China in Latin America and the Caribbean: Can the Escazu Agreement Play a Role in Delivering Climate and Biodiversity Outcomes?

Learnings from a workshop on green transitions and environmental rights

In collaboration with Dialogue Earth, Núcleo Milenio sobre los Impactos de China en América Latina (ICLAC)and Faculdad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (RWI) held a series of discussions and workshops on the interlocking issues of China’s trade and investment relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean, green transitions and environmental rights.

The events took place 23-25 April in Santiago, Chile, on the sidelines of the third Conference of the Parties to the Escazu Agreement, the region’s first environmental treaty, and included interactive methodologies such as a walkshop in the Andes mountains.

Participants at the workshop hosted at FLACSO (Image: Raúl Bravo Mercado)

Discussions clustered into five areas: China’s role in Latin America and the Caribbean; China’s approach to environmental issues; the importance of local conditions and agency of local people in shaping the nature and impacts of China’s investment; the Escazú Agreement and why it matters in advancing the realisation of the right to a healthy environment; and the knowledge gaps that must be bridged to shape the relationship for the better of all.

Understanding Global China

In the first session, much of the conversation focused on ways to understand China’s role in investment, trade and green transitions in Latin America and the Caribbean, and more broadly around the world. A number of participants noted how bewildering the Chinese political and overseas investment system can be, alongside the array of terminology and initiatives Chinese actors use.

Several participants mentioned the importance of “disaggregating” China to understand the many different actors that make up its system of overseas investment, who often have quite different incentives. Put another way, one participant emphasised, China is not a monolith. Understanding the various components of the Chinese overseas investment system – from political departments to companies to banks, and the different types of finance they offer – can help local stakeholders engage with China in a more effective manner.

Comprehending the complex web of players is no simple task, however. One participant pointed to resources that help by mapping out the different actors and their relationships.

Ching Kwan Lee, Malin Oud and Marina Rudyak in a session on China in the world and why it matters (Image: Raúl Bravo Mercado)

Participants also noted the need to understand the power relationships behind grand initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative. These are the “appearance” of Global China, not its “essence”, one participant said. Looking at China through power rather than policy enables us to take a comparative approach to its engagement with the world. This enables a better understanding of the interlinkages between development actors and national governments around the world – to see them as parts of a global political and economic system, rather than discrete worlds of “Western”, “Chinese” or “Japanese” development assistance.

The conversation then moved to a discussion about Chinese concepts of green transitions and environmental rights. It was noted that China’s approach to environmental protection tends to be very technocentric, with environmental engineering playing a major role in the domestic approach to protecting and restoring the natural world. This could present some communication and conceptual gaps with stakeholders in different parts of the world, particularly civil society.

A Spanish-language breakout session on environmental governance and the China–Latin America relationship (Image: Raúl Bravo Mercado)
Zhang Jingjing addressing China’s regulations and guidelines on the environmental impacts of overseas projects (Image: Ailen Díaz Escobar)

At the same time, however, the technocentric environmental approach was pointed to as an opportunity for Global South countries to redefine their position in the world. This could be done by bringing transition-related industries and technologies to the developing world via economic engagement with Chinese companies expanding into overseas markets, for example in the form of transition mineral processing. The shift in China’s own discussion on environment and climate reinforces this. It has moved from framing the issues as detrimental to development in the 1990s and 2000s to being well aligned with “high quality” development. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy’s increasing reliance on the exports of goods such as solar panels and electric vehicles adds further momentum to the “greening” of trade and investment overseas.

Importance of local action

While it is important to understand the dynamics and logic of China’s engagement with the world, it is also necessary to understand how local conditions can affect the nature of that engagement. Participants noted how it is common to think of China as a monolithic entity that acts unilaterally. As a result, investment projects in Belt and Road countries come to be seen as directed and fully controlled by Chinese actors, when in reality host country governments play a major role too, for example in terms of initiating projects, signing MOUs and providing permits.

Special economic zones in Zambia were raised as an example of projects initiated by the host government, rather than by Chinese companies. Another participant noted that pressure exerted on Chinese companies by governments and civil society has a track record of shaping investments. For example, companies may be forced to adhere to local content or processing requirements, as in Indonesia and Zimbabwe. They may also be compelled into consultation with local communities, as in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Lessons learned from other regions can support Latin American and Caribbean countries in crafting public interest strategies and decision-making that benefit the people and nature in the region.

