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Closing of Environmental Civil Society Space: Strategies for Support on the Frontlines

Peter Kostishack headshot.jpgPeter Kostishack of Global Greengrants Fund reflects on the anniversary of Berta Cáceres’ murder and shares effective strategies for supporting environmental rights defenders on the frontlines.

The 2016 murder of Honduran river-protection activist, Berta Caceres, received international media attention, but her story is only the tip of the iceberg. Other appalling cases include the murders of Guatemalan river activist, Sebastian Alonso, and Mexican forest-protection activist, Isidro Baldenegro López, among others.

Attacks against resource rights activists, especially indigenous people, made up a third of the 185 environmental defenders killed in 2015 according to a recent Global Witness report. In Honduras alone, over 123 land and environmental activists have been murdered since the 2009 coup that toppled the government.

On a recent visit to Chile, I marched on behalf of activists under threat. This helped me focus on how funders can address this problem.

On April 23, 2016, while accompanying the indigenous, student and environmental groups in Chile’s 4th National March for the Water in the city of Temuco, the march halted midcourse. We shifted paths to turn down a side street, onto a prohibited route and stopped in front of the regional prison.

Outside the prison, we expressed solidarity with the indigenous Mapuche prisoners inside, many of whom faced lengthy sentences for terrorism under a law developed by the Pinochet dictatorship. The anti-terrorism law, used against the Mapuche people in conflict with the state over their traditional land rights, has justified the militarization of communities, arrests, and trials of Mapuche citizens involving anonymous, masked witnesses.

In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, urged the Chilean government to stop using the anti-terrorism law against the Mapuche on discrimination grounds, to no avail. The Mapuche have faced a long history of government violation of their land rights and water rights in favor of the commercial forestry and mining industries, and selling hydropower companies the right to develop their sacred rivers. Criminalization is the latest of a string of human rights abuses that began with the dispossession of territory.

The arrest and trial of Mapuche activists under antiterrorism laws are part of a broader trend of the closing of civil society space in countries around the world.

The closing of civil society space is taking several different forms including:

  • the restriction of foreign funding to local organizations,
  • policies that restrict the registration and activities of civil society organizations,
  • the crackdown on the freedom of speech and demonstration,
  • and, laws that enable police to use violence against civil society with impunity.

I have noted there is a set of common conditions across the countries with the greatest criminalization, attacks, and murders of environmentalists.

  1. States encourage conflict by granting the rights to community lands, water, and natural resources to private corporations and industry for the purposes of increasing national income through commercial extraction and utilization of natural resources.
  2. The stigmatization and censorship of the opposition to these project, claiming that they are stunting the country, holding it in poverty, taking away jobs, calling them agents of foreign countries, or simply terrorists. This gives corporations and individuals the license to threaten, intimidate, and perpetrate violence against civil society actors. It also creates internal conflict within communities and social movements, causing divisions and fear.
  3. The formal establishment of laws and policies that restrict rights, on the grounds of “preventing terrorism” and “protecting national economic interests”. These laws often include tightening fiscal control over civil society organizations, restricting funding, censoring speech, criminalizing protest, banning assembly, and revoking the registration of organizations. These policies strive to contain protest, remove leadership, and neutralize organized opposition.

The combination of these conditions can be extremely crippling, creating a climate of distrust of civil society and fear within organizations and communities. People protecting their rights and the environment become perceived opponents not only the companies that have invaded their lands, but also of their governments, and the public. This leads to criminalization and violence. Perpetrators – whether they are state or private actors – are allowed to abuse rights with impunity.

Human and financial resources are stretched thin as groups try to communicate and travel safely, document abuses, and defend criminalized leaders in court. Most organizations are unfamiliar with international resources and protection mechanisms. Many activists fear for their families, who frequently become targets or must find means of survival when they are imprisoned or killed.

Strategies that can make a difference on the frontline :

Over the past 20 years, Global Greengrants Fund (GGF) has learned a great deal from funding grassroots organizations and frontline communities working to protect the environment and natural resources. In our work with local activists, communities, and organizations, we have found that a combination of strategies are necessary to protect civil society space and ensure the safety and security of people defending their environment and human rights. Some of our lessons for funders include:

1. Support local organizations so they have the preparation, networks, and structures that build resilience and can respond quickly to threats and criminalization. Organizations with strong networks, robust accountable decision-making processes, and collective leadership models are less vulnerable to attack. They are also in better control of their own members in demonstrations and conflicts, and are able to respond more effectively to threats. Organizations can further strengthen themselves by developing security plans and incorporating safety precautions in all aspects of their work.

2. Scale-up emergency human rights defense and response mechanisms and work to make them known and accessible to smaller, less networked organizations and communities. Rapid response legal and media support are lacking for communities when they are threatened or criminalized. Training of volunteers as protective accompaniment can deter violence, when state-provided protection is absent, untrusted, or compromised.

3. Work to advance political strategies that challenge the causes of violence and criminalization. This long-term work combines uncovering and denouncing publicly the institutions and actors that violate human rights and pressuring legal systems to hold the perpetrators of violence accountable. This must challenge policies that strip communities of their rights to resources, and reframe the debate around the human and environmental implications of development. Strategies need to pressure international and domestic corporations and investors who profit from human rights abuses that are the consequence of their access to resources.

Funders supporting social change must seek the root causes of conflict, abuse and environmental degradation. The growing violent backlash against the grassroots activists who we support, and the violation of their rights to speech and protection of their livelihoods, has the same origin as much of the environmental destruction we strive to prevent. The erroneous belief that greater good can come from taking resources away from communities and granting them to corporate actors is drives violence against people and the planet, a tragedy that we are obligated to stop.

Peter Kostishack, Vice President and Director of Programs at Global Greengrants Fund has worked for many years supporting communities and indigenous organizations in defense of their rights, territories, and natural resources.

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