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This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist

‘‘My adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising,” said Rodrigo Duterte on 30 June 2016, in his first speech as president of the Philippines. Known for his violent rhetoric during the campaign – he famously called then US President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” – Duterte’s inaugural words were intended to reassure critics and the international community.

The following day, two gunmen entered the karaoke bar that Gloria Capitan’s family owned in Lucanin, in Bataan Province. The 57-year-old grandmother had been an opponent of coal-fired power since health inspectors told her ash from a nearby coal stockpile would close her business. Initially concerned about the threat to her livelihood, Capitan had grown increasingly focused on the respiratory diseases and environmental risks associated with local coal projects.

As her eight-year-old grandson watched, the men approached Capitan from behind and killed her with a gunshot to the neck, before leaving on motorcycles. They have not been brought to justice. Capitan had faced death threats since she started to organise petitions on behalf of the Coal-Free Bataan Movement. It is clear she was murdered for her activism – and it sends an obvious message to other campaigners in the Philippines. Environmentalists there, as in many other countries, are at the sharp end of a larger crackdown on the public sphere.

Rappler, an outspoken news website attacked by Duterte, now faces government threats to revoke its license. Areas of the country remain under martial law and politicians have floated the cancellation of midterm elections. But the phenomenon is worth considering in a global context. Walden Bello, the veteran Filipino sociologist and activist, has described Duterte as a “fascist”, and the “local expression and a pioneer of an ongoing global phenomenon: right-wing backlash against liberal democratic values”.

Capitan was one of 200 environmental defenders killed around the world in 2016 – around four every week – according to campaign group Global Witness, which documents the death toll for its annual Defenders of the Earth report. In 2017, that number fell very slightly to 197, but the Philippines saw its worst year on record, with 41 deaths. In September 2017, village official Ruben Arzaga was slain opposing an illegal logging operation. In December, Datu Victor Danyan, an indigenous campaigner, was killed after opposing the encroachment of a coffee plantation on his ancestral land.

A disturbingly similar pattern has emerged in recent years under authoritarian populists in different geographies, from the Phillipines to Honduras to Turkey. Rights to land and natural resources are granted to industry and private corporations. When communities oppose these grabs, they are stigmatised – as anti-development, agents of foreign influence, or terrorists – and face not only threats and violence, but legal persecution.

While certain strongman characteristics might be familiar across leadership styles (when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatens to sue media outlets that insult him, it is difficult not to think of Donald Trump) it’s worth considering another similarity. That is, how frequently such regimes, characterised by kleptocratic governance, weak institutions and official impunity, can advance the dispossession of people from their land and resources – usually for profit through extraction, or financialisation – sparking environmental conflicts and worsening inequalities.

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Emek Ozkan is the pseudonym of a Turkish academic and activist, who withheld his name because of the worsening political situation. Ozkan told me in an email that Erdoğan’s grip on “all dimensions of whatever was left of Turkey’s fragile democracy” has tightened in recent years, “with a push for populist, neoliberal developmentalism”. The period saw a closing of the “space for civic rights” and “rebranding of state-capital crony-relations and their assault on urban-rural environments as ‘development’”. Since the state of emergency that followed the botched coup attempt in July 2016, the situation has only worsened.

“Public assets were transferred to a vague ‘Turkey Sovereign Wealth Fund’ overnight [after the coup attempt],” he said, “with a mandate – among other things – to finance ‘mega-projects’, including energy and mining projects.” As a result, environmental critics of schemes such as the rapid building of hydroelectric dams or coal-fired power stations face a crackdown. “Today, anything you write on print or social media – say against a particular energy project or climate strategy – can be weaponised against you by those in power and those who benefit from such power,” said Ozkan. Last year, Ali Ulvi and Aysin Büyüknohutçu, two retiree campaigners against the environmental destruction wrought by marble quarries in Antalya, southwest Turkey, were murdered in suspicious circumstances.

In India, the Ministry of Home Affairs has accused environmental NGOs of being “anti-industry and anti-national”. Organisations like Greenpeace have been singled out and deregistered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Since an Indian Intelligence Bureau report in June 2014 alleged that international groups encouraged “growth-retarding campaigns” focused on extractive industries, genetically modified organisms, climate change and anti-nuclear issues, laws on foreign funding to charities have been used to target them and others who scrutinise public policy. Sand mining, one of the most environmentally damaging, lucrative and illegal of trades in India, which feeds directly into real estate – a key funding source for political parties – is also often protected from public scrutiny by threats and violence.

In Vietnam in 2016, when toxic discharge from a factory led to 70 tonnes of dead fish washing up along more than 200km of coastline, the government responded by targeting alleged dissident voices: blogger Nguyen Van Hoa was sentenced to seven years in prison for using a camera mounted on a drone to film protesters demonstrating against the spill. In Cambodia, environmentalists were targeted in a crackdown that included shuttering newspapers and adopting an NGO law that criminalises sections of civil society. In 2012, the forest defender Chut Wutty was murdered.

