More than 60 human rights and environmental defenders gathered on 4 and 5 November at the Forum of Environmental Defenders in South America. The online event offered a platform to analyze environmental protection in the region and exchange experiences, good practices and recommendations to defend the environment safely.
The meeting was attended by environmental defenders and representatives of civil society from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay as well as featured defenders from Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala, among others.
Organized by UN Human Rights in South America (OHCHR), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the event was also supported by the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Protection International (PI), Global Witness and the International Land Coalition (ILC).
The forum was opened by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who considered that the gathering was an opportunity to advance environmental protection and the human rights of environmental defenders. “The role of defenders in our societies is fundamental. Their commitment and work powerfully contribute to the protection and promotion of rights, development, peace and security”, said Ms. Bachelet.
The Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, highlighted the braveness with which environmental defenders carry out their work, which has been impacted by a context of global crisis including COVID-19. “We are in the middle of a global pandemic that is linked to the destruction of nature. COVID-19 is part of the three global crises: the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution and waste crisis. These crises demonstrate how important it is to promote a healthy natural world in which we will all be able to prosper with dignity.”
The Executive Secretary of ECLAC, Alicia Bárcena, echoed the recognition of defenders and particularly underscored the role of women, indigenous leaders and remote areas in defending the environment in the region. She also urged to adopt a “zero tolerance approach” with respect to killings and violence against defenders, as well as policies for their protection and empowerment. “If we are to defend the environment, we must begin by protecting those who defend it”, she stated.
Challenges and priority areas
At the event, participants identified lines of action with an emphasis on the protection of environmental defenders. The forum also allowed raising awareness about UN human rights standards and mechanisms and regional ones such as the Escazú Agreement on access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters. The Escazú Agreement is the first regional environmental treaty and the first in the world to contain specific provisions on human rights defenders in environmental matters.
The first day included a panel providing a regional and local overview of environmental rights defenders, with the participation of environmental defenders from Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Honduras. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd, analyzed the situation of environmental and human rights defenders in South America and in a global context.
The second day was structured around working groups to discuss risks, the prevention and protection of defenders and strategies for defending the environment in four main areas: youth for the environment; extractive activities and territories; gender and environmental activism; and defending the environment in urban areas.
To close the event, on the basis of the main topics discussed during the Forum, some conclusions were systematized such as the importance of cooperating between environmental defender networks at the national and regional levels; the strengthening of capacities of communities to defend their rights; and the need to implement effective frameworks to protect the life and integrity of persons defending the environment, among other priorities.
The conclusions of the Forum will be compiled in a document that will serve as a reference tool and will include the recommendations of United Nations protection mechanisms in this area.
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