Landmark Regional Environmental Agreement achieved

Above: Kishan Kumarsingh, Head Multilateral Environmental Agreements Unit at the meeting on adoption of the Agreement
The Ministry of Planning and Development represented Trinidad and Tobago in negotiations on the rights of access to environmental information, access to justice in environmental matters, and public participation in environmental decision-making, which lead to an unprecedented legal regional agreement. The Agreement was approved on Sunday, March 4th, 2018 in San Jose, Costa Rica, after more than six (6) years of intense meetings and negotiation. This move marks the Caribbean’s and Latin America’s first legally binding environmental democracy agreement.
The adopted Agreement is the completion of a process that was launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012, with the Declaration on the application of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Principle 10 seeks to ensure that every person has access to information, can participate in the decision-making process and has access to justice in environmental matters with the aim of safeguarding the right to a healthy and sustainable environment for present and future generations.  Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís in his closing comments indicated that it is necessary to bring people into environment-related decisions, making them participants in development, since “the right to a healthy environment is a human right.” He also highlighted the legal relevance of the agreement and of “environmental democracy” as a new legal term that implies the participation of all in the protection of the environment.These rights ensure both that the environmental problems affecting disadvantaged groups and vulnerable communities are adequately addressed, and those policy decisions affecting the environment take into consideration the needs and views of those groups. For Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the agreement is of distinct significance as it will also serve as a key instrument in ensuring that climate change adaptation and resilience-building strategies being developed are done so in a transparent and participatory manner, consistent with the Paris Agreement and relevant issues regarding climate justice.
 Kishan Kumarsingh, Head, Multilateral Environmental Agreements at the Ministry of Planning and Development participated actively in the negotiations serving on the committee of Presiding Officers which managed the negotiations, as well as co-chairing negotiations on key articles of the Agreement. The Agreement aligns with the goals of Vision2030 National Strategy, Theme V: Placing the environment at the centre of social and economic development, and will serve to strengthen the environmental governance framework. The environment is the common thread that supports all sectors which contribute to the social and economic development of the nation. As Trinidad and Tobago continues on a sustainable development path,  efforts to empower our citizens for innovative solutions are necessary to mutually reinforce the balance between the environment and the economy will be encouraged at all avenues in order to secure national prosperity, as communicated in Trinidad and Tobago’s National Performance Framework (view publication at http://www.planning.gov.tt/publications).  The Agreement, therefore, will facilitate the enabling environment to achieve these objectives.
Remarks of Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), stressed the importance of this process that culminated with the adoption of the first binding regional agreement on environmental democracy. “With this agreement, Latin America and the Caribbean attests to its firm and unequivocal commitment to a foundational democratic principle: the right of people to participate in a significant way in the decisions that affect their lives and their surroundings.” Bárcena added that this regional agreement, along with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, respond to the international community’s quest for answers aimed at changing the current development pattern “in order to build peaceful, more just, caring and inclusive societies, in which human rights are protected and the protection of the planet and its natural resources is guaranteed.”
The agreement will be open for signature and ratification in the coming months and will require a total of 11 consents before it enters into force. The Ministry of Planning and Development will be conducting a sensitization series on the Agreement with all relevant stakeholders in the coming weeks to discuss further details of the Agreement.
 
Key takeaways of the Agreement provisions:
 
It is the first agreement to create obligations of the States in relation to environmental defenders, people who work to protect the environment or their land rights, specifically to protect them from harm and ensure they have an enabling environment supportive of their work.
In relation to access to information, it requires states to consider the public interest and guarantees that when faced with threats to public health or the environment, States should immediately disseminate all information that could help prevent or reduce harm. It also includes an obligation for States to develop pollutant and release registers across the region to provide access to information on harmful emissions released into the air, water, and land to the public.
Regarding public participation in environmental decision-making, the Agreement guarantees, among other things, public participation in projects and activities and other processes for granting environmental permits that have or may have a significant impact on the environment or affect health; setting guidelines for notification, provision of information and a further requirement that authorities have to consider the views of the public in the decision-making process to ensure that public participation is meaningful.
The Agreement specifically recognizes the position of persons and groups in vulnerable situations and requires states to eliminate barriers to their use of access rights. This is particularly important for the need to obtain justice in environmental matters.
It also recognizes important principles that will help us interpret how access rights are to be implemented such as the principle of non-discrimination.