Defending Climate with Care

Five Critical Lessons on Resourcing Environment and Climate Justice

Illustration by Griselda Gabriele

A ‘ohe o kahi nana o luna o ka pali;
iho mai a lalo nei;
‘ike I ke au nui ke au iki,
he alo a he alo.”

The top of the cliff isn’t the place to look at us;
come down here
learn of the
big and little currents, face to face.

Why is this Hawaiian proverb relevant for our work on climate change? Because, this is what Environmental and Climate Justice (ECJ) Defenders urge us to do. They remind us that while we may be lost in the heavy jargon of today’s discourse on climate change — emission, carbon footprint, COP, etc. — ECJ Defenders have been at the forefront of preserving our planet, territories, rivers, forests, and oceans for centuries. These feminists at the frontlines of environment and climate justice movements have always understood that extractivism and hypercapitalism harm the planet and have always fought against these rising currents.

We, along with the other Urgent Action Funds, believe that while we respond to crises at the intersections of gender, climate, and democracy, these overlap in dramatic ways to make matters worse for human rights defenders worldwide.

Extractivism and hypercapitalism, fuelled by economic greed, are at the heart of all these crises. Increasingly, we see private capitalist forces dictate the state of democracy, especially in the Global South, which in turn lead to a rise of authoritarian regimes and an absolute clamp down on civil society. The forces that work against human rights work — anti-gender, anti-climate change, and anti-rights narratives and campaigns — are often a result of this toxic combination of capitalist greed and authoritarianism.

In just the last decade, the backlash faced by Environment and Climate Justice Defenders have reached unprecedented levels.

Caught at the intersections of patriarchy, gender norms, authoritarianism, and closing civic spaces, women, trans, and non-binary defenders of our planet face high levels of violence and persecution. Especially in the Larger World, including Asia and the Pacific, the growing rhetoric that human rights activism is ‘anti-national’ and even criminal (in some Asian contexts) undermines their efforts and puts their lives at risk.

The Urgent Action Funds were built for this moment. We, at UAF A&P, have been acutely aware of our genesis from civil and political rights and feminist movements. Since our birth in 2018, we have expanded our understanding of who is a human rights defender and pushed ourselves to become more intersectional, building bridges with social justice movements across 51 countries in Asia and Pacific.

In the last two years alone, our overall support to Environmental and Climate Justice Defenders expanded significantly. In 2023, we offered 66 grants worth $330k (marking a 150% year on year increase) to ECJ Defenders in 18 countries. 25% of these grantees were also LBTQ+ activists.

The surge in the need for rapid response grants is not surprising, and at best, shows us the state of the world. As we continue to learn about the diverse social movements pushing for a (feminist) regeneration of our planet and its people, five critical learnings emerge:

1. Environment and Climate Justice Defenders are at the heart of all repercussions of closing civic spaces.

Across Asian countries, political transitions and shrinking civic spaces are forcing civil society organizations, including environment and climate justice groups, to self-regulate, scale-down operations, and restrict their activities and mobility. Policies and laws are being utilized to curb dissent and crackdown on human rights defenders and activists i.e., red-tagging, passage of anti-terrorism laws, security laws, among other policies. Non-state actors (that is, private corporations) are exerting influence and intimidation on defenders opposing their extractive methods (through campaigns against sand mining, oceanic degradation, deforestation, illegal trafficking of wildlife, sea-reclamation projects favoring private companies, to name a few). Despite high levels of risk, defenders continue to shape-shift, remain agile in their tactics, and embrace the reality of arrest, detention, profiling, and slandering.

“It is not possible to have zero risk or little risk because when we expose ourselves to the regime, and surely the retaliation will come, it’s just a matter of time. (We) don’t want to work ineffectively, we want to be effective. We want to continue working. The risk is still there, and all of us can be jailed anytime. So, the ability to stand against the regime until now… It has been 10 years… The ability to stand strong, the ability to expand ourselves to have more members, as you may have noticed, we have generations of members and so the ability to recruit new activists is very important for us.”

2. The Pacific Islands face an existential crisis.

Yet, they are not accorded the prominence they deserve in the global climate change discourse. The Pacific is feeling the impact of the climate crisis, faster and more drastically than others, with communities and villages evacuating from coastlines as water levels rise. Pacific defenders remind the world, time and again, that their contribution to emissions and environmental harm are the least in the world but they bear severe repercussions of the climate crisis. Despite this alarming existential crisis, the discourse related to Pacific Islands’ crises remains absent from headlines. Consequently, the critical work of Pacific feminists at the frontlines of the crisis is never mentioned, and an opportunity to learn from them on how to respond to the climate crisis is lost.

3. There is an urgent call to action for feminist funds to build bridges with Environmental and Climate Justice movements in all their diversity.

The Urgent Action Funds have historically supported and been in solidarity with indigenous women, trans, and non-binary movements as they fight for our land, rivers, forests, and oceans. We also recognise that many of these groups did not, until recently, identify as climate-change activists. The world of climate action, which is steeped in jargon and full of technocrats, often treats indigenous activism and wisdom as primitive and unsuitable for the hyper-extractive capitalist reality of our times. It is, therefore, our duty to advocate on behalf of indigenous movements and honor their lifetime-worth of activism for the protection of the natural world that not only holds our collective future but also their past. At the same time, we recognise that, as a feminist fund, it is our call to action to reach out to and build bridges with our feminist allies within mainstream climate change movements. Together, we can lift the existing limitations to climate funding, and unlock coherent, localised, and flexible resources to reach the most affected communities and regions.

4. Those working at the intersections of Environment and Climate Justice have a lot to learn from Feminist Crisis Response.

As the messiness of patriarchy, capitalism, and authoritarianism intersect to put defenders’ security and well-being at risk, it is time for ECJ defenders and activists to learn from feminist ways of working. Our rapid response grantmaking model and approach to crisis and care, in particular, are relevant to the threats ECJ activists face today. Critical learnings from feminist crisis response will help ECJ activists and organizations better prepare and nurture resilience.

5. Care is the greatest currency!

The Urgent Action Sister Funds’ approach to collective care is especially relevant in this context. As articulated in the Sister Funds’ Crisis and Care Strategic Framework, we lift up collective care as healing for our communities and the planet as we work for regeneration. The feminist regeneration we seek can take many forms: it is defined by communities and movements themselves. It can mean food sovereignty and agro-ecology projects that not only regenerate a territory but also a community, as people reconnect to ancestral knowledge and to one another. It can mean women, trans, and non-binary activists have the space and support to take care of themselves and their communities and imagine new ways of being. It can mean land rematriation and rewilding. Or it could mean community organizing that reignites hope, imagination, and power to build new futures.

The lessons shared by Environmental and Climate Justice Defenders in Asia and the Pacific are the kind of currents that we, as feminist and climate funders, must pay close attention to. Together, we must identify different currents and determine the best way to navigate them safely –towards a world where structures and systems are predicated on the interdependence of human beings, ecosystems, and nature, and rooted in an equitable sharing of power and resources for all. The women, trans, and non-binary defenders we work with validate this vision when they speak of the power of their collaborations and of the value that comes with conscious efforts to strengthen movements by developing a collective strategy. They speak of the vital importance of solidarity as a tool that contributes to individual and collective security, and of rewriting the narratives of risk that accompany activism — of acting with, and being met by, audacious care.

Written by Vinita Sahasranaman, Co-lead, Urgent Action Fund, Asia and Pacific.



Urgent Action Fund, Asia & Pacific

We support and accompany women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders and activists taking bold risks in Asia and the Pacific.