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'War means blood': Can a treaty stop Latin American activists being killed?

by Anastasia Moloney | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 19 April 2021 07:01 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Indigenous people from the Mura tribe show a deforested area in unmarked indigenous lands inside the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Amazonas State, Brazil August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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As the region’s Escazu agreement takes force, activists hope for better protection, and justice for the perpetrators of crimes against them

* Scores of activists murdered in Latin America every year

* 'Groundbreaking' treaty targets violence, impunity

* Government commitment, corporate change seen vital

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, April 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A treaty aimed at protecting activists in Latin America could be a "life-saving" watershed in a region where scores are murdered each year, but the pact's success will depend on the commitment of governments and big business, rights advocates said.

Nicaraguan activist Lottie Cunningham, who described the Escazu treaty as "extremely important", has come to expect death threats and online abuse as she fights mining and agriculture projects on indigenous lands in the Central American country.

"We have suffered intimidation, harassment and death threats defending indigenous rights, and mother earth and its natural resources," Cunningham, an indigenous lawyer, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"It's virtual warfare. 'War means blood' was one of the messages I received on Facebook," said Cunningham, who heads the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN).

Such aggression towards activists often goes beyond threats: Nearly 300 rights activists are estimated to have been killed in Latin America and the Caribbean last year.

But in the world's deadliest region for campaigners like Cunningham, the Escazu agreement is raising hopes among some that they will be better protected, and see the perpetrators of crimes brought to justice.

The accord, which comes into force on April 22, has been signed by 24 of the region's 33 countries, so far, and formally ratified by 12. Nicaragua is among the dozen nations that have agreed to make it legally binding.

Beyond the treaty's safeguards for activists, Cunningham said she hoped it would allow "the effective participation" of indigenous people in decisions about permits and concessions to companies such as mining firms and cattle ranchers.

The treaty also obligates countries to ensure activists can access public information on environmental cases and issues.


David R. Boyd, the United Nation's special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said the "groundbreaking" treaty could be "a life-saving game changer".

"It is the first treaty in the world that includes specific obligations on governments to protect environmental and human rights defenders," he said.

"Globally some Latin American countries have been hotspots of violence against environmental and human right defenders, and this treaty is directly intended to address that by raising the bar and creating obligations on governments."

It could push countries to tighten their own laws to ensure crimes against environmentalists, which too often go unpunished, are investigated and perpetrators prosecuted, Boyd added.

The agreement comes into effect at a time when attacks against activists is rising in some Latin American countries.

In the Americas last year, 284 human rights defenders were killed, accounting for 86% of the global tally, according to data published this month by campaign group Front Line Defenders.

Colombia, which has signed the Escazu treaty, was the deadliest country for land rights activists and environmentalists last year, according to a 2020 report by advocacy group Global Witness.

It found 64 land rights activists were killed in Colombia last year - up from 25 in 2018 - the highest level Global Witness has ever recorded in the country.

Honduras, which has not yet signed the Escazu pact, is another hotspot for violence, where in one recent attack in December masked men with guns and machetes gunned down an environmentalist activist in front of his family.


The treaty orders countries to set up bodies to monitor, report and ensure new rules are adhered to, and specifies the rights of environmentalists, including their right to freedom of expression, free movement and peaceful assembly.

Boyd said much of the conflict that places environmentalists in danger is driven by disagreements over projects led by extractive industries and failing to consult communities about what happens on their lands.

For the treaty to work in practice, governments and companies must recognize the right of indigenous people to decide what happens on their lands and to be property informed and consulted about projects to stem violence, he said.

"That straightforward step would actually prevent a lot of the conflicts that are leading to peoples' lives being placed in jeopardy," he said.

Government commitment to ensure adequate resources and changes in corporate values will also be key, said Marina Comandulli, campaigner at advocacy group Global Witness.

"(It will only work) if it is properly funded, if every country in the region commits to implementing it, and if big companies start putting people and planet first," she said, adding that attitudes must shift, too.

"Defenders are routinely threatened, criminalised and killed in Latin America and the Caribbean. Often, that violence is linked to corporate activity, and governments have been complicit in perpetrating it," she said.

"Defenders are central in the fight against the climate crisis ... we need a zero-tolerance approach to violence and to threats."

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(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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