Latin America speaks up for the environment

By Sarah Parkinson

Despite all the health and socioeconomic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic across Latin America, Renew Our World continues to advocate for the protection of our planet.

Protecting Environmental Defenders in Latin America

It is well known that Latin America and the Caribbean are areas of our planet incredibly rich in biodiversity. A myriad of landscapes supports the abundance of life in this region, with tropical rainforests, mountain ranges, grasslands, glaciers and deserts. Environmental defenders typically live within or nearby these natural environments and play a key role in their conservation. 

These environmental defenders – often indigenous people – depend on local ecosystems for their livelihoods and, ultimately, survival. However, their needs and rights to sustenance and health often come under threat from development, extractivism and/or expansion of agriculture and populations. For these communities, defending the environment and their human rights against these intrusions often comes at a cost. 

Rut Pérez Saldarriaga is a member of the team that coordinates Renew Our World Peru as part of her work with Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope) in Lima, the country’s capital. Paz y Esperanza is part of a coalition of organisations working in the San Martín and Amazon regions with forest defenders and indigenous populations. The focus is on empowering local communities to know their rights and protect their lands. 

“In Asia and in Latin America, we have huge numbers of murders of environmental defenders,” shares Rut. “Up until recently, we haven’t had any laws that specifically protect these people aside from human rights law. So sometimes when environmental defenders are fighting against extractive companies, the companies attack them, their families or their lawyers. Sometimes the companies even kill people to silence them.

“During the recent Season of Creation, we at Renew Our World Peru held a month of prayer for the environmental defenders. We also prayed for the recent Escazú Agreement that has importantly been accepted by many countries in Latin America.”

The Escazú Agreement aims to provide access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. This landmark agreement is the first international treaty requiring signatory states prevent, investigate and punish attacks on those seeking to defend environmental rights. 

“That means governments must have laws specifically protecting these defenders. It also ensures that we in Latin America and the Caribbean region can have free information about our countries’ environmental contracts and issues in our local languages, which is particularly empowering for indigenous people who often don’t speak Spanish. This enables people to better participate in making the decisions that affect their environment and livelihoods.”

The Escazú Agreement will come into force in April 2021 after Argentina and Mexico became the latest signatories, boldly ushering in an era of tighter environmental protection. 

The Church takes on Mining

Alongside this support of the continent’s environmental defenders, Renew Our World Peru is also involved with another environmental movement called the Churches and Mining Network. 

“We as Renew Our World are part of this coalition of organisations, Catholic and evangelical churches and different faith groups,” says Rut. “The point is to work with churches and faith-based organisations against extractivism and mining that violates human rights and damages the environment.

“In the Latin America region, the Churches and Mining Network has an important campaign called Divestment from Mining which is focused on churches in Europe that are financed by mining. Through meetings and training sessions, the point is to explore the impact of the mining companies in our countries. The point is to explore the idea that this money doesn’t come simply from the earth, but that this money comes from something that is negatively affecting us in Latin America. The mining that funds these churches is damaging the health of the people here and damaging our environment. So we want to encourage them to be cautious about it.”

Throughout this year, Renew Our World Peru will also be focusing on connecting with local churches on this theme. 

“We are preparing materials for evangelical churches to talk about extractivism. This is not a topic that is talked about inside churches. So we are going to work through the basics of what extractivism means, what mining means, how health is affected with these actions and how the environment is affected. We’ll also be focusing on biblical perspectives; how we have to care for the people who are living in places impacted by mining, and what decisions we can make that can positively affect them and reform the extractivism system. We’re so excited to start these conversations.”

Please pray that the church in Latin America can compellingly speak the truth in love as it explores the impacts of extractivism on people and the planet. Please pray that the Escazú Agreement is indeed brought into force, that it may help guarantee the rights of all people to a healthy environment and sustainable development. Please pray for protection of the indigenous and local communities on the frontline of extractivism in Latin America and the Carribean. 

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