Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know


By David Gordon and Chris Allan

As the world gathered in Paris in December 2015 to negotiate a new climate agreement, 600,000 people in 175 countries marched in support of the process. Yet the French government itself used emergency powers, put in place to fight terrorism, to put two dozen environmental leaders under house arrest for the duration of the negotiations.

In India, since 2015 the government has stripped the right to receive funds from abroad from some 20,000 NGOs. Civil society organizations that suggest alternatives to environmentally damaging megaprojects like agribusiness plantations, dams, and mines have been particularly targeted.

In February 2018, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a leading advocate for Indigenous rights to lands and territories, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, was surprised to find that she had been named by the Government of the Philippines as a member of a terrorist organization. “When we stand our ground and refuse to leave our ancestral homes, we often face criminalization,” she said.

In the U.S., Native American leaders led highly publicized protests to protect the lands and waters of the Standing Rock Sioux from pipeline construction. Now, proposed bills in at least eight states aim to limit environmental protests against “critical infrastructure” such as oil and gas pipelines.

Brazil is the most dangerous country in the world to assert your land rights – in 2017 alone, 57 people were killed doing just that, more than one a week. And President Bolsonaro now promises to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and accompany” NGOs in the country and to “put a final stop to all forms of activism in Brazil.” Upon taking office, he immediately weakened protections for biodiverse Amazon forests, transferring power to demarcate Indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture, which is known for defending agribusiness interests.

And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a highly biodiverse and resource-rich country, even pro-environment public servants are targeted for their work. Twelve park rangers were killed in 2017 for battling militias who profit from wildlife poaching and illegal mining; more than 160 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years.

Isolated incidents? Hardly. The ability of citizens to organize themselves and redress grievances is under attack in 111 countries around the world. For environmental and conservation funders, these restrictions limit the ability to achieve key program outcomes, whether in wildlife protection, forest conservation, or climate change. These issues are summarized in our recent briefing document, Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know.

What’s behind these increasing restrictions on environmental protection? 

As environmental groups gain influence and public support, creating larger impact, they must also reckon with a new reality of restrictions on their work that are rapidly increasing in scope and scale. Key drivers we see in countries across the world include the abuse of land and resource rights, unrestricted corporate power, and poor government oversight. Nationalist and populist governments pushing negative narratives about the value of citizen action are on the rise, maligning the motives and funding of citizen groups, and calling them anti-development, anti-patriotic, foreign agents, criminals, and even terrorists for their efforts to protect the environment. Threats to civil space increase where there is widespread racism and inequality, since it is difficult for marginalized groups to defend their rights. Finally, a lack of solidarity among environmental organizations and funders can fracture the movement: when some organizations are victimized while others remain silent, the ability to push back on restrictions is weakened. Lack of collaboration between the environmental movement and other movements on human rights and Indigenous Peoples undermines the ability of civil society to defend against these growing restrictions. 

What are funders doing about it? 

The funders we interviewed for our research are adjusting their grantmaking procedures to help grantees weather the storm, connecting with other funders and other movements, improving digital security, and supporting women leaders who are subject to gender specific threats when they take environmental action. Increasingly, environmental funders are supporting legal strategies to defend the rule of law and work to improve corporate and bank behavior. Recognizing that environmentalists will continue to defend their lands and territories despite the challenges they face, funders are discussing risk with their grantees to make sure that communities are supported in ways that are most relevant and secure for them. Some funders are committed to maintaining support in countries with high risk to civil society, becoming linchpins for both civil society and for other funders.

Funders are protecting environmentalists when they come under threat, especially through pooled funds like the Environmental Defenders Collaborative. They are also learning the need to engage and intervene at the earliest stages of restrictions on civil society, when conservation advocates are faced with public stigmatization and bureaucratic hurdles, rather than waiting until they are jailed or murdered. Many funders are exploring these issues together through the Environmental Funders Working Group at the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society.

Results of these efforts inspire hope. In Canada, environmental groups successfully fought back against smears by government ministers, who vilified environmental groups and U.S. funders. In Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, broad civil society coalitions defeated legislation that would have restricted access of NGOs to international funding.

Nothing can bring back the hundreds of environmental defenders around the world who have been killed in recent years, or mitigate the lasting impact their loss has had on their families, communities, fragile ecosystems, species, and climate change – a loss that we are only starting to comprehend. But as environmental funders, we can come together with other funders, governments, and NGOs to address the root causes and manifestations to help citizens in their efforts to protect our shared planet. 

For more information email FICS@global-dialogue.eu, or visit global-dialogue.eu and greengrants.org.