Forest Defenders Conference

Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2018

Building success with strategies and support for defenders of the earth

Building on the 2017 N1M Forest Defenders Conference in Oxford, UK, we joined forces with EarthRights International and Cambodian Youth Network, to create the 2018 Forest Defenders Conferene with a regional focus on South East Asia. The 2018 conference was organised in response to the requests of the frontline defenders who attended the Oxford conference, and who wanted to build on the solidarity, energy, analysis and relationships that developed at the first Forest Defenders Conference. One of the key objectives was to create a safe and stimulating environment for at-risk defenders to connect with funders, NGOs, inter-governmental agencies, public interest lawyers, security specialists, and particularly with each other. During the conference, over 90 defenders and allies worked together to develop the Environmental Defenders Declaration for South East Asia, offering concrete recommendations to governments, the private sector, UN, international finance institutions, and civil society to address the crisis of violence facing all who take action or resist evictions and dispossession of their lands, forests, seas and rivers.

Forest Defenders Conference, 2018
Forest Defenders Conference, 2018


From 21st – 24th August 2018, the second International Forest Defenders Conference brought together over 50 frontline environmental defenders with security speicalists (from Witness, Forum Asia and Protection International), academics from Universities of Sussex (UK) and New South Wales (Australia), intergovernmental respresentatives from OHCHR and UN Enviornment, funders, international NGOs, and lawyers, including the Mekong Legal Network, Mekong Legal Advocacy Initiative and international lawyers from Greenpeace International and Action4Justice. Defenders joined the conference from Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and Brazil. The four day meeting was split into two parts:

  1. Earth in Action Workshops – activists, community members and campaigners shared experience and worked with experts on digital and physical security, using video for evidence and advocacy, legal strategies, and environmental investigations.
  2. International Conference – sharing expertise from a range of fields, inter-governmental organisations, environmental NGOs, activists, human rights groups, media and researchers worked together to support activists facing challenges and threats across the region, and developed the Environmental Defenders Declaration.

Environmental Defenders Declaration for South East Asia

Chiang Mai, 2018

Environmental Defenders are those who defend lands, forests, water and other elements of the natural environment, and assert people's rights to a clean and healthy environment. This includes those acting collectively and individually; indigenous peoples, peasants, professionals, fisher folk, and others, of all ages, genders and identities.

We hereby RECOGNISE that:

  • Environmental Defenders are critical to protecting natural ecosystems, combating climate change, protecting land rights, traditional ways of living, cultural heritage, and human rights.
  • The role of the Environmental Defender is often a matter of necessity, not of choice.
  • In many cases, Environmental Defenders operate without institutional support, adequate financial support, or access to technologies and political spaces.
  • Indigenous Peoples’ rights are central to protecting lands, forests and water, especially the remaining biodiversity, crucial for the survival of people and planet, found in their lands and territories
  • The role of women in protecting lands, forests and water is instrumental; yet, the negative impacts of unsustainable development on women is often disproportionate, and women defenders face specific challenges and threats, including gendered cultural norms, discrimination and gender-based violence.
  • Women Environmental Defenders and other groups facing discrimination such as LGBTQ+, Indigenous Peoples, people with disabilities, and others tend to face additional challenges, and are therefore often more vulnerable to threats.
  • In challenging environmental injustice, including land-grabbing, mining, pollution, deforestation, Environmental Defenders are pitted against powerful corporate entities, often in collusion with government.
  • Environmental Defenders are united in their struggle to secure a healthy environment for future generations.
  • In advocating their cause, Environmental Defenders commonly tread a dangerous and solitary path.
  • Environmental Defenders have the right to demand redress when attacked or in any way subjected to retaliation. This includes in the form of compensation and legal recognition of harm committed.

  • We DECRY:

  • The repression and growing number of killings of Environmental Defenders and other forms of violence and intimidation.
  • The vast majority of killings and other violations against Environmental Defenders are conducted with impunity: very few cases are prosecuted and even fewer result in convictions.
  • The increased criminalisation of Environmental Defenders across Southeast Asia, and violations and restrictions on their freedom to exercise their rights to expression, association, freedom to move, and assembly.
  • The concerted attack on independent media across the region, and, in particular, the hijacking of media by governments, corporate interests and extremist groups.
  • The false stigmatisation of activists as threats to the state, anti-development agitators, criminals, separatists, terrorists, communists, and the like, e.g. accusations against Cambodian activists that they are plotting a ‘colour revolution’
  • The abuse of religious institutions and sentiments to drive internal conflict and/or gain control over lands and territories.
  • The use of the law to attack the legitimate work of defenders through baseless allegations and SLAPP suits (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation).
  • The exploitation of conflict situations for forced relocation, land- and resource-grabbing.
  • The intentional creation of conflict within and between communities in order to exploit land and natural resources.
  • “Green-grabbing” and “fortress conservation” that denies the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their lands, territories, and resources and often results in the eviction of affected communities.


