What the Covid-19 Lockdowns mean for Environmental Defenders

By Eva Okoth and Claire Martens

To curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, governments across Africa, as well as the rest of the world, have imposed lockdowns. The current lockdowns are different to other states of emergency that communities may have faced in the past. While the measures are meant to protect the lives of people, they are proving to be dangerous for environmental and land defenders.

Armed with extra-ordinary lockdown powers, local authorities and security forces are using their powers to suppress land defenders. In the DRC, for example, local authorities and the police are harassing a land defender in the equator region (name withheld). In Uganda, we are seeing that defenders are being targeted, arrested and harassed and communities are being evicted from their lands. In South Africa, a community activist in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal has gone into hiding after his life was threatened.

The lockdowns are also exposing and exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerable communities are already being impacted disproportionately as their livelihoods are devastated.

However, in the midst of this chaos and crisis, activism must be secured inside our democratic states. Governments, as well as private entities, need to uphold the rule of law, and if they don’t, the efforts to hold them accountable must be supported. Unfortunately, governments and businesses are able to use the covid-19 lockdown as a distraction, and in some instances, we have seen an increase in illegal and harmful activities or the enactment of legislation or policies that may be harmful to communities. We urgently need to increase support for defenders.

How has Covid-19 increased threats to environment and land defenders?

Movement restrictions and economic shutdowns have created a conducive environment for the violation of environmental defenders’ rights and provided an excuse for failing to uphold the rule of law in the following ways:

  • It has significantly limited and restricted access to justice due to the shutting down of administrative institutions and courts as a result of the lockdowns.
  • There has been a disruption to normal security protocols.
  • Leaders in government and business have side-lined the values of transparency and accountability because of the feeling that “nobody is watching”.
  • Law enforcement systems have been weakened and governments are diverting their attention from issues of indigenous and local communities.
  • It has limited the abilities of communities to participate effectively in decision-making processes and to hold the authorities accountable for their actions. 

What threats have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic?

In many parts of the world, defenders are facing threats such as:

  • Physical violence and killings;
  • Political intimidation;
  • Enactment of draconian laws that limit or undermine the rights of indigenous and marginalised communities;
  • Increased digital surveillance; and
  • Restrictions on the exercise of human rights and freedoms, including the right to assemble and peacefully demonstrate.

Many defenders now have to live in hiding and fear since they may be predisposed to infection by the virus if they are constantly on the run for their lives or remain targets if they stay in one location.

How to continue your work as a Defender during Covid-19

How do we guarantee activism in exceptional times? At the centre of our fight to overcome the planetary crisis, we need to adopt an attitude of solidarity across all sectors in order to solve the problems in a more collaborative and coordinated way. 

This also calls for a drastic shift in how defenders conduct their activities under ordinary circumstances. Lockdowns require defenders to come up with innovative and creative alternatives. 

During this period, the following tips can be helpful to ensure the continuity of defender’s work:

Increased online engagement

  • The internet has become a crucial tool for disseminating communication and information. If you have access to these platforms, use social media to support existing campaigns and spread reliable information.  
  • Create WhatsApp groups to discuss your community problems and, where possible, hold webinars or online conference discussions in collaboration with partners. 
  • It is important to remain cautious about fake news and exercise empathy when sharing any information on the current situation.

Different types of activism and protest

  • Find creative ways to continue your protests.
  • Use press releases and statements to raise awareness about certain issues.
  • Use photography and videos more creatively.

Movement building 

  • Regional movements and campaigns are very important in a time where people cannot come and go as they wish. This is a crucial time to understand your community’s needs, identify regional mechanisms and movements that you can leverage or join, and try to access funding and support where you hadn’t before.

Distributing information

  • Use posters and fact sheets to distribute in your community. Contact the local radio stations and newspapers and ask and supply them with local news or ask them for space to discuss crucial environmental issues in your area.

Revisit your rights

  • Now is the time to revisit your rights, consider what rights are guaranteed, even during emergency situations, and think of new ways to take action to secure your rights. 

NOTE: Remember that the rule of law needs to be secured and you can make use of it to guarantee your rights, even in an emergency state.

Safe tips for defenders during the Covid-19 pandemic

  • Map out all “hot spot” areas or locations where human rights violations are prevalent and defenders are likely to face the greatest risks.
  • Organisations should maintain a list of contact of all defenders they work with and alternative contacts of their close relatives.
  • Establish a platform, for example, a Whatsapp group, where defenders can constantly communicate and provide updates about their situation and the activities they are engaging in.
  • Ensure digital safety by using encrypted messages when communicating with one another. 
  • Where you have to travel to meet communities, remember to travel in groups – taking into account social distancing and hygiene.
  • Where a defender is in an emergency situation, there are a range of emergency funds which you can approach for support. 

An example of an emergency fund you can approach is the African Environmental Defenders’ Fund (https://envirodefenders.africa/) which is an initiative of the International Land Coalition (ILC) in collaboration with Natural Justice, to provide emergency support to environmental and land defenders who are facing imminent threats and violations to their rights.

  • Keep an accurate record of any violations that occur and, where possible, report them.
  • Above all, ensure that you observe all directives and measures, such as washing your hands and maintaining social distance to protect yourselves from contracting the virus while conducting your activities.

Recovering from the Covid-19 crisis 

We have to accept that the world will not be going back to where we were before the Covid-19 crisis interrupted our lives. We can expect a food crisis, increased inequality and other serious effects on communities across Africa. While our backs have been turned, many governments and businesses may have taken advantage of our lack of attention to carry out illegal activities. Defenders will be working harder than ever before, but we must also use this opportunity. 

  • Economic and social structures will be changed, and defenders must lead these changes;
  • Working with different groups will be essential in the future because the world is facing a threat that affects all human beings. Create and strengthen networks;
  • The way we treat nature and ecosystems will need to change;
  • Trust, empathy and solidarity will be the key elements to create the grounds for future change;
  • Seize this moment to build the future structures of a new country, world and society.

13 May 2020

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