(Global Voices) Earth Defenders Toolkit launched to help communities navigate digital tools for defending environmental rights

Reposted from Global Voices.

On July 14, American nonprofit Digital Democracy launched the Earth Defenders Toolkit to equip grassroots environmental protection communities with resources and training materials. The toolkit is designed to provide an ecosystem for these earth defenders to connect and share their experiences and useful resources. It is currently available in four languages — English, French, Portuguese and Spanish — and is open for translation into other languages.

The toolkit has a growing collection of apps, resources and blogs for indigenous peoples, helping them to connect with each other and with their supporters, as well as mobilize different campaigns and projects. The communities can maintain ownership of data, and need less outside support. For example, the toolkit boasts an interactive tool finder, which helps users find out what is available and parse it for what might be more aligned to their goals.

Global Voices interviewed Rudo Kemper, geographer and a program manager at Digital Democracy, via email, who explained different aspects of the toolkit.

Rising Voices (RV): What are the issues/gaps the Earth Defenders Toolkit is trying to address?

Rudo Kemper (RK): At Digital Democracy, our mission is to work in solidarity with marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights. Our recent focus has been building tools like Mapeo that respond to the needs of partners facing urgent threats of environmental and political abuses. However, through our close work and accompaniment with communities in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia over the past decade, we have learned that taking action consists of much more than technology alone. Tools and technology can play an important role in a community’s struggle to defend its rights, but their application is the most effective when they accompany or build upon a foundation of already existing successful practices.

With Earth Defenders Toolkit (EDT), we are creating a collaborative space for earth-defender communities and their allies to learn about, share, and discuss approaches to using technology only as a tool in the broader process. Using technology to support local autonomy and ownership over data still remains one of our core values. This would in turn help avoid dependencies on outside support. EDT is our attempt to compile resources and guides about using tools directly for the benefit of frontline communities.

RV: What is included in the EDT?

RK: In this first version 1.0 of the Earth Defenders Toolkit, we are providing a host of resources including a community forum and galleryillustrated case studies, an interactive tool finder and featured tools. Each component is tailored for the usage by earth-defender communities, and [is] highly guided by research conducted with our community partners based on the concrete needs and frequent pain points encountered during an action. For instance, the Toolfinder can guide through a series of prompts and help identify the specific tools that might work for a frontline community based on desired outcomes, access to equipment, and unique needs (e.g. translatability, ability to work remotely or offline). Tools are broken down to the respective pros and cons as well.

The illustrated case studies break down how a community managed to succeed in taking an action in a step-by-step manner. Similarly, the featured tools highlight how they work and their value specifically for earth-defender communities. EDT also features several hands-on guides for getting started by figuring out initial starting points, and for starting a mapping project. The practical exercises and modules provided can be used during a workshop. All of the content is formatted to be printed, and can easily be translated to any language through a dedicated platform.

[Video: An overview of Earth Defenders Toolkit including partner stories]

RV: What are your hopes and what is your vision for the Earth Defenders Toolkit?

RK: Our sincere hope [is] for the Earth Defenders Toolkit to become this space to be directly and frequently used by frontlines communities across the globe. The current resources are prepared in close collaboration with our partners, but we consider the Toolkit to be a living and open project where the community of users can contribute to and determine its future direction as much as possible. We also hope to add more resources in the future. For this first launch, we focused on geo-mapping and monitoring tools and approaches in particular. However, in our research interviews with partners, we continually hear about other needs including bespoke tools to support secure communications, social networks, language revitalization and activism, offline networking, media distribution and advocacy. As we grow EDT’s resource scope, we aim to learn about community needs to grow task-oriented materials that serve their needs without seeding a relationship of dependency on outside support.

RV: Are there other toolkits/resource directories that also focus on citizen-led efforts in geo-mapping?

RK: We researched many existing toolkits and resource directories while setting out to create EDT. We were inspired by the vision, design, and thoughtfulness of many existing resources such as Beautiful Trouble’s Toolbox and the All Eyes on the Amazon learning platform among others. One particular platform that focused on citizen-led and participatory mapping caught our attention — Training Kit for Participatory Spatial Information Management and Communication which was [put] together by the EU-ACP Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Published in 2010 after years of extensive research on best practices, lessons learned, and case studies on participatory community mapping worldwide, the project presents a formidable archive of resources on the subject.

That said, it includes a curriculum and numerous training modules for different target groups such as technology intermediaries who work with communities instead of communities themselves. To add to that gap, the platform was not frequently updated after publication to accommodate the evolving needs on the frontlines and the availability of new tools and approaches. It might have even lost a part of its ability to be easily applied [on] the ground today even though much of the knowledge behind it continues to be valuable.

Rudo also emphasized how the Earth Defenders Toolkit was a learning exercise from the detailed work from CTA and IFAD to take things a step forward by producing resources directly for communities. By including new tools and technologies that have been co-created with communities, and by structuring itself as an open and evolving space that can continue to be updated long into the future, the toolkit aims to address the issues that grassroots earth-defender communities face on the ground.

Rudo quotes Pooven Moodley, the Executive Director of Natural Justice and a board member of Digital Democracy at the Africa Forum for Earth Defenders: “The use of digital technology that is accessible to communities directly is what is going to make a difference, not the technology that is sitting in the hands of experts or only a few people.”