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Transformative change at the grassroots: women environmental defenders speak out about how to protect their communities

A few days before the International Women Human Rights Defenders day, SEI took part in an online retreat for women environmental human rights defenders. Indigenous women gathered from Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines to discuss how to protect their communities and identify key areas for research and policy action in 2021. Here are some highlights from the retreat.

Unsustainable development practices are leading to ecosystem degradation and affecting the rights of local communities, especially Indigenous women. Photo: UN Women/Piyavit Thongsa-Ard

Camille Pross, Sara Vigil / Published on 30 November 2020

In many areas of Asia, unsustainable development practices are leading to ecosystem degradation and affecting the rights of local communities, especially Indigenous women, to access and use natural resources. The retreat aimed to build solidarity among women environmental human rights defenders by listening to them explain how common and overlapping powers often marginalize, discriminate against and exclude them.

Environmental degradation and social inequalities are often symptoms of exploitative socio-economic systems that affect local communities and, in particular, Indigenous groups and women. However, many of these macro-level exploitative structures often manifest themselves in the form of invisible or hidden power dynamics at the local level, which are not always immediately evident to those struggling against the consequences of this exploitation.

On the first day of the retreat, the participants from Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines drew maps of their respective communities to locate areas of conflict around natural resources and the key actors involved. They conducted a power analysis of their community, identifying who has power over them, but at the same time, the power they have with their allies and the power they have within themselves. This exercise showed that the participants feel most powerful when conducting campaigns and advocacy, and when taking part in collective activities in their communities which can trigger positive change.

participants drew maps of their respective communities to locate areas of conflict around natural resources and the key actors involved. Photo: NTFP

On the second day, the participants built an understanding of how different types of power are interconnected at multiple scales so they can better understand the systemic nature of natural resource exploitation and the discrimination they face as Indigenous women. They exchanged their community maps with one another to identify commonalities and differences across their contexts, a sharing of experiences across borders that also provided an opportunity for sharing compassion and a common purpose. As one woman from Nepal stated: “We realized that we are not the only ones going through these challenges, but that people in all these five countries are having the same issues”.

Embracing themselves as women environmental human rights defenders

Despite being actively engaged in their communities and defending crucial environmental and human rights against unsustainable development practices, most of the women participants were not fully conscious that they are in fact considered as environmental human rights defenders. On the third day, the facilitators introduced the definition of environmental human rights defenders from the Special Rapporteur on the Situation on Human Rights Defenders, and explained how each element of this definition relates to the lives and experiences of all participants. The facilitator organization, LILAK, underlined the additional challenges that being a woman environmental human rights defender brings, and concluded that a crucial way to overcome these challenges is to acknowledge their role in the community, and to share their skills, knowledge and best practices with their fellow defenders across the region.

For the last round of activities of the retreat, breakout rooms paired groups from two different countries who were invited to share their successes, best practices and support systems as women environmental human rights defenders. These groups also identified the main challenges they face, and suggested action points to support their efforts to defend environmental and human rights.

Participants also noted that some factors can be both a support and a barrier. While family, community and tradition can provide a sense of safety and support, social and gendered norms often limit their participation in environmental and human rights protection. Similarly, although legal and policy frameworks as well as action by the state and local authorities can often be key enablers for the defense of environmental and human rights, in some contexts the structures intended to protect them further debilitate their actions as feminists and environmentalists.

The path ahead

It is especially important during a pandemic to provide spaces for strategic convergence of grassroots Indigenous women. This continues to be crucial to building truly meaningful connections between the everyday practices of those who are marginalized. And after three days of celebrating their identity and sharing challenges and best practices, the participants were visibly united by a new sense of community, even without being in the same room. What was meant to be a week-long event in the Philippines had to be adjusted to an online, shorter event. Participants from the same country were gathered in one or several locations, in line with the restrictions on travels and social distancing rules, and connected to the online platform to join the event. Facilitating this retreat required resource persons in each country, translators for each language and constant communication between them. Connection issues caused some delays, being on different time zones meant early starts for some, late lunches for others. But despite these problems the participants were eager to share their stories, to listen to others’ experiences, and to build networks of solidarity and collective action that transcends borders.

Providing such space for strategic convergence of grassroots Indigenous women is crucial in order to truly build a meaningful connection between the everyday practices of those often marginalized, and research and policy. This event is a good example our common efforts to “decolonize knowledge”. Truly transformative knowledge will be impossible to achieve without building the collective and safe spaces that are needed for sharing, understanding, and overcoming the barriers that still marginalize the many at the expense of the privileged few.

Women environmental human rights defenders are at the frontline of our efforts to achieving sustainability and a transition towards methods and policies capable of achieving socio-environmental justice. As they voiced, and despite their essential role in defending our collective rights, the lack of resources made available to them significantly hinders their vulnerabilities. The support from SEI is a stepping stone in a long path towards building back (much) better the type of inclusive research and policy, and the kind of future, we aspire to.

Written by

Sara Vigil

Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Topics and subtopics
Gender : Participation
Related centres
SEI Asia

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