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By: Lucas Dourojeanni

Within the framework of territorial control and surveillance, territory patrolling, as well as the conservation of protected natural areas and their buffer zones, is a high-risk activity to those who carry them out, especially when they are performed in areas threatened by illegal activities.

This dangerous but necessary task is undertaken by indigenous peoples, local communities and public and private institutions that are highly committed to preserving forests, biodiversity and the environment.

Men and women called guardians, defenders, monitors or guards get organized to defend their territories, often without payment, social recognition, basic safety elements or legal protection required to perform this task.

The patrols can last for days or even weeks, making monitors leave their families and their productive activities that are their main livelihood. All of this for the sake of protecting their territories, being well aware of the possibility of leaving their home one day and no longer returning[1].

This dangerous but necessary task is undertaken by indigenous peoples, local communities and public and private institutions that are highly committed to preserving forests, biodiversity and the environment.

This demands a concrete and effective response from society as a whole and, above all, the commitment from States to defend protected areas and their guardians.

What are these control and surveillance processes and what do they imply?

Territory control and surveillance can be understood as all the activities and tasks that help protect a specific area from actions that infringe upon its integrity, environmental quality or the integrity of its inhabitants. They can be done through checkpoints, regular or special patrolling, overflights, drone usage, early warnings, satellite image analysis or, most commonly, a combination of them.

Each one of these control and surveillance methods has their pros and cons. However, the physical presence on site is the most effective method, not only due to the knowledge the peoples and communities have over the monitored territory, but also because remote sensing[2] has several limitations[3].

These limitations force communities and indigenous peoples to depend on patrols as the most effective strategy to protect the territory. But regardless of how prepared they are, this exposes them to violent situations and other personal, social or economic risks than can lead to a tragic ending, something we know well enough.

What risks do the guardians face?

First of all, guardians are exposed to natural elements, such as the climate, the local fauna and the geography itself, which add up to generate access obstacles, long excursions and logistical problems. In this sense, guardians must be prepared for things such as torrential downpours and snake bites.

Other risks are those caused by external agents, that is to say, invaders, illegal loggers and informal miners that are increasingly better equipped and willing to act irrespective of the consequences.

Finally, the guardians face a third type of risk that doesn’t affect them physically, but affects their mental health and their capacity to carry out surveillance tasks effectively. We’re talking about the stress produced by extended absences from their homes, the toll on their family's livelihood and the exposure to risk situations that may occur during patrols.

What is being done with regards to these risks?

Improvements in the protection of the forest guardians in Latin America

Monitors/defenders/guardians continue risking their lives on a daily basis to protect our forests and nature and, therefore, need more than symbolic agreements that don’t materialize in concrete actions.

Principle 10

During the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) three important agreements were homologated:

  1. Agenda
    21 (global action plan);
  2. Rio Declaration on Environment and
    Development; and
  3. A set of principles regarding civil
    rights and States’ obligations, as well as forest-related principles[4].

According to CEPAL, Principle 10 emanates from the agreements established in Rio and aims at ensuring the right to a healthy and sustainable environment for present and future generations[5], making sure that every person has:

  1. Access
    to information;
  2. Participation
    in decision-making; and
  3. Access to justice in environmental
    issues.

Later, during the Rio+20 summit, this concept was broadened with the formulation of the Declaration on the Application of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which led to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean – or simply, the Escazú Agreement.

The Escazú Agreement

The Agreement aims at guaranteeing the rights of access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters. This document stands out from other documents because of its specific provisions for the recognition of human rights defenders in environmental matters[6], indicating that countries must guarantee:

  1. A safe environment for those who
    promote and defend human rights in environmental matters so that they can work
    without threats, limitations and insecurity;
  2. Measures to recognize, protect and
    promote all the rights of the defenders; and
  3. Measures to prevent, investigate and
    sanction attacks, threats or harassment against the defenders.

The Escazú Agreement has been signed by 21 countries, including Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. However, for it to come into effect, it must be ratified by 11 countries and, so far, only 5 have done so[7].

Defense processes in Latin American countries

At the national level, each country has been developing, with more or less effectiveness and participation, debates and processes to establish norms, instruments or mechanisms to defend the rights of people and organizations that represent indigenous peoples. In some cases, norms and protocols have even been created to ensure the protection of human rights’ defenders.

Unfortunately, there usually is a delay in the internalization of these protocols by the countries and it is generally more the result of the current scenario than that of the governments’ own reflection and conviction.

Regardless of the level at which these protection norms were created – whether at the national, regional or international level – what they have in common is that if they can’t actually be applied in the territories, they are nothing more than garnishes in legal libraries.

Monitors/defenders/guardians continue risking their lives on a daily basis to protect our forests and nature and, therefore, need more than symbolic agreements that don’t materialize in concrete actions. They need a society that acknowledges the importance of their work on site as well as governments that guarantee their protection and safe return home.


[1] Between November and December of 2019, three Guajajara guardians’ deaths have been registered in Arariboia Land (Maranhão, Brazil).

[2] Satellite images, aerial pictures, 3D laser scanning, radar, among others.

[3] Temporary images, their resolution, access to them, as well as climate conditions and the area’s topography.

[4] Available at: https://www.un.org/esa/dsd/resources/res_docukeyconf_eartsumm.shtml.

[5] Available at: https://observatoriop10.cepal.org/en/infographics/principle-10-rio-declaration-environment-and-development.

[6] Available at: https://observatoriop10.cepal.org/en/treaties/regional-agreement-access-information-public-participation-and-justice-environmental.

[7] The five countries that have ratified the Agreement are Bolivia, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Uruguay.