Why be concerned about personal safety?
Being an earth defender is neither easy nor safe work. On many occasions, earth defenders are criminalized, threatened, imprisoned, and attacked by actors whose interests conflict with theirs. Hundreds of defenders are murdered every year worldwide, and in some regions, the attacks are increasing at an alarming rate. The aggressors range from small illegal resource extractors to big corporations, private security firms, and even government agents.
Due to these concerns, security considerations - ranging from digital security to personal safety - are a key aspect for most environmental and human rights-based projects. This work usually involves collecting sensitive data and often takes place in areas of conflict over land or resources. As such, both the collected data and the teams involved face threats from anyone aiming to jeopardize the work or gain access to the data or knowledge.
Due to the range and diversity of project contexts, we cannot provide a blueprint plan for how to protect your team, and recommend you carry out an in-depth risk analysis of your project and data collection to understand where possible dangers to your team members lie and to develop appropriate contingency measures. This guide aims to support you through this process. There is a section including a list of suggested measures to minimize, counter and respond to risks which you can use as a point of departure and adapt, if appropriate, for your particular context. There are also links to other resources and organizations that have done in-depth work on this issue which can support your process of risk analysis and the creation of security plans.
We also encourage you to read our guide on digital security, which explores potential threats to the project data and suggests measures to increase the digital security of your project. These two guides are complementary and are meant to be used together.
What threats, dangers, and risks might affect you?
The safety issues that your team faces might depend on many factors, such as the degree to which the project is opposing the interests of other actors, the power/resources these actors have, the relationship you and the other actors have with the government, the restrictions or strength of legislative powers, the legal systems and treaties in place, the visibility of your project, the location of your project, and many others. They are also likely to change over time!
Listed below are some of the common risks and threats that might be helpful to keep in mind when carrying out a risk analysis with your team.
Earth defenders are often the target of groups with conflicting interests, meaning that the physical and psychological integrity of your team might be compromised at different moments of a project and in different ways. For example:
These situations might take place when earth defenders are collecting data in areas of conflict, but also in their offices, on the streets, or in their own homes, and their families and friends might also be involved and threatened. There are cases in which offices and private homes have been raided or burned down to get access to data and to spy, intimidate or harm earth defenders. We have also been told that on some occasions aggressors have set up traps within territories where conflicts are centered, aiming to physically harm earth defenders.
In addition to these dangers, the incorporation of digital tools in earth defenders’ projects, whilst providing benefits for data collection, can also increase the ease with which governments, companies, and others track, follow, and collect information about earth defenders without their knowledge. This can expose earth defenders to new kinds of harassment. Conversations and protocols around digital security are therefore very relevant in these projects, and we strongly encourage you to read the guide on digital security.
Earth defenders face risks even when they are not specifically targeted by those with opposing interests. These risks may be related to carrying out fieldwork or gathering data in rural areas far from their communities, urban centers and other services. There might be the risk of getting lost; losing GPS or phone signal; running out of food, water or battery; getting ill or having accidents far from medical care. Equipment could also get damaged due to the environmental and weather conditions, or get lost or damaged due to fieldwork activities leading to potential data loss issues.
Other risks, not necessarily related to fieldwork include devices being stolen randomly, or data being lost through viruses. See the guide on digital security for other examples of incidental dangers and some suggested measures to minimize them.
Structural and environmental threats
It is also critical to understand threats arising from the local, regional or national contexts – those enforced by society, governments, or companies, and possibly based on racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression.
An example would be when a community is not included in decision-making around extractive industries despite the rights of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or if state departments turn a blind eye to companies using obsolete or polluting operational standards. Other risks might arise from environmental hazards and socio-economic dangers affecting earth defenders’ communities. For example, only having access to polluted water, not having access to health services, or lacking hunting resources because of outsiders’ overhunting.
All these factors impact the personal safety of earth defenders and should be considered when carrying out a risk assessment.
