Environmental defenders from Indigenous groups and local communities are often on the front lines of the climate crisis, driving reforms necessary to protect our planet and tackle the root causes of climate change. Many are also among the planet’s greatest stewards, caring for lands and natural resources that sustain up to 2.5 billion people.

These lands are increasingly under threat as demand for natural resource extraction and large-scale infrastructure grows. However, environmental defenders often face attacks, harassment and criminalization when attempting to engage governments and companies to shape decisions that directly impact their lives and livelihoods. This growing violence often results from bad governance and poses huge risks to defenders’ natural resources and cultural identity.

WRI works with environmental and land defenders as well as governments, civil society organizations, Indigenous Peoples and local communities to increase the recognition, protection and participation of defenders. Together, we aim to ensure that defenders can actively protect their interests while helping address the climate emergency.

WRI supports this work by:

Expanding available resources and support to defenders.

Together with defenders and civil society organizations, we provide training and financial resources to strengthen defenders’ ability to access legal mechanisms, participate in environmental decision-making processes, seek justice, and leverage coalitions and platforms as part of their advocacy, while using appropriate safety and protection strategies. Through the Standing Together for Grassroots Environmental Defenders (STAND) Initiative, we are creating differentiated capacity-building programs in Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia and Mexico as well as a global Defender Small Grant Fund.

Examining conditions that create dangerous environments.

Many conditions can create a dangerous environment for those protecting their land, wildlife and natural resources — from weak enforcement of laws that safeguard defenders’ environmental rights to insecure Indigenous and community land tenure. Understanding the political, economic and social root causes of violence against environmental defenders will help decision-makers develop policies that keep them safe.

Advancing national and regional reforms to safeguard defenders.

We help defenders, governments and civil society develop and enforce laws, policies and practices that strengthen transparency, public participation and accountability in environmental decision-making. These reforms can reduce risk factors that incite violence as well as protect defenders. For example, WRI campaigned for and supported a six-year negotiation process among Latin American and Caribbean states, culminating in the landmark Escazú Agreement. This accord not only protects environmental defenders but makes it easier for nearly 500 million people to access information, participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives and hold powerful interests to account.

Convening coalitions to scale approaches that prevent and reduce risks to defenders.

As a founding member of the Alliance for Land, Indigenous and Environmental Defenders (ALLIED), we work to empower and foster the agency of defenders, encourage multistakeholder action, and drive systemic change strategies to address (prevent and respond to) threats against them. We support advocacy campaigns to persuade governments to strengthen the recognition, protection and participation of defenders, and share resources for defenders, funders and governments that bridge the gap between defenders at risk and support organizations. 

Image credit: CIFOR/Flickr