  • New global initiatives to assist and protect Environmental Defenders, and which enhance their capacity to effectively conduct their activism. These include the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) and efforts to codify environmental rights in international law, including the UN Environmental Rights Initiative.
  • The increased attention from the global media, governments, intergovernmental bodies, civil society organisations, and donors on Environmental Defenders and the risks that they face.
  • Companies that base their activities on the principles of sustainable development, and follow international best practice standards, upholding international labour, human and environmental rights regulations across the entire supply chain.
  • We welcome initiatives from other regions, such as the Escazú Agreement for Latin America and the Caribbean, and actions that promote solidarity among Environmental Defenders across the world.

  • We are CONCERNED that:

  • There is no regional human rights court, and that ASEAN, which prioritizes economic and regional integration, has no viable and independent human rights mechanism.
  • The regional and global mechanisms and principles that exist to uphold human rights are not legally binding.
  • The legal, financial, security and political support that defenders need is vastly inadequate to address the challenges and threats that they, their communities and their environments face.
  • Most initiatives to support defenders are not led by defenders, and many are not suited to their situation or actual needs.
  • The needs of communities and defenders are often drowned out by NGO and donor interests.
  • Generally, international standards, including Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) are not meaningfully applied in the planning and implementation stages of projects.

  • Therefore, by this Declaration, we CALL on the following to,


  • Implement independent and thorough investigations into the killings of Environmental Defenders and other attacks.
  • Stop using and amend laws used to criminalise and repress Environmental Defenders.
  • Establish laws to protect environmental and human rights defenders and provide on-the-ground protection.
  • Recognize the contribution of Indigenous Peoples on environmental protection through their knowledge, traditions and practice.
  • Ensure that conservation projects are not driving attacks on community members and local people. Specifically, to ensure that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is enforced in all conservation initiatives.
  • Promote alternative models to “fortress conservation”, that are led by indigenous peoples and local communities such as Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Territories and Areas (ICCA).
  • Recognize and respect customary land use, traditional and Indigenous Peoples rights.
  • Guarantee the rights of Environmental Defenders’ right to know, particularly with respect to large-scale development projects.
  • Balance economic aims with environmental and social aims. Observe and implement the UNGP, and develop and implement a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, with strong recognition and safeguards for Environmental Human Rights Defenders.


  • Formally incorporate input from civil society through regular and meaningful consultations.
  • Develop a grievance mechanism that is accessible and equitable and developed in meaningful collaboration with community members and frontline environmental defenders.


  • Strictly follow investment regulatory guidelines, including FPIC, UNGP and self-determination principles.
  • Conduct thorough human rights due diligence on potential risks to environmental defenders before investing in any project, and condition investment on their protection.
  • Develop and implement project-specific, accessible, equitable and community-driven independent grievance mechanisms.
  • Commit to holding responsible individual members of companies criminally accountable for attacks on defenders that result from their actions.
  • Investigate rights violations against environmental defenders in the entire supply chain, understanding that private sector entities may be complicit in violations even when not directly causing the violations, and can face liability for those violations.
  • Refrain from hiring state security forces and known human rights violators and enforce international standards on the use of security personnel, eg. the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.


  • FPIC must be sought among all impacted communities and peoples, including those in neighbouring countries, for a project to be approved.
  • Assess risk of violence to Environmental Defenders and put into place mechanisms to prevent attacks on Environmental Defenders in project plans.
  • Implement and comply with safeguards and uphold international standards and best practices; all companies funded by IFIs must not employ state security forces, and must comply with the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
  • Ensure that each project establishes a grievance mechanism and security protocols with a local presence. Ensure that the protection of victims, whistleblowers and defenders are built into the process, and that mechanisms are accessible, equitable, and led by impacted communities. Play a strong supervisory role in ensuring that these mechanisms are being implemented fairly, and take prompt corrective action when they are not.
  • Ensure full compliance with the relevant Accountability Mechanism(s) of your IFI, and take prompt corrective action when violations are found.
  • Blacklist and withdraw all support from state and corporate actors that continue to violate the rights of Environmental Defenders even after recommendations to correct these action have been issued.


  • Investigate attacks on environmental defenders, and send representatives to provide immediate visibility and physical presence to affected defenders.
  • Create more effective response mechanisms for defenders at risk.


  • Encourage funders to simplify application processes, in particular for emergency needs.
  • Create and continually update a watchlist of bad actors (both corporate and state agencies).
  • Establish an early warning system for NGOs and other allies.
  • Work together, build on and mutually reinforce each others’ initiatives.

  • Contact to find out more about the next Forest Defenders Conference, planned for Brazil in October 2019.