Numerous opportunities exist to strengthen protections for earth rights defenders. This includes equipping earth rights defenders with the knowledge, tools, and resources to stay safe; challenging the criminalization of earth rights defenders in the courts; and ending ties between corporations and police and paramilitaries to prevent acts of violence against earth rights defenders.
Earth rights defenders do extraordinary work in very difficult circumstances. The skills and strategies they use to do their work are as varied as the contexts within which they work, and earth rights defenders are constantly finding creative ways to work in restrictive spaces. Yet earth rights defenders can benefit from learning new skills and increasing their knowledge of security and safety. Training programs are one way to help achieve this.
ERI’s Mekong School provides training for earth rights defenders from countries in the Mekong region. The seven month long program integrates campaigning, storytelling and legal advocacy strategies used to address earth rights abuses. ERI also provides shorter training programs in the Mekong and Latin America focused on legal advocacy strategies and strengthening networks between legal advocates, lawyers, and communities.
For example, ERI delivers holistic security training for earth rights defenders. This includes the development of tools and strategies to understand security challenges; analyze the actors and factors that influence security situations; recognize vulnerabilities and capacities; recognize and react to threats; identify and mitigate security risks at the office, at home, and in the field.
There can be a disconnect between earth rights defenders themselves and their sources of support – such as that provided by funders, NGOs, and inter-governmental agencies. International gatherings can be an important opportunity for earth rights defenders and their supporters to connect with each other. In 2018, for example, ERI co-hosted a Forest Defenders Conference in Thailand that brought together earth rights defenders and supporters to discuss and collaborate on the joint challenges that they face.
The work of earth rights defenders is increasingly being restricted and criminalized. Powerful interests have convinced legislators to adopt laws criminalizing protest and assembly, and to otherwise shrink civil society space. Likewise, they have misused the courts to stigmatize, silence, and obstruct earth rights defenders. We must work, at both a national and global level, to ensure that local laws do not become a tool of oppression.
The increasing occurrence of reprisals against earth rights defenders in projects financed by IFIs is disquieting. Civil society advocacy has resulted in some concrete improvements, such as a 2018 policy statement by the International Finance Corporation that it will not tolerate reprisals by any of its clients against human rights defenders. Nevertheless, much more work remains to ensure that all people are able to participate freely in decision-making processes concerning IFI-financed projects.
Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights, which needs to be demonstrated through concrete actions. Consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, this responsibility begins with policy commitment not to tolerate any violence, intimidation, or harassment directed at earth rights defenders. Companies should also build such commitments into their contracts with partners and local contractors.
Often, the most serious human rights abuses arise from security providers reporting to companies engaged in natural resource exploitation. In some countries, for example, mining companies can legally contract state and private police forces to guard their assets.
Security abuses can take the form of restricting local residents’ freedom of movement, conducting surveillance of community leaders and earth rights defenders, and directly threatening defenders. Violence often arises when security forces respond inappropriately to organized community opposition to the project. ERI has provided legal support for earth rights defenders harmed by security forces reporting to the Yanacocha mining project in Peru, a venture controlled by U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation. We have also represented women who were sexually assaulted by security guards employed by Barrick Gold in Papua New Guinea, ultimately reaching an out-of-court settlement in 2015.