Ruth Spencer speaking in a session on the Escazú Agreement and why it matters (Image: Ailen Díaz Escobar)

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Escazú Agreement presents an important new avenue for shaping Chinese companies’ operations, whether state or privately owned. Article 9 of the treaty recognises the rights of environmental human rights defenders (EHRD), giving stronger legal tools for local community to exercise their freedom of expression and opinion and other interrelated economic, social and cultural rights, and for making companies accountable for their actions.

It is notable that language around human rights, Indigenous peoples’ rights, and the rights of nature, is enshrined in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, signed on the back of China’s and Canada’s presidencies of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in 2022. More research and dialogue with various groups is needed to understand what were the conditions that allowed Chinese institutions representing the country in these Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework negotiations to contribute to the adoption of a roadmap with progressive goals for 2050 and targets for 2030, even in areas in which China is not normally seen as progressive.

The Escazú Agreement and why it matters in advancing the realisation of the right to a healthy environment

As part of the dialogue, participants discussed a key outcome of the April 2024 Escazú Agreement Conference of the Parties namely the adoption of a regional action plan on environmental human rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean in which Parties are required to take action at all levels, from national to subnational, with involvement from the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the state. Although participants recognised that this regional action plan does not focus on transnational dynamics, its implementation is affected by them because Latin America and the Caribbean does not operate in a vacuum.The extent to which people in the region including environmental human rights defenders can exercise their right to a healthy environment and advance environmental democracy is affected by transnational economic and trade dynamics.

Claudia Ituarte Lima speaks about the significance of the Escazú Agreement for the rights of local communities and a healthy environment for all (Image: Raúl Bravo Mercado)

The Escazú Agreement and its tools can support environmental human rights defenders in various Latin America and Caribbean countries to join efforts and bridge capacities using the law and other strategies to prevent ecosystems harm and human rights violations by Chinese state or private companies operating in the region. The regional action plan on environmental human rights defenders is structured around four interrelated areas, all relevant for coordinated regional action:  knowledge creation, recognition, capacity-building, and cooperation for national implementation.

Crucially, the action plan includes provisions for evaluation, follow-up, and review to track progress on compliance with Article 9. Progress in implementing Article 9 is interconnected with complying with other international commitments such as Target 22 on access to information, public participation, access to justice and environmental human rights defenders of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework which mirrors key areas covered by the Escazú Agreement.

How to better engage with China for green and just transitions?

Participants also pointed towards the sizeable gaps in China knowledge and awareness that exist within policymaker communities, civil society and grassroots communities. Closing these gaps, they indicated, could significantly improve the outcomes of Chinese-invested projects, many of which are in sorely needed infrastructures such as power, roads and telecommunications. Some participants argued that a lack of understanding of Chinese players has resulted in poor negotiating by their governments and a lack of strict and enforced conditions on investment. Closing the knowledge gaps could help make for smarter negotiation, they argued. Others noted that knowledge on China remains within a circle of elites in their countries and rarely filters down to the people who are directly affected by projects.

Walkshop in the Andes (Image: Raúl Bravo Mercado)

All in all, it was apparent that discussions such as that held in Santiago enable learning and promote connections between people specialised on human rights and environment with those focusing on different facets of “Global China.” Expanding on these interactions may help close the knowledge gaps identified by participants. This could contribute to collaborations between various actor in Latin America and the Caribbean to ensure that Chinese state institutions and companies act in a way that is aligned with international human rights and environmental law.  China and Latin American and Caribbean countries have common commitments that they have set for themselves through becoming parties of international treaties in these fields. Importantly, complying with them can help produce better results for a healthy environment and for local communities, and for present and future generations more broadly.

The workshop in Santiago was the first in a series of four regional workshops taking place in Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe in 2024-2025 within RWI’s recently launched China in the World Programme. Through these workshops, we are co-creating an open access, online learning platform where we will publish articles and other materials on the overall theme of Global China at the intersection of human rights and the environment.


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