Without the right laws and safeguards in place, development can come at the expense of the environment and local communities. This point is especially evident in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Newspapers across the region regularly document conflicts over land and natural resource use, hydroelectric power development, oil exploitation, expansion of agriculture into virgin forests, and the disruption of indigenous practices.
Many of these conflicts occur because countries lack strong laws and practices that encourage the public’s access to information and early participation in government decision-making. Without these laws in place, citizens can’t legally obtain information on projects like proposed oil wells or highways—or engage in the decision-making processes about developing and approving these projects. Governments can then make decisions without considering the impact on local citizens. The resulting social, environmental, or health costs often fall disproportionately on the affected communities. (See our video, “Sunita,” for more information on the need for access to information laws).
But the situation in the LAC region could be poised to change, depending on what happens at a meeting this week. Representatives from 13 countries and two observer countries will meet with civil society groups in Guadalajara, Mexico, to finalize a two-year action plan on implementing the LAC Principle 10 Regional Declaration. If attendees come up with a strong plan, several LAC countries will come closer to adopting a plan for improving environmental justice and public participation rights across the region.
The Latin America and Caribbean Principle 10 Regional Declaration
Principle 10, or the “environmental democracy principle,” mandates the public’s right to access environmental information, participate in any government decision affecting the environment, and complain and seek redress from judicial or administrative bodies. The Latin America and the Caribbean Principle 10 Regional Declaration was adopted at the Rio+20 Summit in June 2012, marking the first time that developing countries came together to formally consider the possibility of creating a regional instrument to implement Principle 10.
So far, governments from 13 LAC nations have signed on to the Declaration, and signatory governments prepared a Road Map in Chile last November. The formal Plan of Action is to be approved at the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) meeting in Mexico, which begins tomorrow. This Plan of Action is important because it will commit governments to the type of regional instrument to be created in the region, define the way people and organizations can get involved, and establish concrete steps that governments will take to prepare for a negotiation process that will begin in 2015.
3 Principle to Ensure a Strong Plan of Action
The governments of Chile, Dominican Republic, and Mexicohave already released a draft Plan of Action. Finalizing this plan will be a significant step forward in the LAC Principle 10 process, but what’s more important is that the plan is a strong one that puts the public’s rights first. WRI’s Access Initiative, along with a number of our partners, believe that the Plan of Action must contain three key elements:
- Demonstrated Political Will–to make serious progress on discussion of a legally binding regional convention for Principle 10 (rather than voluntary), as well as its scope and a vision for success. A legally binding regional convention presents opportunities to increase the adoption of access rights in the region and address the lack of implementation and enforcement that currently exists (see our paper, From Principles to Rights).
- Resources: A LAC Principle 10 Declaration won’t achieve results unless governments and civil society can build their capacities to ensure adoption of new freedom of information laws, improve public participation processes, and boost judicial and administrative justice. We’ll need a clear method to obtain financial, educational, and other resources to move this process forward.
- Strong Rules for Public Participation: Governments can’t design a regional instrument all on their own. Strong rules should facilitate participation of all stakeholders—public, private, and civil society groups—including those most affected by environmental harms, such as children, women, and indigenous groups. Without strong participation and official roles for civil society (e.g. on working groups or as vice chairs), this process will fail to meet the needs of those in each country in the region.
Now is the time to make the important decisions that will guarantee the Principle 10 Declaration process is successful. A strong foundation during the planning phase will lead to a strong regional instrument during the implementation phase. Developing a robust Principle 10 Convention just may ensure that we see fewer and fewer of those media reports on environmental and development conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean.