Latin America provides a strong foundation for the promotion of economic and social rights, given its long history of human rights activism, the flourishing of popular movements, and the fact that economic policies in the region have created some of the most inequitable societies in the world. Despite new political openness in recent years, regional development continues to exclude large parts of the population and is increasingly dictated by international financial institutions and foreign corporations.
CESR's focus in Latin America has been two-fold: first, challenging development projects in the Amazon for their lack of accountability and community participation, and second, promoting greater awareness and use of economic and social rights among civil society and governments throughout Latin America.
Development policies in the Amazon have had devastating impacts on the health and welfare of local communities as well as the environment. In 1993, CESR organized a team of scientists which produced the first substantive proof that communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon were being systematically exposed to toxic wastes dumped by oil companies. Based on these findings, CESR issued a report, Rights Violations in the Ecuadorian Amazon: The Human Consequences of Oil Development, that charged the government of Ecuador and US oil companies with violating the rights to health and a healthy environment. This report strengthened local efforts to confront irresponsible oil development by providing two critical elements: an international human rights framework and credible scientific evidence of violations.
CESR has since collaborated with environmental and indigenous groups to demand greater transparency and public participation in development processes. CESR also worked with members of the Ecuadorian Congress to ensure stronger environmental and social regulations.
To help make human rights a central feature of the national debate over development priorities, CESR also:
- prepared and disseminated numerous publications on economic and social rights, including legal reports and popular education materials;
- launched a national information campaign on economic and social rights with local human rights groups;
- helped establish a community-based network to monitor development and human rights issues in coordination with national and international NGOs;
- co-hosted community workshops on key issues such as negotiating with oil companies;
- organized a series of seminars with activists and academics to prepare a submission on rights violations to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
- co-organized investigations of oil development practices with Congressional oversight committees;
- conducted lectures and public presentations to raise awareness about economic and social rights at the academic and professional levels.
This work has had ripple effects in surrounding countries facing similar problems. Activists from Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia joined CESR workshops to share information and develop common strategies. These contacts led CESR and groups in Peru to collaborate on reports for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. CESR also coordinated the largest gathering to date of Latin American NGOs working on economic and social rights. This gathering produced the Quito Declaration and its preface.
To accommodate broader project activities, CESR established a Latin America Program in 1996, and opened a local office in Quito, Ecuador, in late 1997. By 2000, CESR's Quito office had grown into a leading human rights presence in the region, with 11 full-time local staff and strong working relations with groups from all of the Amazon and Andean countries. The Quito office currently serves in a number of prominent regional roles: as the coordinator for a regional ESCR initiative involving five Latin American networks, the Ecuadorian coordinator of the South American Platform on Human Rights, Development and Democracy, and as the coordinator for the Andean region of the Amazon Alliance.
The overarching goal of CESR's Latin American work has been to develop local capacity and turn leadership over to local initiative and direction. Staff members are principally from the region and projects have been run by a team of experienced Ecuadorian lawyers and activists. In August 2000, after a series of consultations, the regional office in Quito took the final step in institutional devolvement by establishing itself under Ecuadorian law as a separate NGO called Centro de Derechos Economicós y Sociales (CDES).