Bogotá Colombia – Benilde Carreno, an indigenous Sikuani leader, compares the destruction of native plants in his community to “losing an arm or a leg”.
Its people, located in Colombia’s Orinoco, an eastern region on the border with Venezuela, have suffered not only from the rigors of 50 years of civil war and its aftermath, but also from environmental damage caused by poorly planned reforestation projects. and the opening of drug trafficking. roads by illegal armed groups.
Carreno is now displaced from her reservation, living in exile in the capital, Bogota, due to threats to her life resulting from her activism. But she hopes that Colombia’s ratification of the Escazu environmental agreement will open a new chapter.
The agreement, she tells Al Jazeera, can be “a fundamental tool that will protect the leaders and guardians of Mother Earth, our environment, water and life.” It will also allow her to qualify for state protection so she can return to her community.
“The protections set out in the Escazu agreement are fundamental to us,” she said. “We fought for this agreement and we will push it forward because I believe that if it is not implemented, the ongoing killings of defenders of Mother Earth will continue.”
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 world’s most dangerous countries for land defenders.
The agreement enshrined the rights of citizens to obtain information on industrial projects; directed the creation of environmental justice and law enforcement mechanisms, and called on signatories to monitor socio-environmental conflicts and provide mitigation and resolution strategies for these.
“This law gives power to citizens, based on the defense of nature, the defense of the planet, the defense of life,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro said during a signing ceremony on November 5. .
Colombia’s Congress ratified the Escazu accord on October 11 – making it the 14th country in the region to do so – and Petro’s signature, pending Supreme Court review, enshrines the treaty into law Colombian. His predecessor Ivan Duque signed the deal in 2019, but Duque’s administration never sought congressional approval for formal ratification.
Claudia Vasquez, director of The Nature Conservancy, an NGO that campaigns for the protection of biodiversity in Latin America, said the agreement will be key to protecting the environment in the country.
“Engaging our indigenous peoples and local communities and securing 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 participation and land rights are more effectively recognized.”
“A step towards peace”
Aida Quilcue, a senator from the left-wing MAIS party, which is part of Petro’s “Historic Pact” coalition, and Nasa indigenous leader from the Cauca region, welcomed the ratification of the agreement. She said it was a critical step toward protecting activists, as well as promoting real peacebuilding in areas long neglected by the federal government.
For years, Colombia has been 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 had been murdered in Colombia between 2011 and 2021.
And Cauca, where Quilcue is from, has become one of the epicentres of these attacks, recording one of the highest rates of violence since the signing of a peace agreement in 2016 by Bogota and the rebels of the Forces Revolutionary Armies of Colombia (FARC). On October 29, Quilcue herself was the victim of an attack when unidentified gunmen fired on the government car she was traveling in.
“I warmly welcome the ratification,” she told Al Jazeera. “If we don’t protect Mother Earth, humanity will die out. We Indigenous people have been on the front lines of this struggle. But perhaps just as importantly, it’s a step towards peace. Without real peace [in Colombia]we will not be able to find sustainable solutions to save the environment.
Petro pledged to quell rising violence in the country through dialogue with armed groups, ensure the protection of social leaders and make long-promised investments in conflict-affected areas as part of this which he called a “total peace” plan.
He also promised to target deforestation, which increased dramatically under the previous administration, and to find economic alternatives to oil and mineral extraction – two industries that will come under greater scrutiny under Escazu.
Mayerly Lopez, an environmental leader and advocate for Santurban Paramo, an alpine wetland region in Santander, eastern Colombia, described the new agreement as a step change from past policy.
“Under previous governments, the approval process [for extractive projects] was opaque and dominated by powerful corporate interests, and happened with little public oversight,” she said. “The process of creating environmental protections has been top-down and haphazard, rather than democratic, and has heavily favored big business.”
Both Lopez and Carreno believe the Escazu deal presents an opportunity for development projects to be carried out hand-in-hand with residents, rather than imposed on communities, a dynamic that in the past has led to violent land disputes, as well as the displacement of local residents and the killings of activists.
Although hailed as a symbolic victory for the Petro administration, implementing and enforcing the new law may present significant challenges – especially in areas like Cauca and Choco where there is little government presence. State, illegal armed groups fight for territorial control and land defenders continue to be killed.
It is also not yet clear how Colombia intends to implement the agreement, including which state agencies will investigate or bring charges in the event of potential violations. While the process will be led by the Ministry of Environment, enforcement also appears to fall under the purview of other government departments, as well as the Colombian security forces.
Meanwhile, some business leaders and politicians have strongly criticized the deal. Maria Fernanda Cabal, congresswoman of Centro Democratico, former President Duque’s right-wing party, opposed ratification, saying Escazu’s deal endangers the “national sovereignty of the country as well as the business sector”.
But for Lopez, the agreement gives a sense of hope that she and other activists will face less persecution and violence.
“I received death threats via social media as well as physical leaflets,” she said. “I hope that within the framework of the Escazu agreement, the state will create mechanisms to ensure the protection of land defenders and to investigate these threats, which are currently occurring in an environment of total impunity.”
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