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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

Pact Protecting Environmentalists Suffers Threats in Mexico

By Emilio Godoy

A mining waste deposit in the center of the municipality of Topia, in the northern Mexican state of Durango, threatens the air, water and people’s health. The Escazú Agreement, In force since 2021, guarantees access to environmental information and justice in Latin American countries, as well as public participation in decision-making on these issues. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

In the municipality of Papantla, in the southeastern Mexican state of Veracruz, the non-governmental Regional Coordinator of Solidarity Action in Defense of the Huasteca-Totonacapan Territory (Corason) works with local communities on empowering organizations, advocacy capacity in policies and litigation strategies.

“This participation with organizations that work at the national level and have the capacity to influence not only the legal field is important,” Corason coordinator Alejandra Jiménez told IPS from Papantla. “They are able to bring injunctions, and this is how they have managed to block mining projects, for example.”

She was referring to the collaboration between locally-based civil society organizations and others of national scope.

Since its creation in 2015, Corason has supported local organizations in their fight against the extraction of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a highly polluting technique that uses large volumes of water and chemicals, in Veracruz and Puebla, as well as mining and hydroelectric plants in Puebla.

Cases like this abound in Mexico, as they do throughout Latin America, a particularly dangerous region for environmentalists.

Activists agreed on the challenges involved in enforcing the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement, seen as a tool to mitigate dangers faced by human rights defenders in environmental matters.

A case that has been in the hands of Mexico’s Supreme Court since August 2021 is currently addressing the power of organizations to express their disagreement with environmental decisions and will outline the future of environmental activism in this Latin American country of some 130 million people, and of the enforcement of the Escazú Agreement.

The origin of the case lies in two opposing rulings by Mexican courts in 2019 and 2020, in which one recognized the power of organizations and the other rejected that power. As a result, the case went to the Supreme Court, which must reach a decision to settle the contradiction.

In August 2022 and again on Jan. 25 this year, the Supreme Court postponed its own verdict, which poses a legal threat to the megaprojects promoted by the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a staunch defender of the country’s oil industry.

Gustavo Ampugnani, general director of Greenpeace Mexico, said the case was an alert to the Escazú Agreement, and that it should not represent a setback for the defense of the environment.

“The significance lies in the risks involved in a wrong decision by the Supreme Court on how to resolve this existing contradiction. If the Court decides that the legal creation of an environmental organization is not enough and that other elements are required, it would limit citizen participation and access to justice,” he told IPS.

Environmentalists are waiting for their Godot in the form of the novel agreement, to which Brazil and Costa Rica do not yet belong, to improve their protection.

The treaty, in force since April 2021 and which takes its name from the Costa Rican city where it was signed, guarantees access to environmental information and justice, as well as public participation in environmental decision-making. It thus protects environmentalists and defenders of local land.

Mexico’s foreign ministry, which represented this country in negotiating the agreement, has identified a legislative route to reform laws that make its application possible and promote the integration of a multisectoral group with that same purpose.

Escazú has been undermined in Mexico by López Obrador’s constant attacks against defenders of the environment, whom he calls “pseudo-environmentalists” and “conservatives” for criticizing his policies, which they describe as anti-environmental and extractivist.

For this reason, a group of organizations and activists requested in a letter to the foreign ministry, released on Feb. 2, details of the progress in the creation of inter-institutional roundtables, selection of indicators, creation of protection mechanisms, and training of officials, including courts, while demanding transparency, inclusion and equity in the process.

Activists from the southern Mexican state of Puebla protest the activities of a water bottling company, on Apr.19, 2021. Environmentalists face serious threats in Mexico, where the Escazú Agreement, which since 2021 provides guarantees to these activists in Latin American countries, has not been applied. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

High risk

In 2021, there were 200 murders of environmentalists around the world, a slight decrease from 227 the previous year, according to a report by the London-based non-governmental organization Global Witness.

Latin America led these crimes, accounting for 157 of the killings, with a slight decline from 165 the previous year. Mexico topped the list with 54 murders, compared to 30 in 2020. Colombia ranked second despite the drop in cases: 33, down from 65 in 2020, followed by Brazil (26 vs. 20), Honduras (eight vs. 17) and Nicaragua (13 vs. 12).

The attacks targeted people involved in opposition to logging, mining, large-scale agribusiness and dams, and more than 40 percent of the victims were indigenous people.

In Mexico there are currently some 600 ongoing environmental conflicts without a solution from the government, according to estimates by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.

The most recent case was the Jan. 15 disappearance of lawyer Ricardo Lagunes and indigenous activist Antonio Díaz, an opponent of mining in the western state of Michoacán, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has demanded be urgently clarified.

One year after it came into force, the Escazú Agreement is facing major challenges, especially in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua, where environmentalists face particular risks.

Olimpia Castillo, coordinator of the non-governmental organization Communication and Environmental Education, said the context sends out a warning.

“It is a very interesting round, because article 10 (of the agreement) refers to highlighting the participation of the organizations. That article could be violated, which would mean a major limitation. These are things that as a country we are going to have to face up to,” the activist, who participated in the negotiation of the agreement as a representative of civil society, told IPS.

In Mexico, compliance with the agreement has already faced hurdles, such as the November 2021 decree by which López Obrador declared his megaprojects “priority works for national security”, thus guaranteeing provisional permits, in contravention of the treaty.

Dispute resolution

Activists are already planning what to do if the Supreme Court hands down a negative verdict: they will turn to the Escazú Agreement dispute resolution mechanism – although the signatory countries have not actually designed it yet.

“We would consider turning to the treaty to resolve the issue. Environmental activism is highly dangerous. But that should not set aside the right of organizations to intervene in decisions. Activists and organizations must be given tools to use regional agreements, because what is happening in the country is very serious,” said Greenpeace’s Ampugnani.

Castillo’s organization is working to raise awareness about the agreement. “If no one knows it exists and that they are obliged to comply with it, how do we make them do it? There are still informative processes in which an application has not yet received a response. We have to demand compliance. There are conditions to apply the agreement. But we need political will to comply with it and to get the word out about it,” she said.

Corason’s Jiménez questioned whether the treaty was up-to-date. “Up to now, the Escazú Agreement is dead letter, that is the history of many laws in Mexico. Environmentalists have clearly suffered from violence, and let’s not even mention access to information, where there have even been setbacks. There is an environment that hinders progress,” she said.

In her view, it is not in the interest of governments to apply the agreement, because it requires participation, information and protection in environmental issues.

In March 2022, the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Escazú Agreement took place, which focused on its operational issues and other aspects that the countries will have to hash out before the next summit is held in 2024.

The Supreme Court, which has not yet set a date for handing down its ruling, is caught between going against the government if it favors environmental organizations or hindering respect for the agreement. For now, the treaty is as far from land as Mexico City is from Escazú: about 1,925 kilometers.

This post first appeared on IPS News.

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