As researchers and policy influencers, we swiftly learn to adapt our language to be considered credible and realistic. This sometimes means choosing different words, watering down our findings, and adjusting our ambitious recommendations closer to a low baseline. The imperative is to convince critical stakeholders that they can do something within their budgets and existing structures. Taking these baby steps is sometimes frustrating but does lead to incremental changes.
Environmental defenders taught me that there is no more time for baby steps. For those who watch sea levels rising on their islands or have their land taken away from them for some development project, there is no other choice than to be vocal and blunt.
It is particularly striking how environmental defenders eloquently call out the elephants in the room: capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy and subsequent inequalities are the root causes of nature exploitation and of the power imbalances between them and those who perpetuate these systems. We know it too, but we rarely say it. Being around people who say it loud and clear makes me wonder how successful we could be in advancing climate justice if there were more of this discourse in academic and policy spheres.
Unlike our usual formal conferences, environmental defenders’ events are always more laid back, with people hugging each other, enquiring about others’ families and communities, and calling each other “brother” and “sister”. Even in a formal setting like a UN conference room, you hear defenders joining in a karaoke session, chanting blessings to women, or see them performing traditional war dances.
Throughout such events, we sometimes see people’s eyes getting filled with tears. Even if that karaoke song is a happy one, if they don’t understand the language of the chant or if the war dance is not theirs, the atmosphere in the room suddenly changes, and we can feel the power of this togetherness. Down the line, their stories are all the same. As if geography and governments mattered less than being Indigenous, woman, poor, or queer in determining who are the first affected by climate change and development aggressions. In this space, commonalities matter more than differences.
Listening to the life stories of environmental defenders inevitably gives you the chills. Many of them went through humiliation, fear, loss, grief, and traumas that they carry with them. Some have had their loved ones kidnapped in retaliation for their activism. Others live in exile. Many face constant threats. And yet they call me sister, see me as an ally. Despite obvious differences and what could be a wall of privilege between us, they accepted my interview requests, and they trust me. Being around environmental defenders is a humbling and grounding experience, both professionally and personally. It makes you want to do everything you can to be worthy of their trust.
As full-time researchers or NGOs workers, paid to fight climate change and inequalities from the comfort of our offices, it is easy to lose touch with reality on the ground. At the same time, it becomes overwhelming to try and support environmental defenders because of how complex their situations are. And yet, environmental defenders are the fiercest, most determined kind of people I have met. In many cases, their work goes beyond redressing the injustice they personally face but instead aims to change policies, systems, and structures that perpetuate injustice. Despite the risks, the bureaucracy, the power dynamics, and the biases – that overall, significantly limit their chances of success. Despite this and against all odds, they keep fighting. Meanwhile, we have the tools and connections to advance the same causes with the same decision-makers. Keeping touch with defenders and their work beyond project cycles, attending their events, and celebrating their victories can be a way to remind ourselves that we cannot make a difference if we do not at least try.
Working with environmental defenders helps put things into perspective. As scientists, it is tempting to advocate for what seems like sustainable development and climate solutions. But defenders have many concrete examples that often these so-called development interventions can devastate their lives, livelihoods and cultures. Hydropower projects forcibly displace entire communities from their ancestral land. Conservation projects push local communities to disaster-prone areas. Climate finance investments sometimes ignore the right to free, prior, and informed consent.
Knowing about these realities calls for a better assessment of the risks our work can pose and to mitigate those risks. Working with defenders also calls for integrity, observing the due diligence process, and ensuring donors we work with are not contributing to the problems defenders face, or that they are at least committed to change.
“See you next year, if I’m not in prison!” – a farewell message from a Vietnamese youth climate activist living in exile, at the 2023 Asia-Pacific Environmental Human Rights Defenders Forum.
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