Indigenous Latin Americans at a climate demonstration. Photo:© Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
Towards a Latin American agenda for a just socio-ecological transition
Climate Action Network Latin America hosted a series of regional dialogues during 2021 on how to jointly advance the climate, biodiversity and human rights agendas.
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is home to a spectacular biological and cultural diversity. A plethora of different environments span across the continent, from glaciers and snowy peaks in the Andes, to the lush rainforests of the Amazon and beyond. Indigenous peoples, afro-descendants, local communities and peasants that inhabit these biocultural landscapes are holders of invaluable traditional knowledge, cosmovisions and wisdom.
For centuries, their livelihoods have been strongly defined by – and dependent on – a close relationship to land and nature. Yet, the region’s natural and cultural heritage is under serious threat. Climate impacts, profound social inequalities and environmental degradation cut across the continent. Problems that, by and large, derive from a globalised economic model that demands infinite growth, and in which only a small portion of society continues to appropriate and accumulate an unequal share of natural resources and externalise the negative environmental costs. The expansion of “misdevelopment” models across the region – strongly based on an intensive, unequal and indiscriminate exploitation of nature to meet the primary commodities demand from the North – has, in turn, led to a rise in socioenvironmental conflicts.
In fact, Latin America is the most dangerous and deadly region for environmental activism in the world, where defenders of the land and the environment are being systematically displaced, threatened, prosecuted and assassinated. An investigation conducted by Global Witness found that almost three-quarters of frontline defender murders recorded in 2020 happened in Latin America.1 Climate impacts are already causing widespread losses and damages, and driving humanitarian crises in many countries.
Higher temperatures, glacier loss, storms, droughts and other extreme weather events are leading to water and energy-related shortages, agricultural losses, displacement and compromised health and safety of millions. Increasing fires and deforestation are also a key concern as not only do they pose direct consequences for the people that depend on them, but also threaten one of the world’s largest carbon sinks: Almost half of the continent is covered by forests, representing about 57% of the world’s remaining primary forests and storing an estimated 104 gigatons of carbon.2 All this underscores the fact that climate change and the degradation of nature can no longer be seen merely as environmental crises, but also as human rights and inequality crises.
In LAC, this multidimensionality calls for an integrated, locally led and truly transformative response that should be conceived from the region, for the region, and respond to the realities and needs of people in their territories. With this in mind, Climate Action Network Latin America (CAN-LA) – the regional node for a global network of more than 1,800 civil society organisations – held a series of regional talks during 2021 focused on the interlinkages between climate change, biodiversity and human rights. This series of dialogues brought together high-level experts, Indigenous leaders, researchers, NGO representatives and other stakeholders to share and exchange views and perspectives on this deeply complex issue.
The first dialogue focused on understanding the shared causes and interlinkages between climate change and biodiversity in the Latin American context. One of the guest speakers, Ernesto Ráez-Luna, executive director at Instituto del Bien Común (Peru), asserted that climate change, biodiversity loss and the Covid-19 pandemic are all symptoms of the global economic system itself, which is leading to an unrelenting pressure on natural resources, ecosystems and Indigenous territories. In addition to sharing the same root causes, both crises compound one another. The 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services concluded that climate change is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss, increasing attention on this nexus.
However, as IPBES Chair Ana María Hernández Salgar pointed out during the talks, these findings were not new. She explained that biodiversity is intimately connected to climate, and that any actions to solve these challenges must address both the direct and indirect drivers underlying nature deterioration. Although degrowth and larger systemic changes are needed to tackle the root causes of these problems, urgently phasing out fossil fuels in parallel with protecting and restoring degraded natural ecosystems through a rights-based approach, were highlighted as crucial approaches to mitigate global warming and strengthen socio-ecological resilience. Central to this discussion is the fact that Indigenous territories account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity and store at least 17% of the above-ground carbon in the world’s forests.3
Gregorio Mirabal, an Indigenous leader from the Guarinuma community in the Amazon rainforest, explained “while you say that Indigenous people are the best conservationists, the response from governments and extractive companies is violence, murder and the systematic violation of our rights”. He called for the urgent need to stop the destruction of their communities, cultures and lands, and emphasised that support is needed from all actors and movements, including science, youth and religious organisations. It is worth pointing out that, according to a report by Rainforest Foundation Towards a Latin American agenda for a just socio-ecological transition Climate Action Network Latin America hosted a series of regional dialogues during 2021 on how to jointly advance the climate, biodiversity and human rights agendas. ACID NEWS NO.3, OCTOBER 2022 17 Norway, Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) tenure and forest management in tropical countries receive only a very small share of international donor funding4 .
