How to defend the climate defenders

With the recent spate of violence against environmental activists, people may feel safer speaking out less. But solidarity and mass mobilisations are the best defense against violence, says executive director May Boeve.

greenpeace activists shell no
Activists from Greenpeace dangling off a bridge in Portland, Oregon, to block oil giant Shell's ships from leaving for the Arctic. Image: JPL Designs /

News of the tragic loss of life of environmental activists protesting a coal plant in Bangladesh is just the latest of a string of violent attacks against peaceful activists standing up to the extractive industries and the consequences of climate change.

Friday, it was farmers in the Philippines seeking assistance from a climate change-exacerbated drought. Two weeks ago, it was Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe, an anti-mining activist in South Africa. And a month ago, Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras, followed closely by the assassination of Nelson Garcia, another member of the environmental and indigenous rights group COPINH.

Both were protecting indigenous peoples from the onslaught of big industry including hydro-electricity projects and large scale logging.

Over the past year the climate movement has gone from strength to strength, and is now posing a real threat to the environmentally destructive energy industry; this is being met with extreme violence. When violence is used to silence protest, democracy is placed under threat. However, we will not retaliate like with like, our aim is to carry on building our numbers, standing strong as a unified global movement.

To accomplish this it is imperative we defend the defenders by carrying on, building on their work and standing in solidarity honouring their accomplishments. We are unifying and taking part in even more peaceful protests while sending the message that violent crackdowns will not go unnoticed. Intimidation will not stop the movement.

Understandably people may feel safer to stay home more and speak out less. However there is safety in numbers. Mass mobilization and distributed actions are our way of pushing for the change we want to see in the world. When protest becomes more risky, we need to continue to speak out, wherever we can, however we can — whether it’s in the streets or exposing the threats faced by an increasing number of defenders worldwide.

When protest becomes risky for our friends and allies in other parts of the world, it becomes the job of those in safer places to get even louder.

We have been inspired by so many movements and organizations that have congregated to defend the defenders, and we see enormous potential in linking the climate movement to the movement to protect human rights and social justice. The threats we face on both fronts are linked at their roots, and we cannot fight for climate justice without fundamental human rights protections for those most impacted.

The fight to stem catastrophic climate change is the same fight for human rights and social justice. The devastating effects will touch everyone, from ravaging communities due to extreme weather events, increasing the risk of health epidemics and aggravating food shortages.  If we are to succeed it will be because we have been able to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Over the past year the climate movement has gone from strength to strength, and is now posing a real threat to the environmentally destructive energy industry; this is being met with extreme violence.

With thousands of projects proposed all over the world (even with the recent decline of coal, there are 2,400 coal-fired power plants currently under construction or being planned), the work is just getting going. Many of these projects are proposed in places with the severest restrictions on protest; meanwhile, the people targeted in violent crackdowns — in both the Global South and the Global North — are very often the most marginalized people in a given community.

But the tide is turning. Last year saw numerous victories against fossil fuel expansion. Shell withdrew its permit application to drill in the Arctic after “kayaktivists” creatively blocked their drilling rigs on the water. President Obama denied the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Five states in Brazil have placed a moratorium on fracking. Ninety percent of new energy capacity installed last year was renewable.

However, the economic and infrastructural transformation needed — going from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy — will not happen without resistance from the powers currently benefiting from the status quo. The fossil fuel industry is, after all, one of the most profitable industries ever, and no stranger to fights with movements.

We know our foe is formidable, but so are we. In India, the movement for 100 percent renewable energy remains strong, even with much potential for coal expansion and a government that is increasingly restricting activists’ activities.

In the Philippines, the fight for climate justice goes on building on the Climate Walk of last autumn that saw thousands of people join a 40-day, 875 KM journey from Manila to Tacloban City to highlight the severe impacts of climate change.

In South Africa, community members in Johannesburg are demanding that renewable energy, not coal, be the means for them to have reliable electricity for the first time.

 So this is our response to the recent intimidation: an escalation of action. In May, we will be mobilizing around the world with many of our partners to “Break Free” from fossil fuels. Breaking free from the violence and destruction of extractive industries is more urgently needed than ever, but in many places we’ll be mobilizing where we know it is hard to mobilize.

For those of you who can join us, we hope you will. And for those who can’t, we hope you’ll join us from afar — because solidarity that is global, visible, and loud is our best defense against those who would silence dissent with violence.

May Boeve is executive director of the grassroots climate change organisation This post is republished from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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