Environmental defenders in the Global South protect the most vital ecosystems serving humanity at great personal risk.

It is imperative upon us to support and defend these defenders, argues Nick Meynen.

Friday 5 June 2020 is World Environment Day. This is a good occasion to pay tribute to frontline defenders all over the world who strive to protect the living environment that we all benefit from, often at great personal risk.

New research has just been released which shows exactly how important this work is. If your aim is to prevent an environmentally destructive project ruining a living environment, and harming the communities which depend on it, then it makes a whole lot of sense to mobilise preventively, diversify protest tactics and to employ litigation.

These were some of the lessons drawn by a groundbreaking study which analysed almost 3,000 cases of environmental conflicts all over the world. Produced by a team of 11 researchers – who are part of the the EnvJustice project – the study found that in over a tenth of all cases a movement managed to halt environmentally and socially projects, but that proportion rose dramatically, to 27%, if campaigning started early and employed a variety of resistance strategies.

The research paper appeared in Global Environmental Change, one of the most renowned environmental science journals in the world. It marks a milestone for the team that has been working on this massive database of environmental conflicts for almost a decade.

Under the official radar

This Environmental Justice Atlas (ejatlas.org) is the largest existing repository of environmental conflicts and a treasure trove for distilling new insights that can help inform the global movement for environmental justice. It is managed by a research team at ICTA-UAB, while the EEB is responsible for the communications work relating to the initiative.

Many of the cases which were analysed in the EEB’s recent report on environmental racism against Europe’s Roma communities, ‘Pushed to the Wastelands’, were drawn from the atlas. 

The team argues that there is a loosely knit global movement for environmental justice, composed of a myriad local movements against fossil fuel extraction, open-cast mining, tree plantations, hydropower dams and other extractive industries, as well as against polluting waste disposal methods, such as incinerators and dumps. They call this the environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous.

This global movement for environmental justice operates at the margins and usually under the radar of the international environmental meetings (such as the UN climate conferences) and panels ( such as the IPCC and IPBES) which are central sources of information and occupy central spaces in the public policy debate. This means that the grassroots work of this disparate environmental justice movement tends to be underestimated and undervalued.

Dangerous terrain

This frontline branch of activism is far more dangerous than mainstream environmentalism, including that practised by the author of this article. We sit in offices (or work from home) and do our best to influence policymaking positively but we operate in democracies, as flawed as some of them are.

The people who operate at the frontlines in the Global South to stop destructive mining or plantations basically do the risky and hard work for all of us, because they don’t only protect their own living environment, together, they stand between humanity and the last reserves of valuable nature, biodiversity or burnable fuels buried in the earth.

Multinationals v multinational alliances

My latest book dealt with stories of struggle for environmental justice on the multitudes of frontlines that have opened up all over the world. By following these people I learned how aggressive some multinationals in this world are, but also how strong a multinational movement can sometimes be and how the David’s in this world can and sometimes do defeat the Goliaths. That struggle is both tragic and inspiring.

The research team concludes that environmental defenders who protest destructive resource uses are, indeed, a promising force for global sustainability and environmental justice. However, their activism comes at a heavy cost. These activists face high rates of criminalisation (20% of cases), physical violence (18%), and assassinations (13%). These numbers increase significantly when Indigenous people are involved .

Protecting the protectors is certainly a moral duty, but it is also more than that. Given that these environmental defenders work to protect environments that serve us all, it is also vital for humanity’s transition towards sustainability, to a world economy that stays within the boundaries set by the ecosystems of this planet and that we all depend on.

More info

This academic research is supported by an ERC Advanced Grant (2016-2021) title ‘A global environmental justice movement: the EJAtlas (www.envjustice.org)’. The open-access Environmental Justice Atlas (www.ejatlas.org) started at ICTA-UAB (Barcelona) in 2011 under a previous EU-funded project, EJOLT – in which the EEB was a full partner. It had reached 3,155 entries of ecological conflicts by May 2020. Each entry contains a description, sources of information, and many codified variables. It is directed by Leah Temper and J Martinez-Alier, coordinated by Daniela Del Bene, and it has counted on the contributions of hundreds of collaborators. The authors of the peer-reviewed article are among the main ones: Arnim Scheidel, Daniela Del Bene, Juan Liu , Grettel Navas, Sara Mingorría, Federico Demaria, Sofía Avila, Brototi Roy, Irmak Ertör, Leah Temper and Joan Martinez-Alier.

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