How we will fight for human rights and environmental protections in the aftermath of COVID-19

COVID-19 and its aftermath will have huge implications for global efforts to defend human rights and protect the environment. At EarthRights, we’re assessing what it will mean both for the core issues we focus on and for the ways that we go about our work. It’s clear that there will be immense challenges, but there will also be new opportunities for us to fundamentally rethink how we work and to push even harder to achieve positive change for the communities we serve.

To help protect the earth for future generations, EarthRights’ new Strategic Plan for 2020-24, which we launched earlier this year, focuses on three global goals: 

  • Helping communities  obtain justice and accountability for climate change damages
  • Supporting earth rights defenders on the frontlines
  • Pursuing accountability for environmental and human rights abuses.  
Fighting climate change gives us the tools to fight pandemics

Work in all of these areas will be – and indeed already is — affected by COVID-19.  Although climate change didn’t cause the coronavirus outbreak, the zoonotic transmission of pathogens that did cause it is related to increased deforestation and habitat destruction

We need to support indigenous communities who are on the frontlines of fighting deforestation. Aiding indigenous communities’ efforts to defend their land rights in the Amazon has long been part of EarthRights’ work. And it is a central pillar of our climate strategy, one on which we intend to double-down with additional resources in the coming years. Supporting local and indigenous communities on the frontlines of resistance to fossil fuels is also central to our strategy. The recent collapse of oil prices is an opportunity to push governments away from subsidizing fossil fuels and into supporting more climate-friendly energy sources. 

An urgent need to defend those who speak truth to power

COVID-19 has already had troubling impacts on earth rights defenders. In Colombia, defenders who are isolating at home have been targeted by paramilitary groups who now find it easier to track them down. In several countries governments have curbed freedom of expression and assembly in the name of virus control. While governments have a right to take “necessary and proportionate” action to protect public health, there is a growing danger that this will be used as a broad justification for repression. 

Additionally, if communities are unable to come together and protest and defenders are unable to effectively reach them and communicate with each other, they will lose access to critical tools for defending community rights. Indigenous defenders are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19; communities in voluntary isolation are in danger of being wiped out entirely.

Monitoring corporate abuses 

We are already seeing corporate abuse of human rights relating to the virus and its aftermath.   Fossil fuel companies are demanding undeserved bailouts from governments and pressuring them to stop enforcing environmental regulations, while supporting laws  that criminalize protest against oil pipelines and other alleged “critical infrastructure.” 

In a post-virus scenario companies in sectors with the most problematic human rights records, including oil, mining, and agribusiness, could push for the relaxing or outright removal of environmental review and public consultations in the name of “kick-starting” national economies. This risks creating a new negative feedback loop that could bring a fresh wave of violence and criminalization against earth rights defenders and even greater damage to the climate.   

Next steps: How organizations can prioritize defending the Earth and its defenders during a pandemic

At EarthRights, as we’ve contemplated these global scenarios, we’ve also been forced to reflect on what it all means for how we “normally” do business. Many experts believe that COVID-19 represents the start of a “new normal” in which global pandemics like this become a regular occurrence. Our business model is based on core activities like convening training and exchanges, working directly in local communities, and global travel. What happens if we are severely limited in our ability to carry out these activities during future pandemics? 

We’re beginning to identify answers, but as for many organizations working in our space, there’s a lot we don’t know. Nevertheless, a few things are clear at this point. First, we need to double-down on our investment in our capacity to work virtually. This means ensuring that our staff and the defenders and communities we support have access to appropriate communications technologies and have the skills to use them. Quality mobile phones and internet access points are part of this. In remote areas the digital divide will continue to pose significant challenges. There may be an opportunity here for civil society, funders, and technology companies to come together to develop sustainable solutions.

Technology hardware is only part of the question, however. We need to think about how best to use it to do the work we used to do in person. How do we conduct effective community trainings online? How do we hold strategy sessions on high-risk campaigns when building interpersonal bonds and trust is so important? These are all questions that need to be thought through as we try to move more of our work into a virtual realm.

Second, a critical component of this new “virtual reality” is enhanced digital security. The security issues with Zoom and other communications technologies have been much discussed. Frontline organizations like EarthRights and our partners and allies around the world must be on the leading edge of implementing the best digital security measures possible. It can no longer be part of a long organizational to-do list that we’ll get to someday when we have time and budget for it.  Funders can play a critical role by dedicating funding to organizations to review and implement digital security and to devise ways to help frontline communities adopt new digital security measures. 

Third, we need to “pandemic proof” our organizations as much as possible. This means knowing that COVID-19 is not an isolated event but the beginning of a new world in which pandemics will be more common. Organizations should have plans in place to protect the security of staff and resources when pandemics strike. This could include increasing reserve funds to account for the dips in fundraising that pandemics bring. Organizations should also conduct periodic pandemic “fire drills” to ensure that all staff and board members are aware of special policies and procedures and can easily implement them. 

COVID-19 has unleashed a frightening new reality on the world. It shouldn’t be cause for despair, but it does call for intensified efforts to fight climate change, protect earth rights defenders, and demand accountability from corporations. Success in these areas will require a rethinking of how organizations like EarthRights carry out our core functions. We need to be honest with ourselves about the size of the challenges we now face. We remain hopeful that by working in solidarity with communities, partners, and allies around the world, we can meet them.