Bogota, Colombia – Sikuani indigenous leader Benilde Carreno likens the destruction of native plants in her community to “loss of an arm or a leg”.
Her people, live in Orinoquia Colombia, an area east of the border with Venezuelasuffered not only the rigors of 50 years of civil war and its aftermath, but also environmental damage caused by poor planning afforestation projects and the opening of drug trafficking routes by illegal armed groups.
Carreno has now taken her reservation, living in exile in the capital, Bogota, due to her life being threatened due to her active work. But she hopes Colombia’s ratification of the Escazu Agreement on the environment will open a new chapter.
She told Al Jazeera the deal could be “a fundamental tool that will protect the leaders and caretakers 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 forth in the Escazu Agreement are fundamental to us,” she said. “We fought for this deal and we will push it forward because I believe that if it is not enforced, it will continue. Murder of the Guardians of Mother Earth will continue. “
The Escazu Agreement, adopted in Costa Rica in March 2018, is a legally binding international treaty that promotes 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 most dangerous countries in the world. for the defenders of the land.
Contract protect the rights of citizens to get information about industrial projects; ordered the establishment of mechanisms for environmental justice and law enforcement, and required signatories to monitor socio-environmental conflicts and devise strategies to reduce and resolve them.
Colombia President Gustavo Petro said in a signing ceremony on November 5.
The Colombian Congress ratified the Escazu Agreement on October 11 – becoming the 14th country in the region to do so – and the Petro’s signature, pending review by the Supreme Court, puts the treaty into Colombian law. . His predecessor Ivan Duque signed the accord in 2019, but Duque’s administration has never sought congressional approval for formal ratification.
Claudia Vasquez, director of The Nature Conservancy, an NGO that advocates for the protection of biodiversity in Latin America, said the accord would be key to protecting the environment in the country. .
“Participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities and securing their territorial rights must be an integral pillar of conservation efforts,” she told Al Jazeera. “The Escazu Agreement strengthens the guarantee of these communities’ rights so that both participation and land rights are more effectively recognized.”
‘One step towards peace’
Aida Quilcue, a senator from the left-wing MAIS party, part of Petro’s “Historic Pact” coalition, and a Nasa indigenous leader from the Cauca region, praised the ratification of the deal. She said this is an important step to protect activists, as well as promote real peace building in areas long neglected by the federal government.
For many years, Colombia was ranked as most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists. Global Witness, an environmental watchdog, said in a September report that 322 environmental activists were murdered in Colombia between 2011 and 2021.
And Cauca, where Quilcue comes from, has emerged as one of the the epicenter of such attacksrecorded one of the highest rates of violence since a 2016 peace agreement was signed by the Bogota rebels and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On October 29, Quilcue was the victim of an attack when unidentified gunmen opened fire on the government vehicle she was traveling in.
“I very much welcome the ratification,” she told Al Jazeera. “If we don’t protect Mother Earth, humanity will go extinct. We Indigenous peoples were on the front lines of this struggle. But perhaps equally important, this is a step towards peace. There is no real peace [in Colombia]we will not be able to achieve lasting solutions to save the environment. “
Petro promised to reign increased violence in the country through dialogue with armed groups, providing protection to social leaders and long-promised investment in conflict-torn areas as part of the what he named a plan for “complete peace”.
He has also promised to target deforestation, which has increased dramatically under the previous administration, and find economic alternatives to deforestation. oil and mineral extraction – both industries will come under more scrutiny under Escazu.
Mayerly Lopez, an environmental leader and defender of Santurban Paramo, an alpine wetland in Santander, eastern Colombia, describes the new accord as a stark departure from the previous policy. .
“Under previous governments, the approval process [for extractive projects] shadowed and dominated by strong industrial interests, and happens with little public scrutiny,” she said. “The process of creating environmental protections is top-down and messy, rather than democratic and heavily supported by big companies.”
Both Lopez and Carreno believe that the Escazu Agreement provides an opportunity for development projects to be carried out with people, rather than imposed on communities, a dynamic that has previously led to violence. land conflictas well as the displacement of local residents and the killing of activists.
While hailed as a symbolic victory for Petro’s administration, the enforcement and enforcement of the new law could pose significant challenges – especially in regions like Cauca and Choco, where there is little state presence, illegal armed group are fighting for control of the territory, and the defenders of the mainland continue to be killed.
It remains unclear how Colombia intends to enforce the agreement, including which state agency will lead investigations or bring charges in the event of a potential breach. While the process will be led by the Environment Ministry, enforcement also appears to be under the jurisdiction of other government agencies, as well as Colombian security forces.
Meanwhile, some business leaders and politicians have strongly criticized the agreement. Maria Fernanda Cabal, a congresswoman of Centro Democo, former President Duque’s far-right party, opposed ratification, saying the Escazu Agreement put “the national sovereignty as well as the country’s business sector at risk. ro”.
But for Lopez, the deal provides a sense of hope that her and other activists will face less persecution and violence.
She said: “I received death threats through social media as well as pamphlets. “It is my hope that as part of the Escazu Agreement, the state creates mechanisms to protect land defenders and investigates these threats, which are now occurring in a completely impure environment. .”