Why the Environment is a Human Rights Issue: The Experience of Funding in South America

Almost 23 years ago, Brazilians invented a new word.  The reason? A story of conversion of two apparently opposing concepts.  Here is the story:  

In preparation for hosting the groundbreaking UN Summit on Environment and Development, best known as ‘Rio-92’, the tensions of approach that remained between the social justice sector and the wilderness conservation groups of the time became more apparent.  The first, being a resistance to the dictatorship years, was well established and working on human rights issues, poverty alleviation, indigenous, racial, gender, and a broad range of social justice and peace issues.  The latter, younger at the time, initiated by known scientists and international conservation groups, were strong messengers of the need to protect the rich and intact ecosystems of South America, which seemed to imply the removal of its poor inhabitants or traditional communities in order to save the fragile ecosystems, commonly understood as trees and animals.  Of course, these are broad strokes that don’t reflect so much reality, but the underlying perceptions at the time, thus a tension.  “How can you hug trees when people are starving?” was a commonly asked question.  Both sectors drew large amounts of international funding and hardly talked to each other.  

When “Environment” AND “Development” were part of the name of that conference, a common ground needed to be found by the hosting country’s civil society. It was then that a third sector, almost invisible at the time, having no access to funding whatsoever, and working under a different thesis, found room to express itself.  They believed that there was no way to get people out of poverty if their environment wasnt safe, protected and managed according to the laws of social justice as well as of environmental sustainability, and that there was no way to preserve important ecosystems if local inhabitants werent involved in creating, and benefitting from, the solutions.  That is when the term socioambiental gained the scene, and a place in the Portuguese language dictionary.  Meaning socio-environmental, written together to state that you cannot separate one from the other, the discussion gained new realms.

This vision understands that (1) the biggest victims of current environmental destruction, be it due to natural disasters, be it due to the exploitation of natural resources hidden in the richest biomes of this planet, are the people who live in these places, excluded from all benefits society provides, and most times denied the benefits of the law as well.  And that (2) on the other hand, they are recognized by scientist as the ones who know that ecosystem best and hold the key to so many unanswered questions about its functions, and to its ultimate preservation.

After 23 years working with these precepts, one would assume that funding would be flowing towards this revolutionary vision.  But it is not. That is the reason organizations like the Socio-Environmental CASA  were created.  To help resources to reach the hands of groups that most funders couldn’t find on their own, i.e. those funders who understand, and are willing to bet that you can obtain bigger results with a cluster of strategic and relatively small grants that respond to a complex system of actions and reactions in a given region. These funders and their actions are guided only by local knowledge as opposed to millions of dollars of the so-called ‘top-down’ funding that hardly ever gets to the root of the problem.  

No one can expect a handful of big organizations (conservation or social justice oriented) to solve the level of complex problems that are put before us at this time.  And, from CASA’s direct experience, the resources most needed to protect large fragile ecosystems like the Amazon involve a great number of small and medium size grants that empower local communities to:

  • access information about their rights
  •  access legal protection
  •  understand what is at stake
  •  mobilize across very long distances on rivers to bring their voices to public hearings or to a negotiation table where the future of their lands and cultures are at stake. 

Never before have the lives (let alone rights) of indigenous and other traditional peoples in South America been so threatened as now.  And never before has society had so few resources to counter this drive, while local governments and corporations (lone beneficiaries of the wealth created in the region)  have become the biggest violators of these very rights.

There is no doubt that human rights must be at the top of the current environmental protection efforts of our times, there is no way to dissociate one from the other, not in places of the global South that hold so much of the natural resources left on this planet. 

So, yes, millions are necessary —they just need to be better distributed.

Local governments have created things like “Growth Acceleration Programs”, or “Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America”, and other similar ones that translate in building all kinds of infrastructure (roads, pipelines, waterways, ports, railroads), and energy production schemes generally translated in dozens of mega hydroelectric dams to facilitate exploitation and transport of natural resources at a rate never seen before with no regards for human rights or environmental conservation.  Not only that, but most of the deforestation of major South American forests, and modification of its major biomes is having great impacts on global climate regulation, which only tend to aggravate the problems we have been describing. Local inhabitants are its biggest victims. 

To give just one example- in Brazil when indigenous peoples territories are considered “in the interest of the nation”, no matter the conquered indigenous constitutional rights, no matter international conventions signed by the country[1], the Brazilian Supreme Court can use a subterfuge called “suspension of rights”, that orders the projects to advance regardless.  These mechanisms are being mirrored in neighboring countries; persecution, criminalization and even assassinations of traditional and environmental leaders are growing at unprecedented rates. 

If we don’t help society to deal with this situation, I am afraid there will be no biodiversity left anywhere.  Human rights is the word of order for environmental protection in our times.  We hope more funders will see and engage in these efforts.  Though many have left South America, understanding that local wealth would trickle down to society, evidence shows exactly the opposite – there are more problems and society has less resources to solve them, at a time when all is at stake! 

Socioambiental – Socioenvironmental is the needed approach.  Only together, we can find a solution.

Maria Amalia Souza is the Founding Executive Director of the Socio-Environmental Fund CASA

[1] The ILO Convention 169 guarantees indigenous peoples right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent before project can be done in their territories.