Environmental protection: new sources of light but many shadows persist

06 October 2018

The past two weeks have seen some glimmers of light in the battle to protect the environment and the human and environmental rights of those affected by issues such as climate change and pollution. But many shadows persist.

One such source of light was Peru's signing of the Escazú Agreement at the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York on 27 September. It did so alongside 13 other countries of the region: Argentina, Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, St Lucia, and Uruguay.

The full title of the Agreement is the 'Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean'. Escazú is the name of the town in Costa Rica where the Agreement was adopted last March. The treaty commits nations (i) to provide their citizens with the information they need to know about the state of their environment; (ii) to participate in decisions and to providing redress when environmental rights are violated; and (iii) to provide protection for environmental rights defenders.

Amnesty International (AI) describes the signing of Escazú as a "major victory for the environment and human rights." It is legally binding and, as such, provides a useful lever in the pursuit of change. “As Latin America and the Caribbean’s first regional environmental treaty, the Escazú Agreement sets a historic precedent for guaranteeing everyone’s right to a clean and healthy environment, ensuring that all voices can be heard when it’s time to take important decisions that affect us all,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, AI’s Americas director. 

The agreement imposes specific obligations to protect environmental human rights defenders from threats or attack; to investigate and punish any aggressions against them; and to guarantee their rights to life and personal integrity, as well as the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, movement, expression and association.

AI goes on “......simply signing the Escazú Agreement is not enough. Signatory countries must now swiftly ratify it and take concrete measures to ensure that the treaty lives up to its ambitious ideals so that environmental decisions truly reflect the views, needs and rights of those most impacted by them.”

A second small source of light was to be seen as Peruvian government contractors started drawing up plans for remediation of 32 sites polluted by oil over the decades in Block 192 in the Amazon jungle. The strength of that light is diminished somewhat when it is pointed out that the 32 are among some 2,000 so far identified in a block covering 4,970 square kilometres. A good analysis comes from a new article in Nature,

This gives a helpful but depressing explanation of the technical problems that exist on top of budget constraints and possible lack of political will. The author, Barbara Fraser, explains that the saturated, nutrient-poor clay soils in Block 192 contain little oxygen. For this reason it is difficult to use one of the cheapest and least invasive methods of cleaning up oil and gas pollution: microorganisms that can break down hydrocarbons.

But, she adds, quoting the head of a recent UNDP study team, the Amazon itself presents major challenges to any clean-up effort. Environmental remediation is daunting in rainforest ecosystems, with their seasonal flooding, varying water chemistry and poorly understood groundwater flows.

This provides a salutory context to a third item: the Hydrocarbons Bill to be discussed again in Congress this week. 

A number of the concerns raised have been dealt with in the revised text. For example the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MINEM) appears to have relinquished its iron grip on the Environment Ministry’s (MINAM) capacity to regulate norms 

But concerns remain, says Cooperacción, particularly over the regulation of new technologies such as fracking. Moreover, the fundamental point raised by the environment lobby is that no consideration is given to the argument that what is really needed is a change of mindset towards a culture that seeks to promote alternative, less dangerous sources of energy.

For a useful and detailed analysis of the bill, criticisms of it and proposed changes click here 

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