The second dialogue of this series revolved around the role and the need to integrate the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). While over the last decade there has been increasing scientific and political recognition that climate change and biodiversity loss cannot be addressed independently or without addressing inequality, much remains to be done within national and international policy frameworks. As pointed out by Alexandra Deprez (IDDRI), high-level discussions on the climate-biodiversity nexus are often focused on maximising the synergies between both agendas – or how biodiversity can “help” climate change – but much less attention is being paid to the dangerous trade-offs that arise from some mitigation approaches, such as large-scale afforestation and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
This is particularly relevant for the region, since 50% of the potential bioenergy production area is located in biodiversity hotspots, with Central America and southwestern South America leading the list of areas most at risk of conversion to bioenergy5 . It was also highlighted that increasing coherence between climate and biodiversity planning at the national level is essential, and that more structured joint work programmes between the CBD and UNFCCC should be called for. An interesting discussion also took place around “Nature-based Solutions” (NbS), a term that has emerged as an increasingly popular approach to address both crises, and that has been a subject of heated debates at multilateral spaces and within civil society itself.
While some actors are promoting this concept as a vehicle to connect the climate change and biodiversity conventions, there are increasing concerns that the ambiguity of this term enables co-option and greenwashing, and that it further reproduces systemic North-South power imbalances.
Finally, the last dialogue focused on exploring the relevance of the Escazú Agreement and the human rights-based approach in accelerating climate and biodiversity action in the region. Escazú is the first multilateral agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean on human rights and the environment. Signed in 2018 by 25 countries, this treaty seeks to raise minimum standards on the rights of access to information, participation and justice in environmental matters, urging Parties to safeguard the rights and work of environmental human rights defenders.
The UN Special Rapporteur, David Boyd, stated “by bringing environmental obligations and human rights obligations together, we get a very powerful convergence that forces countries to prioritise and accelerate their progress towards the environmental goals”. The Escazu treaty is critical because it gives people the tools to hold governments accountable.
Although this agreement marks a regional milestone in advancing environmental democracy, to date it has only been ratified by 13 countries. Further ratification is a key priority for civil society in the region, so that the agreement can effectively serve as a widely accepted multilateral instrument. Latin America and the Caribbean has the potential to play a greater leadership role in international environmental policy. Not only is it a highly vulnerable region and harbours irreplaceable natural carbon and biodiversity reservoirs, but also has its own unique narrative on the rights of nature and ethnic communities that provides a field of transformative action of enormous scope. These types of dialogues are key to start consolidating a regional agenda for a just and sovereign socio-ecological transition.
Catalina Gonda, Climate Policy Coordinator, Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN).
1 Global Witness (2021). Last Line of Defense: The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against land and environmental defenders. Available at: https://www.globalwitness.org/es/last-line-defence-es/
2 World Meteorological Organization (2021). State of the Climate in Latin America & the Caribbean 2020. Available at: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/b9e1619f4897444babf79b21907b7910
3 Rights and Resources Initiative (2018). A Global Baseline of Carbon Storage in Collective Lands. Available at: https://rightsandresources.org/wpcontent/uploads/2018/09/A-Global-Baseli...
4 Rainforest Foundation Norway (2021). Falling Short: Donor funding for Indigenous Peoples and local communities to secure tenure rights and manage forests in tropical countries (2011–2020). Available at: https://www.regnskog.no/en/news/falling-short
5 Hof et al. (2018). Bioenergy cropland expansion may offset positive effects of climate change mitigation for global vertebrate diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 115.101073/pnas.1807745115.