Inequalities render people vulnerable to disasters and pandemics; if these inequalities are the symptom, exploitation (of nature and labour) is the cause.

As explained in Polanyi’s concept of the “double movement” – the conversion of land (meaning nature at large), and labour and money into commodities – poses lethal threats to nature and human beings. This leads to grievances, resistance, and demands for social protection from the increasing marketization of life and nature.

Protecting the defenders

Both the feminist and environmental movements are amongst the most prominent challengers of this commodification. However, environmental defenders face discrimination, violence and high risks, especially women environmental defenders, who face specific gendered challenges rooted in patriarchal cultural norms.

Recently, SEI Asia, through the Strategic Collaborative Fund, supported a project called Silver Linings: Transforming Gender Relations through Climate Adaptation Networks. It gathered indigenous women from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar to share their experiences and to build common purpose.

The workshop, co-organized with Cuso International and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, highlighted the need to empower and strengthen the capacity of indigenous women to negotiate and to amplify their voices. It also underscored the need to document and disseminate practices to strengthen leadership and promote South-South and global dialogue and exchange.

Multiple burdens

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shrunk democratic spaces and the capacity for grassroots social and environmental mobilization. While considered essential from a public health perspective, lockdown measures and social distancing have made public gatherings nearly impossible.

Event cancellations due to the pandemic are making it easier for governments to ignore social pressure for greater environmental, gender and social justice. With the increase in repression and surveillance states, the fate of frontline environmental defenders is on very shaky ground.

For example, in Brazil, land seizures of indigenous lands have been increasing since the lockdown. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US has suspended the enforcement of environmental laws and, in Europe,  Green Deal initiatives are stalling.

COVID-19 has also compromised social mobilization, with added care burdens, increased cases of domestic violence, and weak unemployment protection schemes. Many communities suffering from the pandemic are also currently experiencing other disasters that have wiped away homes and hopes. In this context of cumulative vulnerabilities, the abject circumstances of many of the world’s poor and marginalized mean it is simply impossible to access flourishing online initiatives such as #ClimateStrikeOnline and #StayHomeNotSilent.

Moving forward: human and environmental rights are inseparable

Protecting the environment and life on this planet cannot be limited to those who can afford to social distance, reflect, and mobilize. While possibilities for a different world are plentiful, the rollback on environmental and social protections is likely to rise as governments and corporations seek to extract their surplus, once again, from free (or cheap) nature, labour and reproductive labour.

We know that dominant narratives, embedded in an environmentalism of the rich, can exacerbate inequalities. If the hopes for a different world are to stand a chance, researchers operating at the science-policy interface must ensure a firm commitment to advance social justice framings embedded in both environmentalism and feminism.

This means understanding and challenging – together with those that are at the frontline – the social differences that lead to inequalities, hierarchies, exclusions, discriminations and forms of disadvantage. Many of these forms of disadvantage are rooted in exploitative and extractive practices of nature and labour that consign people to conditions of marginalization and persistent poverty.

This year, our commitment to keep supporting women environmental defenders in developing countries has been renewed through SCF2. Our capacity to do transformative and relevant research now, and in the crisis period that awaits us, will largely depend on our abilities and efforts to support an environmentalism of the poor based on the premise that the fight for human and environmental rights are inseparable from one another.

The event was supported by SEI Asia’s Strategic Collaborative Fund, which aims to foster regional cooperation and policy dialogue for sustainable development and environmental sustainability, through capacity building, knowledge sharing and increased collaboration.