special protections for environmental human rights defenders, including:

  • Guaranteeing a safe environment for people and organizations that promote and defend human rights in environmental matters, so they remain free from threats, restrictions and insecurity
  • Taking steps to recognize, protect and promote all the rights of environmental defenders
  • Implementing measures to prevent, investigate and punish attacks, threats or intimidation against environmental defenders

The Escazú Agreement is also designed to make it easier for nearly 500 million people to access information, participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives, and hold powerful interests accountable. Countries adopting the Agreement will ensure that the most vulnerable groups and those in poverty will be included in the environmental decision-making processes that directly affect them — such as the approval of mines, addressing pollution, and land use planning and policymaking. It has provisions that put pressure on governments to offer support, including legal aid, to those seeking their rights to information, participation or justice, including when facing environmental damages such as air or water pollution. The Agreement also focuses on improving national laws on access to information, including in countries that currently lack such laws, such as Barbados, St. Lucia and others.

What Happens Next?

The treaty is open for 33 countries in the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (UNECLAC). Now that 12 have signed, the next step is for them to ratify the Agreement and ensure their laws comply with the provisions. Once 11 countries ratify, the Agreement will officially enter into force and implementation can begin.

Implementation will include a review of national legislation and practice within each country. This may include engagement with private sector actors on new rules for public participation and environmental impact assessments; investments in capacity-building to ensure governments can provide access to a broad range of environmental information in an affordable, proactive and timely manner; and broadening legal aid for environmental damage and loss of environmental rights.

Getting More Countries on Board

It’s clear that citizens throughout Latin America and the Caribbean want the Escazú Agreement. More than 33,000 people across the region signed a petition urging their governments to sign it.

Strengthening environmental democracy is vital. Countries that have signed the Agreement have made it clear that they’re committed to protecting the environmental rights of their citizens. Those that haven’t still have time to get on board.