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Three Questions Environmental Justice Funders Need to Consider Today

By Eva Rehse, Global Greengrants Fund, 28th October 2016

We are at a key moment in history. If business as usual continues, we have just five years left before we reach the critical global temperature rise of 1.5C. Despite some of the world’s largest economies recently ratifying the Paris Agreement, there seems little real commitment to tackle the big transition required to change course from this trajectory. Civil society is mobilising in response, but finds itself under pressure from state and non-state actors alike.

As part of our new strategic planning process, we at Global Greengrants Fund are discussing what our priorities should be over the next five years within this context. Three fundamental questions underlie our thinking, and I would love to hear from fellow funders in the comments below about where you are in your own considerations.

  1. How can we support and improve the safety and security of our grantees?

The statistics are well known and shocking – at least two people are murdered every week defending their land, forests and water sources. Of the 156 human rights defenders killed in 2015, nearly half were defending environmental, land, or indigenous rights. Every one of our partners can tell stories to this effect. As environmental activists are increasingly criminalised, how can we as funders support and improve the safety of our grantees?

At Global Greengrants Fund, we are committed to increasing our attention in this area, for example through our participation in the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society. Initiatives like these are important because they help link up funders from different sectors, governments, and international institutions, and maximise our collective strengths to push back on restrictions on foreign funding. The receipt of foreign funding can put activists on the radar of national authorities, but in the absence of local philanthropists willing to support social or environmental activism that might be deemed “controversial”, civil society in many countries is still reliant on foreign support. And beyond the financial support, the funding relationship almost always brings with it access to networking, collaboration and expertise.

Bringing an environmental funder’s perspective to these existing initiatives is vital, not least because Environmental Human Rights Defenders are among the most targeted groups of activists. Even those environmental funders who prioritise land and biodiversity protection over environmental justice initiatives have to understand this context, and examine the activities they fund against it. As David Johnson and Carina Hirsch elaborate in their great piece on this blog, continuing to fund in silos will only create more silos. In particular, in difficult political climates where calling for a safe and healthy environment goes against state and corporate interests, we need to appreciate that environmental protection is human rights work. Good starting points to understand the context are recent reports by Global Witness and Friends of the Earth International. Where local communities – often the traditional guardians of the land that we seek to protect – are marginalised, threatened or even killed, larger conservation efforts will ultimately not be successful. No funder will be able to tackle these complex developments on their own, but collectively we represent a very powerful constituency, especially if we can find ways to break out of our silos.

  1. Identity and representation – what does it mean?

Equally consistent in our discussions is the question of identity and our privilege as funders. Environmental justice and identity politics go hand in hand because the way people have access to and can enjoy environmental resources is affected by a variety of attributes – their gender, race, sexuality, beliefs, and ethnicity. Consequently, in our funding we have to be aware of and appreciate these differences. This should be done firstly by bringing representatives from more diverse backgrounds into our organisational leadership and into our decision-making – from the bottom of our organisation to the top – and secondly by diversifying who we support.

More diversity brings more perspectives, more connections and a richer discourse for less homogenous solutions – which can only be the right thing in our heterogeneous world. Watch out, for example, for some interesting developments on involving youth in grantmaking at the European Foundation Centre over the next few months. At Global Greengrants Fund, we have made a concerted effort to focus on gender, analysing how women and men are differently impacted by environmental injustices, and how our funding should address these differences. Much still needs to be done in achieving gender equity, but we are proud that 51% of our grants today address women-focused activities. For more on what we learned on this journey, see our guide to supporting grassroots women action.

  1. What is our individual responsibility as foundation staff?

This question was thrown into sharp relief to me after I visited a community impacted by a coal mine in rural South Africa. Seeing first-hand the destruction that our dependence on coal wreaks on fragile ecosystems and local communities helped me viscerally to connect the dots between the lifestyle many people in the developing world, including myself, enjoy, and the injustices it promotes.

River in KwaZulu Natal

Community members and visiting funders looking at a river in KwaZulu-Natal whose flow has been vastly diminished by coal mining

Where there once was an impressive river carrying vital water supplies, there is now only a small trickle of water that has to support communities and large areas of farmland. The local community, continually being pushed back from its traditional land by the mining operations, has had to endure the indignity of having not only to uproot their houses, but also their ancestors’ graves. While the mine keeps growing, the community continues to protest.

It is important that as funders we support large-scale campaigns against fossil fuels in our home countries and around the world. But it is equally important to support the local struggles, the small-scale initiatives, and the first responders in communities affected by the immediate impacts of extractives and climate change. That is why at Global Greengrants Fund we include small grants to grassroots environmental defense as part of our portfolio. Over more than twenty years we have seen that small sums of funding seed, catalyse, energise and sustain local efforts.

We will continue this work, which is perhaps more important now than ever. At the same time, we know that if we want to meet the 1.5C target, we will all have to make lifestyle changes – not tomorrow: now! As foundation staff, how we live our own lives, how we carry out our work, every choice we make, is as important to achieving environmental justice as the work of our partners at the grassroots. This is not an easy task, but it starts with me, and with you.

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