Author: Dayoon Kim Camille Pross

Environmental defenders are powerful actors in reducing disaster risks

Source(s): Stockholm Environment Institute

Since 2019, SEI has investigated disasters through the experiences of women environmental defenders in Nepal and the Philippines to better understand the root causes of disasters, what disasters mean to different people, and the variety of approaches taken to reduce disaster risks.

As a result of this work, SEI Asia worked with environmental defenders to produce three animation videos to raise awareness about their efforts at reducing disaster risk.

Defenders tell their stories

There are no natural disasters. Disasters are shaped by the existing sociocultural, economic and political contexts where hazards occur. Although there is a consensus among disaster scholars on these multilayered drivers of disasters, disaster risk reduction (DRR) decision makers and practitioners still tend to consider natural triggers as the only causes of disasters.

For environmental defenders, disasters and the drivers of disasters are often two sides of the same coin. In our work, we listened to numerous stories of human rights violations by private companies and states initiating and expanding development projects in their communities, such as large-scale loggings, land conversions for mono-crop plantations, hydropower dams and mining operations.

Loss of land, displacement of communities and fragmentation of community bonds resulting from these so-called development projects are lived as disasters themselves. Moreover, decision-making around these interventions often excludes the voices of Indigenous peoples, women, people with disabilities, and youth, even though these groups are the first and most affected by the socioeconomic consequences of these projects. The lack of consideration for their rights and needs contributes to magnifying pre-existing vulnerabilities and even higher exposure to hazards in certain cases.

Maldevelopment results in inequity

Interventions imposed upon local communities and affecting their environment are the result of maldevelopment. Maldevelopment refers to “an inequitable process of change that excludes and impoverishes local actors, undermining their economic or political capabilities” (Russo Lopez et al. 2021).

In the Philippines, there are 187 ongoing reclamation projects aiming to build infrastructure such as malls and airports that will displace local communities and degrade coastal and mangrove ecosystems. Similarly, previously banned mining activities such as Tampakan Gold-Cooper Project (TGCP), which was the largest copper-gold mine in Southeast Asia that raised serious concerns over environmental degradation and human rights violations, are being re-initiated despite local and international outcry.

In Nepal, defenders are advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities in face of development projects such as the Tanahu hydropower project that threaten people’s livelihoods and do not ensure Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the community members of Tanahu.

These examples illustrate how top-down decision-making processes around development approaches are resulting in grave violations of the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities.

Taking action

However, rather than being passive victims, these communities are working to ensure the wellbeing of people and environment through various forms of mobilizations.

Women’s individual and collective perceptions of disasters particularly shape their determination to take action and the strategies they use to protect themselves and their communities.

Despite gender norms and gender-biased laws that exacerbate inequality in their daily lives and the social backlash they face when mobilizing in public spaces, women environmental defenders are determined to challenge the structures that make them and their communities vulnerable to disasters.

Among other strategies, sharing knowledge of their rights and traditional practices with community members is a common approach by defenders to build confidence and pride. Similarly, women environmental defenders join forces with defenders and marginalized groups from different communities, tackling the systemic drivers of exclusion and vulnerability and leveraging their capacity to influence equitable decision-making. In doing so, women environmental defenders significantly contribute to DRR.

Recognizing environmental defenders as crucial contributors to DRR

Despite the variety and potential of the strategies developed by defenders to reduce their own vulnerability and prevent environmentally harmful practices, they are not considered as true actors of DRR. Women in particular remain invisible and delegitimized despite their over-representation at the forefront of socioenvironmental conflicts. Fighting for their human and environmental rights may look like a local effort, but such threats and violations that defenders denounce are the symptoms of a system failure, whereby the most marginalized are made vulnerable to human-made disasters.

By giving women environmental defenders the recognition they deserve, DRR can become more efficient in protecting everyone against natural hazards, and help address social exclusion and economic inequalities.

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Country and region Nepal Philippines
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