Opening Photo: School children participate in a beach clean-up activity in the coastal city of Salado Barra, Honduras, 2019. Photo courtesy of CAFTA-DR Environment Cooperation Program
By Sarah Flores, Anel Gonzalez-Ruiz, and Neal Morris
In one year, five municipalities in the Sololá Department near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala developed and adopted new legislation on solid waste management, established collection routes for recyclable materials, and ensured that 1,000 families consistently separated recyclables and organic waste at home.
“We are now collecting organic waste and using it to create fertilizer,” said Santa Sofía Ajú, a landfill operator.
Pablo Soc, another landfill operator, is proud that his work has improved environmental conditions and livelihoods in his community. Like many others in Sololá, he is now better equipped to do so, thanks to the support from the Environmental Cooperation Program (ECP) of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). The CAFTA-DR countries include Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
Under the auspices of the Office of Environmental Quality (ENV) in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), the United States worked with the CAFTA-DR countries to establish ECP and has coordinated its implementation for the past 15 years. ENV has leveraged more than $100 million in U.S. foreign assistance funds, bringing together the U.S. interagency and NGOs to strengthen environmental governance in CAFTA-DR countries while attracting more than $21 million in co-funding from private and government partners.
Community-based organizations in the CAFTA-DR region have led more than 20 small grant projects to promote environmentally sound solid waste management. These initiatives helped establish waste collection routes, formalize waste collectors, start recycling and composting programs, develop and implement waste management ordinances, and foster dialogue between municipalities and community members. In 2018–2019, projects led to improved disposal of 6,000 tons of solid waste from the environment, recycled 90 tons of plastic, and trained 14,000 people in solid waste management.
ECP also supported regional capacity-building efforts to combat wildlife trafficking and illegal logging; strengthen water and air quality monitoring; modernize environmental impact assessment processes; and foster public access to environmental information and knowledge of environmental laws.
Community members of the Sololá Department near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala discuss solid waste management efforts, 2019. Video by Mancomunidad Tzolojya
Investments made by ENV and the interagency through the ECP often have a multiplier effect, whereby communities and institutions build capacity and scale efforts throughout the CAFTA-DR region. For example, ENV supported the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) efforts to strengthen and improve 12 wastewater treatment plants. As a result, one regional and four national plants became wastewater reference laboratories. These laboratories now provide technical assistance to other treatment plants in the region and support enforcement cases related to wastewater discharge standards.
By empowering our trading partners to meet their free trade agreement environmental obligations, U.S. trade policy and trade-related environmental cooperation benefit American workers, businesses, families, and communities. Providing for the high levels of environmental protection can help level the playing field by promoting fair, market-oriented trading conditions.
The CAFTA-DR region is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world and is particularly vulnerable to illegal trade in wildlife. Wildlife trafficking, one of the most lucrative criminal activities, is fed by a constant demand for flora and fauna, particularly species categorized as endangered or economically valuable, including iguanas, turtles, jaguars, parrots, and rosewood (Dalbergia spp.).
The Central American and Dominican Republic Wildlife Enforcement Network (CAWEN; ROAVIS in Spanish), coordinated by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) with support from ENV, helps stem wildlife trafficking and illegal logging, promotes ecosystem conservation, and protects people’s livelihoods domestically and abroad. Lorena Fernandez, secretary of CAWEN and chief of the Special Prosecution Unit for the Protection of the Environment with the Public Ministry of Honduras, considers CAWEN to be a “strong regional network with operational and well-structured national networks, that represents the voice [of the CAFTA-DR region] in international fora.”
Through its work with CAWEN, DOI has trained over 2,600 judges, prosecutors, customs officers, and other enforcement officials. Officials in the CAFTA-DR region have conducted more than 30 wildlife operations, seizing illegally traded species of wood, birds, mammals, reptiles, orchids, and insects. Programs to combat illegal logging, led by the U.S. Forest Service, have also promoted increased monitoring of forest lands against deforestation and the use of scientific techniques to preserve highly valuable or protected timber species in the CAFTA-DR region.
From January 2019 to May 2020, officials coordinating through CAWEN confiscated more than 2,400 reptiles, approximately 500 birds, and 100 mammals. Officials completed more than 42 coordinated inspection operations, apprehended 260 individuals, and investigated more than 110 cases. Enforcement actions like these help CAFTA-DR countries fulfill Environment Chapter obligations, combat corruption, and protect wildlife and important ecosystems. This work has also helped to promote the sustainable use of natural resources, support the people’s livelihoods in the region, and address economic insecurity and inequality.
The CAFTA-DR Secretariat for Environmental Matters (SEM), established under the CAFTA-DR Environment Chapter and funded by ENV, is helping promote public participation in environmental decision-making and the enforcement of domestic environmental legislation. SEM partnered with 11 regional university centers to provide free legal assistance on environmental issues to reach people who have limited legal knowledge and live in remote or rural areas.
“We looked to the United States for guidance on the practice of legal clinics…” said Jorge Guzmán, the SEM’s general coordinator. “The goal has been to endow universities with the tools needed so they can reach communities that need assistance.”
Since its inception in 2007, SEM has received 44 submissions from the public asserting that a CAFTA-DR country had failed to enforce environmental laws effectively. This process has improved transparency and promoted dialogue between CAFTA-DR governments and their citizens, contributing to strengthening democratic governance and advancing the rule of law.
ECP is continuing to pursue shared environmental goals during the COVID-19 global pandemic. ENV, working with DOI, organized a virtual study tour for Jordan, Costa Rica, and 50 stakeholders to exchange lessons learned on the use of electronic permitting systems, which help combat wildlife trafficking and bolster transparency. H.R.H. Princess Alia Bint Al Hussein, head of Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, and Franklin Paniagua, Costa Rica’s vice minister of environment, joined the event to share their perspectives. ENV is adapting activities to a virtual format, and reaching a larger, more diverse group of participants, including governments, academia, the private sector, and civil society. While there are benefits to online activities, ENV recognizes the challenges of reaching remote, rural, and marginalized communities with little or no internet access.
Through support for the ECP, ENV has fostered a culture of environmental protection to create lasting, positive change in CAFTA-DR countries. The impacts of the ECP efforts often extend beyond project implementation. In one year, the number of households separating waste in the Sololá Department in Guatemala rose from 18 to 88 percent. Nexan Herrera, the community development council coordinator in Santa Lucía Utatlán, underscores the success of the project and believes it “could serve as an example for other communities and other municipalities.”
By fostering collaboration and leveraging regional cohesion, ECP encourages CAFTA-DR countries to continue sharing resources, improving coordination, and exchanging technical expertise to enhance environmental protection and sustainable development at the regional and national levels.
Building on the achievements of the past 15 years, ENV—in partnership with other U.S. agencies and departments, CAFTA-DR governments, and the NGO community—will continue to collaborate through ECP to further strengthen the relationship between the United States and the CAFTA-DR countries.
Sarah Flores, Anel Gonzalez-Ruiz, and Neal Morris manage the CAFTA-DR Environmental Cooperation Program in the Office of Environmental Quality in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.