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Closing Space for Environmental Work

The annual State of Civil Society report from Civicus last year reported, alarmingly, that six out of seven people live in countries where civic space has experienced serious recent challenges. This isn’t a distant problem for conservation and environmental funders; it’s our problem.

As part of a broader survey taking the pulse of the UK environmental sector, the Environmental Funders Network recently asked the chief executives of 92 UK-based environmental organisations whether their organisation’s funding, strategy or other activities were being constrained in any way by the so-called ‘closing space’ for civil society.

Nearly half the respondents indicated that they were feeling the effects of closing space here in the UK and abroad in countries spanning the globe, including Turkey, Poland, Russia, India, China, Kenya, Guatemala, Japan, Pakistan, Egypt, Cambodia and the Republic of Congo.

In the UK, our survey respondents most commonly mentioned the Lobbying Act inhibiting certain activities; organisations failing to engage in the debate leading up to the EU referendum because of Charity Commission guidelines; and fundraising regulations inhibiting certain activities (including communications with members and supporters). In addition, they mentioned an inability to raise funds from the government because of political advocacy work that the organisation undertakes or, conversely, an inability to criticise or lobby the government any more when receiving government funding. (The latter concerns have to a degree been addressed by last December’s changes to the anti-lobbying clause; the new guidance indicates clearly that activities such as raising issues with ministers and civil servants, responding to consultations and contributing to the general policy debate are not only permitted but actively welcomed.)

Overseas, UK environmental organisations and their on-the-ground partners are facing even more serious threats to their work. At a recent meeting for EFN and Ariadne members focused on closing space, Gillian Caldwell, CEO of Global Witness, reported on NGOs in a range of countries experiencing restrictions on their funding (especially from overseas, such as the ‘foreign agents’ law in Russia) and having their licenses rescinded. She also reported on widespread criminalisation of environmental work accompanied by government communications branding people engaged in it and other forms of civil society action as ‘anti-development,’ ‘trouble makers’ or even ‘terrorists’. This can have a powerful delegitimizing effect on the work of civil society organisations; when they are subsequently singled out for attack, they find themselves isolated and unable to respond effectively.

All of this has been accompanied by a rise in surveillance, physical attacks, threats and intimidation. Global Witness statistics indicate that 2010-15 were the deadliest years on record for environmental and land rights defenders; over 200 such defenders were murdered in Brazil alone – and those are just the ones we know about.

In many cases organisations on the ground may be unaware that the closing space they are experiencing is a broader trend, both within their country and internationally; in other cases organisations working on an issue that has not yet been affected by closing space may not recognise the encroaching threat. Responding to the trend will take a concerted effort from organisations across issue areas, not just the environment and conservation but human rights and other social justice movements, too.

In the UK, respondents to our survey were working on a wide variety of responses to different forms of closing space here and abroad, from challenging the Lobbying Act and the Charity Commission over EU referendum campaign guidance to raising awareness about the increasing numbers of attacks on environmental and land defenders internationally. One organisation was lobbying international donors to make aid funding conditional on recipient governments keeping civil society space open. One common theme emerged: a fifth of respondents indicated that they were collaborating with or supporting other groups addressing closing space issues; many lack the resources to address the issues alone but were supportive of work being coordinated by umbrella organisations.

Through organisations like the Funders Initiative for Civil Society, funders are beginning to come together to address closing space across issue areas. Unusual alliances that transcend sectors may be required at the NGO level, too, so that civil society can reclaim its legitimacy, amplifying its voice through strength in numbers and diversity.

Florence Miller is the Director of the Environmental Funders Network.

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