Nor is the war on environmentalists unique to illiberal regimes of the global south. In the US, Trump has created a hostile climate for environmentalists, and not only by debasing scientific truth in his rhetoric. He has also overseen the further criminalisation of protest and use of counter-terror tactics to silence opponents of the Keystone oil pipeline extension, many of them indigenous activists. In October, 84 members of Congress signed a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggesting domestic terrorism laws should be used to prosecute protestors who shut down pipelines. States along the Keystone route have introduced draconian rules to curb potential protests. In South Dakota, the governor or local sheriff can prohibit groups numbering more than 20 from gathering on public land or in schools.

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Green activists in many repressive states once enjoyed greater liberty of action than other sorts of critics: environmental groups opposed to projects like water diversions, nuclear power and large hydroelectric dams, for example, played a very important role in the glasnost attempts at liberalisation in the former USSR. Yet last year in Ukraine, a mayor opposed to a huge poultry farm was beaten up in his office. In Belarus, activists have been imprisoned multiple times for opposing the construction of a nuclear plant near the border with Lithuania.

In China, environmentalism flourished in the previous decade, with hundreds of thousands of NGOs registered, and many more operating unregistered. Environmental journalism and citizen media mushroomed, and Chinese civil society saw several victories in opposing environmentally damaging projects, such as large dams and proposed petrochemical plants. However, since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he has clamped down on media reporting and citizen-led organising, including around environmental issues. The state has also tightened controls on information, universities and thinktanks, and severely restricted access to justice. China’s Overseas NGO Registration Law, which came into force in January 2017, effectively puts all internationally funded groups under the supervision of the security services. Similar laws on foreign NGOs have been introduced recently in Egypt, Russia, Ethiopia, Hungary, Israel and Angola.

A recent survey of 92 UK-based environmental organisations found that nearly half said their organisation’s funding, strategy or other activities were being constrained by the so-called “closing space” for civil society in countries including Turkey, Poland, Russia, India, China, Kenya, Guatemala, Japan, Pakistan, Egypt, Cambodia and the Republic of Congo. How this repression has played out in China is significant. Many in the international environmental community are quick to praise the country – and not without cause – for its ambitious government targets on climate change and substantial investments in renewable energy. Yet often underlying this is the assumption, expressed by Australian scholar Mark Beeson in 2010, that “authoritarian regimes – unattractive as they may be – may even prove more capable of responding to the complex political and environmental pressures in [Asia] than some of its democracies.” The reality is not so simple.

The green movement’s strengths have always been in its grassroots nature: how it empowers communities looking to understand their environments and challenge local decision-makers. From there they can engage in democratic politics at different levels, including around the future directions of scientific and technological development.

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When it comes to addressing climate change, top-down approaches might be tempting, but they have a poor record of effectiveness. Global warming is not a straightforward, singular problem, but – like poverty, or inequality – irresolvable by simple, technocratic fixes. It requires multiple approaches and political participation, even struggle.

The UN Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But countries’ commitments, as they stand today, fall short of even the 2 degree target. The treaty, best described as a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up approaches, requires a process of regular “stock-taking”, where ambition is jointly ratcheted upwards and national efforts are strengthened through international negotiations and reporting processes.

As Rob Bailey and Shane Tomlinson from the think-tank Chatham House pointed out in a recent report, in the absence of binding commitments and an enforcement mechanism, the Paris Agreement implies crucial roles for “non-state actors”, including: holding governments to account; evaluating and verifying government implementation of commitments; assessing the adequacy of commitments; and “mobilising around key opportunities to push governments to raise ambition”.

In other words, if we want to address climate change with sufficient urgency, citizens need the freedom to organise, to assemble, to ensure accountability, and to fight for change. “The environmental movement in Turkey needs to further politicise [to] build alliances and offer alternatives to survive under populist authoritarianism and eventually thrive by overcoming it,” argues Ozkan. “In such an oppressive political-social climate, the environmental movement can either play a liberating political role or a compliant, obedient apolitical role.”

As one leading group of scholar-activists, writing in the Journal of Peasant Studies this January about the challenge posed by the recent wave of “populist authoritarians” to rural social movements, put it: “Change needs to be understood less in terms of managed transitions, guided by policy and technocratic elites, and more in terms of unruly, relational, horizontal transformations and new forms of innovation and democratic practice.”

In the Philippines, this could not be more urgent. Not only because of the scale of the killing, land-grabbing and environmental destruction unleashed by an authoritarian, kleptocratic leader, but also the likely effects of pursuing new coal-fired power plants in a region where electricity demand is increasing.

A study by Harvard University and Greenpeace found air pollution from coal in Southeast Asia causes an estimated 20,000 excess deaths per year, which would increase to almost 70,000 by 2030 if coal-fired power plants presently planned or under construction go ahead. That, of course, is even before taking the likely climate-change effects into account. As Lauri Myllyvirta, Senior Global Coal Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, put it: “Countries in Southeast Asia have the chance now to leapfrog dirty, outdated technology like coal and move to renewable energy.” Without the freedom to organise, it’s an opportunity that will very likely be missed.