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8 Jun 2021

Claire Martens & Eva Maria Okoth, Natural Justice

Why expanded support and specialised legal knowledge is important for African Environmental Defenders

Environmental Defenders across the world are increasingly facing life or death situations. Threats, evictions, assassinations, and human rights abuses are perpetrated by businesses, often through security companies or governments, armed forces, or conservation authorities. Attention has been focused on the situation of African Defenders, with an increasing number of organisations rising to the challenge of providing support.

Supporting African Defenders is often a difficult, complex and long-term endeavour, but we are learning important lessons from the Defenders we work with, those we have funded through the African Environmental Defenders Fund and those whose stories feature in the public domain.

To support them effectively, we must look beyond just “advocacy” or “policy-change” and begin to consider the practical implications of their activism on their livelihoods, families and communities. There is a clear case for organisations and funders to adopt a more multifaceted approach to supporting Defenders: one which is both advocacy-related and practical. Here, we look at how this can be achieved, as well as the legal support required for African Defenders who are criminalised and targeted by Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs).

Access to Livelihood Support

Many Defenders are already economically and socially marginalised. However, no matter how little they own, they understand that industry and development can threaten a meagre livelihood. Environmental injustices have often compounded poverty and other pressures faced by Defenders, further pushing them into a state of vulnerability.

Arrests and detentions also have a direct impact on livelihoods, either through a Defender losing their job or their family commitments being interrupted. Only the economically privileged can engage in courageous activism without putting their family income at risk. To aid with arrests, a flexible fund for legal representation is important.

There are also other practical ways to support Environmental Defenders’ livelihoods. Think of farmers who are also land activists and help their communities fight development or land-grabbing: who tills the soil while they are engaging in activism? In this case, offering technical support and a stipend for the time they are unable to farm could go a long way.

On a short-to-medium term basis, access to financial support might be the only way for a Defender and their family to survive. Financial support for the Defender would also deter them from accepting bribes to halt their activism or leaving activism to go back to work.

Community Support

We often think of Defenders as individuals, but Defenders are also communities of people; often indigenous or cultural communities who protect their territories from unwelcome developments. Sometimes arrests or threats are levelled at communities, making it important to expand the definition of “Defenders” to include communities. Providing support to communities is imperative, even though, often, community leaders the ones who receive direct support because it is easier and more cost-effective.

The question is, what kind of support can we provide to communities of Defenders? Some support for communities could be preventative: legal empowerment, capacity-building and security training, and ensuring their work is visible and their actions are protected by law. This could take the form of helping communities understand their rights and the legal responsibilities of different parties, as well as how to participate in public processes and advocate at international forums. Focusing on such legal empowerment will bring communities together as they feel protected by the law and capable of fighting for their rights.

It is also important to get their story of persecution heard, without compromising the community’s safety. Many organisations provide media support or help publish stories of community struggles, providing them with a feeling of legitimacy and ensuring their case is visible. It also lets the perpetrators of threats know their actions are being watched.

Legal empowerment of the community should be part of the support provided to individualised attacks as well. By supporting the community, you are supporting individual leaders and activists from these communities.

Specialised Legal and Technical Support

Arrest, criminalisation, and SLAPP suits top the list of tactics used by businesses and governments to frustrate the efforts of land and environmental Defenders. Defenders are increasingly requesting legal representation and support in criminal justice systems that oppress economically disempowered and marginalised citizens.

In our experience, there are only a handful of lawyers with the necessary skills and expertise to develop a watertight case for Defenders facing criminal allegations. A lawyer handling such a case would need to understand that SLAPP suits, in general, are distinct from other civil or criminal cases. To manoeuvre within the system, the lawyer would need to understand the intricacies of SLAPPs, including delay tactics used to deny Defenders’ access to justice quickly and efficiently, and legal and practical technicalities that businesses and governments might capitalise on to be successful against the Defender.

For those working with Defenders on criminal matters, it is important to build networks of lawyers who can provide pro bono support, understand regional and international law and, in relevant instances, can collaborate with specialists in customary or land rights since there is often an intersection of these rights with the Defenders’ work. In South Africa, for example, a customary defence was used in a criminal matter in the Gongqose case.

There is also a need to conduct training to create awareness among law enforcement officials, including police officers and judicial officers, about Defenders and the importance of their work in promoting human and environmental rights. When it comes to creating awareness amongst businesses and investors, particular attention must be paid to how local communities try to ensure environmental justice.

While providing multifaceted support for African Defenders can appear daunting and complicated, the first step is to understand their needs and the implications of not providing for these needs. Beyond this, there is a lot to be hopeful for. More and more organisations, such as Natural Justice, the International Land Coalition, others in Africa and some international organisations, are working together to provide a united, wholehearted and diverse support base for African Defenders.

By Claire Martens and Eva Maria Okoth, Natural Justice