Attack in Prey Lang, copyright, Last Line Productions
José Cláudio, copyright, Felipe Milanez
Phalla in the mangroves, copyright, Kalyanee Mam
Chut Wutty, copyright, Mathieu Young

Forest Defenders Conference

Highlighting risks, developing strategies and support for defenders on the front lines
21st–22nd June 2017, Oxford, UK
KEYNOTE SPEAKER: John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment

As global and national companies pursue the short-term and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, competition over land, forests and raw materials is increasingly fierce. Forests are disappearing, but across the world people resist these changes, in order to defend their sovereignty and to protect the natural environment. The risks they face continue to rise. How can we better understand the reality of the dangers, and the barriers that prevent defenders from accessing support?

In June 2017, N1M, hosted the inaugural Forest Defenders Conference with Oxford University. Opening with Laura Zuñiga Cáceres', hopeful, powerful message to her mother, indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016 — 'We are going to Triumph' — Laura voiced the struggle to defend Honduras' land, rivers and forest.

From that perspective, we dedicated ourselves to working through the detail of how and where violence is enacted against environmental human right defenders and to begin the process of finding solutions.

Highly strategic plans and actions, that seek to directly mitigate the horrific violence enacted upon defenders are imperative.

The 2017 conference brought together frontline environmental defenders with security specialists, lawyers, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, international NGOs, human rights groups, academics and environmental organisations.

We heard first-hand from frontline, at risk defenders their needs, the dangers and challenges they face in their work to protect the environment, and working in diverse focus groups, we identified top priorities to improve the security of environmental defenders at risk.


Using a SWOT analysis (Strengths / Weaknesses / Opportunities / Threats) – eight groups led by frontline defenders from Brazil, Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria, Turkey, the UK, and Cambodia identifed priorities for action.

These priorities are:

  • Addressing the disconnect between environmental defenders and sources of support (Cambodia)
  • The non-independence of the courts and lack of access to justice / weak rule of law (Cambodia, Nigeria)
  • Overcoming the difficulty of frontline environmental groups to act proactively when constantly reacting to external threats and pressures (Turkey)
  • The need for in-place physical security support (Brazil)
  • Combating the marginalisation of communities who face discrimination and are therefore under-informed and under-resourced (Nigeria)
  • Strength of the local opposition to environmentally destructive projects (Nigeria)
  • International mobilisation and leverage is a key opportunity (Nigeria)
  • Courage, strength and solidarity of environmental defenders is a key strength (Several groups: Cambodia, Brazil, Turkey)
  • Respect for indigenous and community rights, land rights, Free Prior and Informed Consent (Honduras)

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08:50 08:55 Welcome Reading by Laura Zúñiga Cáceres
09:00 Plenary Session: John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment George Monbiot, The Guardian - on neoliberalism and the drivers of environmental conflict
09:30 Questions & discussion
Session 1 Presentations from front line forest and environmental defenders on the risks and challenges they face
09:40 Ouch Leng – Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) and front line forest defender, Cambodia, Winner of the Goldman Prize for Asia 2016
09:55 Laura Zúñiga Cáceres – COPINH, indigenous Honduran campaigner and daughter of Berta Cáceres
10:10 Justino Sá – Founder of Our Resources, forest defender and Principal Legal Advisor for the National Assembly of Guinea-Bissau
10:25 Claudelice Silva dos Santos – Forest defender, Pará, Brazil, sister of murdered forest activists José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espírito Santo
10:40 Questions and Discussion Session - Panel Host: Dr. Constance McDermott – Senior Fellow in Forest Governance and Leader of Ecosystems Governance Group, University of Oxford
11:10 Tea and Coffee
Session 2 International Perspectives: support for at-risk environmental defenders
11:30 Introduction from John Vidal, writer, previously environment editor at the Guardian
11:40 Billy Kyte - Global Witness, 'Exposing drivers of attacks against environmental defenders’
11:50 Marie Manson – Civil Rights Defenders – Supporting human rights defenders in emergencies
12:00 Marc Limon – Universal Rights Group, presenting work that is bringing together existing resources and legal information for environmental defenders at risk.
12:10 Katharina Rall, Human Rights Watch – on defending human rights and the environment
12:20 Fiachra Kearney, Epsilar Group – ‘Why we must change how we think about activists’ security’
12:30 Richard Rogers, Global Diligence – ‘Creative cases at the International Criminal Court’
12:40 Questions and Discussion Session – Panel Host: John Vidal, The Guardian
13:10 Lunch
13:55 Networking exercise – led by Dr. Mary Menton, SEED
Session 3 Understanding each other’s realities: needs and barriers to support
Participatory exercise to be led by Dr. Mary Menton Aim: To identify the needs of frontline environmental activists, the barriers they face and address potential solutions.
14:10 There are two groups in the room, front line environmental defenders and those who support the work they do. In this session attendees will be split into working groups of about ten people, with at least one front line defender in each group. This session will give groups two hours to conduct a SWOT analysis focusing on the needs of frontline environmental activists, the barriers they face and identifying potential solutions to meet those needs. SWOT analysis: Identifying; strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. (Tea and Coffee will be served during this session please feel free to collect it at 15.30 and come back to your group to continue discussions).
16:00 Each group will present a summary of their findings for three minutes to the rest of the conference.
16:30 In the first afternoon session we will have identified areas of priority for strategies to address activists’ needs. These priority areas will then be the focus of this session. Participants will be free to join a priority table of their choice to work on each of these issues further. The next forty-five minutes will be dedicated to working on the top eight identified priorities; brainstorming potential solutions and potential plans of action for implementation.
17:15 Each group will present a summary of their findings for three minutes to the rest of the conference.
17:45 Closing Session
18:00 Close of Conference
18:00 Evening event
19:00 Ian Redmond, Ape Alliance - ‘Defending the #GardenersoftheForest - celebrating 50 years of Gorilla Conservation and carrying on Dian Fossey’s Legacy’
19:30 Short film screenings (approx. 90 minutes in total, with discussion): – ‘Mother of all Rivers’ – Mill Valley Film Group, a short film about Berta Cáceres' work to defend the Río Blanco from the threat of a hydropower dam Q&A with Laura Zúñiga Cáceres – ‘Fight for Areng Valley’ – Kalyanee Mam, a short film showing an indigenous community’s battle against a hydropower dam in the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia – ‘Prisoners of Sand’ – Mother Nature / N1M, three young activists are criminalised for their work to protect Cambodia’s mangrove forests from sand-dredging, Q&A with San Mala, one of the three activists and co-founder of Mother Nature – ‘Olosho’ – Maasai communities in Loliondo are fighting to stay on their land – in this powerful short film the community members introduce their way of life, and their fight to preserve it, “three things are indispensable: land, animals, people”
22:00 Close


Workshop Digital security – sharing practical tools and information, Tactical Technology Collective
09:00-17:00 Practical tips and information on digital security and basic privacy tools for front line environmental defenders and other interested attendees. Please bring your devices!

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Tactical Technology Collective logo
Oxford Centre for Tropical Forests logo

Photo credits: Phalla in the mangroves, copyright, Kalyanee Mam; Attack in Prey Lang, copyright, Last Line Productions; José Cláudio, copyright, Felipe Milanez; Chut Wutty, copyright, Mathieu Young.