Guiding questions and exercises on safety considerations
This section proposes a selection of the exercises listed in the Holistic Security platform, a comprehensive and holistic manual to help human rights defenders maintain their well-being in action, the Protection International guide for human rights defenders Taking Care of Us, and the Workbook on Security from Frontline Defenders. We encourage you to visit their sites to access a more detailed and broader variety of exercises and resources.
We recommend carrying out these exercises with your team in order to ensure that the risk assessment includes all threats and dangers they perceive. Knowing how the team feels about things, and what measures they are already taking is crucial to designing appropriate safety protocols and rethinking aspects of the project as needed.
Past and current risks, dangers, and threats
Note: also consider threats that arise from gender- or race-based violence, from the political, social, environmental, and economic contexts, as not all threats are coming from groups whose interests are at odds with the work of earth defenders.
Evaluating risks, dangers, and threats
Suggested exercises: Discuss with your team what they understand safety and security to be, and what they need to feel safe (which resources, activities, and help from people). Talk about which practices they already do to protect themselves on a regular basis and those that they have or would use in a dangerous situation. For more details, check this exercise by Holistic Security.
You can also carry out a SWOT analysis of your current security situation, covering the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Check these exercises on Threat Brainstorm, Threat Perception, and Threat Inventory.
Mapping your information
Suggested exercise: Think about all the information that you and your team are collecting and producing – that means not only the products of your work (e.g. databases, reports, images, etc.), but also text messages, communications, and other office information. Where do you host the different information? With whom do you share it? Who can access it? Which software do you use for data storage, management, and sharing? How sensitive is it? For more details, check out the Information Ecosystem exercise by Holistic Security.
Mapping aggressors and allies
Suggested exercise: Brainstorm with your team about all the actors with whom you have (or might have) any relationship, and classify those based on their proximity (e.g. direct, indirect, potential). Then, identify which of them are allies, opponents, and neutral parties. You can use colored stickers to have a visual map of the actors at the end. After that, you can analyze the different actors: their motivations, interests, resources, and their position within the socio-political context, and how they could compromise or help improve your personal safety.
Example of a table for aggressor’s analysis:
Measures to minimize, counter and respond to risks
Depending on the context of your project, it might be appropriate to put measures in place to minimize, counter and respond to personal and physical safety issues. See below for a list of suggested measures that you can use to pick from, and adapt those which might be useful to your project. Drawing up appropriate security measures for a project requires a deep understanding of the threats, dangers, and risks and the power and resources behind them, as well as a clear and holistic view of the big picture. Consult the Further resources section for a broader collection of exercises and digital security tips and suggestions.
Keep in mind that threats, dangers, and risks evolve and change over time, so it is a good practice to go over the previous questions and review your security guidelines on a regular basis and update what is needed.
Finally, it is wise to carry out these exercises as a team. This way you will get a better sense of the security issues your project and peers are facing and the best ways to prevent or respond to them, considering your team’s concerns, experiences and preferences.
Get informed and prepared in advance
Minimize risks to earth defenders
Improving your digital security
Strengthening digital security is fundamental and is deeply interlinked with the personal safety of earth defenders. In the guide on digital security, we have compiled a variety of potential measures to limit access to your devices and data, prevent and identify remote and physical intrusions to your device, track data edits, prioritize safe apps and networks, and have protocols around data backup, sharing and syncing.
Other personal and physical safety guides
The exercises listed in this guide have been inspired by some of the exercises featured in:
We encourage you to visit their sites in order to access more detailed and a broader variety of proposed exercises and workshops.
Take a look at this compilation of support contacts and resources by Holistic Security, featuring existing Emergency Grants, Fellowships, Scholarships, Rest and Respite, and Awards for Human Rights Defenders.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders also has prepared a list of organizations and resources to support defenders in different ways, from security and legal support to relocation and emergency protection.
Frontline Defenders also created a compilation of organizations providing support to defenders.
The Access Now Digital Security Helpline, with a 24/7 multilingual service
The Feminist Helplines provides support to women and LGTBQIA+ people facing digital gender-based violence.