Women environmental defenders demand their rights amid Covid-19 pressures

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the threats facing environmental defenders, allowing governments to crack down on protests for health and safety reasons, and providing cover for authorities to conduct raids and arrests against groups they consider obstructive, say civil society organizers.

Even before the pandemic was officially declared, the situation facing environmental defenders was dire. According to the latest report from global corruption watchdog Global Witness, 212 land and environmental defenders were murdered in 2019 for peacefully defending their communities, the highest number on record.

Over half of all reported killings in 2019 occurred in just two countries: Colombia, which recorded 64 deaths, and the Philippines, with 43. Globally, the true number of killings was likely much higher, as cases often go undocumented, Global Witness said.

The 2019 figures also exposed how over 1 in 10 defenders killed in 2019 were women.

Women defenders face specific threats, including smear campaigns often focused on their private lives, with explicit sexist or sexual content. Sexual violence is also used as a tactic to silence women defenders, much of which is underreported, the report stated.

“The health and economic burdens [of the pandemic] are disproportionately [placed] on the shoulders of women … and they face increasing domestic violence on top of all this,” said Leon Dulce, national coordinator for the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, a network of people’s organizations, nonprofits and environmental advocates in the Philippines.

As the world marks International Woman’s Day on March 8, groups like the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR), a Philippine-based nongovernmental organization, are standing in solidarity with women human rights and environmental defenders as they demand their rights to land, resources, health protections, and a safe society. EJN has partnered with CWR to help strengthen environmental reporting by women journalists in the Philippines.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, former United Nations rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and now executive director of the Tebtebba Foundation focused on Indigenous policy and research in the Philippines, has called on the governments across the world to provide women environmental defenders with personal protective equipment, proper health facilities in their communities and rehabilitation from the destruction of projects such as large dams, mining and large-scale agri-business, which could support them to ensure their food security and livelihoods.

Joan Carling, an activist with the nonprofit Indigenous Peoples Rights International, said there needs to be more support for Indigenous communities’ knowledge of traditional medicines, nutritious food and sustainable agricultural practices.

“Indigenous environmental defenders need to be at the center of the Covid-19 recovery as they know best how to protect biodiversity as a preventive measure to more viruses,” she said.

Raising their voices

For Lia Torres, executive director of the Center for Environmental Concerns in the Philippines and secretariat of the Asia-Pacific Network of Environmental Defenders (APNED), it is important that women have a platform to voice their concerns about environmentally destructive projects since they are doubly affected by them.

“Large dams or mining operations, for example, might affect water and food sources, thus making it harder for women to access these for their families,” Torres said. “Additional consideration should also be given to their reproductive health needs, which may be affected by different pollutants, for example, in agribusiness plantations,” she explained.

Torres’s organization is pushing for the more sustainable use of natural resources through policy changes.

Carling, on the other hand, is providing support to Indigenous environmental defenders, including women, by helping to amplify their voices, giving them legal and financial aid, including sanctuary when necessary, and strongly encouraging businesses to respect human rights and protect the environment instead of criminalizing environmental defenders.

“My hope is that indigenous environmental defenders will succeed in protecting the environment and those that have destroyed the environment are [held] to account,” Carling said.

“All women Indigenous environment defenders are putting their lives on the line for all of us and for the next generation. They deserve our respect and support.”

Cham Perez from the Center for Women’s Resources said she is hopeful that even amid the ongoing pandemic, women leaders and environmental defenders continue to play a critical role in advancing the rights of women and girls to challenge resource extraction, plunder and other environmental destruction.

“We laud their bravery in holding those in power to account, and despite the continuing attacks, their spirit of resistance remains high,” Perez said. “They continue to raise the consciousness of the other women, empower each other through collective leadership, and mobilize against incursions in their communities.”

Taking the lead in protecting biodiversity

Frontline environmental defenders, including women, have been hit hard by Covid-19, said Mundita Lim, executive director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). In the first few months of the pandemic, she observed the hardships communities near and around the ASEAN Heritage Parks faced from lockdown-related declines to their livelihoods and food security. 

Indigenous rights group
An Indigenous community in the Philippines / Courtesy of the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples Rights

About 80 percent of the heritage parks are considered ecotourism sites and can be found in all of the ASEAN member countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. With the lockdowns and community quarantines, these parks received zero income from tourism, Lim said. The mobility of those in and around the parks were also affected by the suspension of public transportation.

“In the immediate term, it is important to provide any type of economic stimuli, such as livelihood support, to environmental defenders. These will enable them to recover faster and perform their crucial work for the environment,” Lim explained. “In the long-run, we should normalize the active participation and involvement of women leaders and environment defenders in the planning and policy processes, such as crafting development plans, monitoring and evaluating programs."

In the ASEAN Heritage Parks Program, where the ACB serves as the secretariat, Lim said women leaders have considerable participation in the development of management plans, and their voices are acknowledged in management roles.

“There is an increasing recognition of the need for a whole-of-society approach in biodiversity conservation, where women who often hold key knowledge and practices, such as in environmental protection will definitely play a central role,” she added.

Pacific Islands media helps share information

A key piece in that approach is raising awareness about the role women can play in environmental protection efforts.

Makereta Komai, manager of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), a regional organization representing media professionals, said she’s beginning to see an increase in women covering environmental stories in the Pacific Islands thanks to various training and mentorship they’ve received from organization such as EJN. PINA has long partnered with EJN to help strengthen environmental reporting in the Pacific Islands through media workshops, roundtable discussions and mentorship, and EJN provides them with small grants to support story production and manage the environmental news website Pasifika Environews.   

Women journalists work side by side with Indigenous environmental defenders and leaders from the non-governmental organizations to highlight human stories of the devastation to the ocean and its resources from climate change, global warming, man-made challenges like illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and other environmentally destructive issues, Komai explained.

“You see, these stories relate to food security and food scarcity for communities, loss of revenue and source of living and in some cases relocation of communities due to these challenges,” she said. “Women journalists identify closely with the issues that community leaders, particularly Indigenous women, children, disabled peoples raise, raising their interests in becoming a voice for these vulnerable communities.”

But Komai said women journalists need continuous training and mentorship to build their capacity, skills, knowledge and confidence so they can go beyond telling the “victim” story to sharing solutions to these environmental challenges.

“Journalists need to tell the stories of communities adapting to changes they are facing using nature-based solutions and traditional knowledge,” Komai said. “In the Pacific, Indigenous or local communities in most cases are resilient, using their traditional knowledge to help them recover quickly from any major natural disaster or event. Journalists need to be writing and document these traditional and nature-based solutions that are making communities resilient to climate change and disaster risks.”

For Nanette Woonton, a media expert from the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), a lot of underreported stories on women and indigenous environmental leaders and environmental sustainability stories are waiting to be told. SPREP is a regional organization established by the governments of the Pacific and charged with protecting and managing the environment and natural resources of the region. SPREP has been collaborating with PINA and EJN to host media workshops and provide resource materials and mentorship to journalists in the Pacific. 

“We are hoping to empower our Pacific Island journalists to share more stories about biodiversity, oceans and land,” Woonton said. “Helping our women journalists to build their networks so the solution-based stories are told is a great start to support.”

Banner image: Women from the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment protest against mining companies / Credit: Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines.

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