The first 50 years: From resistance to transformation. How we make change.
Part 2: How we make change
The second in a two-part series marking Friends of the Earth International’s first 50 years in 2021.
In Part 1 we looked at key moments in Friends of the Earth International’s history and at how our understanding of our mission has become firmly rooted in environmental justice and the need for system change.
Here in Part 2 we reflect on how Friends of the Earth International brings about change – our lobbying work, mobilisation, alliance-building, education and political formation. We ask how our relationship with other environmental, social and grassroots organisations has changed over the years. And we look forward, asking what part Friends of the Earth International has to play in these extraordinarily challenging times.
To address these questions, in 2021 the present and former chairs of Friends of the Earth International (Ricardo Navarro, Meena Rahman, Nnimmo Bassey, Jagoda Munic, Karin Nansen and Hemantha Withanage) and a founding member of the network (Edwin Matthews) talked with Amelia Collins from the international secretariat and José Elosegui from Real World Radio. The session was recorded as a podcast by Real World Radio, and this is an edited transcript of the conversation. For details on the participants, scroll to the end.
Edwin: In the history of Friends of the Earth International I think what we have is also the history of the environmental movement across the world. It began with issues that today seem to us to be less important – and that’s because what has happened to the planet over the last 50 years has become existentially threatening. The whole of our planet, and the whole of life on the planet, and the whole of human civilisation are threatened. And what the history of Friends of the Earth International has demonstrated is that it’s an organisation that allows for independent reflection, independent views, but is dedicated to an overall objective – which is to be effective in preserving the Earth and its life.
Over the years Friends of the Earth International has evolved [as it has moved] from one issue to another as the issues arise. Of course today we are facing issues which we should have been facing up to 50 years ago, or a hundred years ago, but which it has taken humanity a long time to understand and react to.
So what we have in Friends of the Earth International is a protean organisation that can respond to challenges in the real world that are always changing; an organisation that is not devoted to one solution but to every solution. And that is enabled by admitting and honouring the views – the grassroots views – of many different people.
“Friends of the Earth International is a protean organisation that can respond to challenges in the real world that are always changing.”
If we are ever successful in saving the planet it will be because of the people who live on the planet (and that includes everyone) – who must come together. That’s what we are trying within Friends of the Earth International. I honour your efforts, and congratulate what you have been able to do over the past 50 years. Thank you.
Ricardo: Thank you, Edwin. I think an important tactic for Friends of the Earth International has been to discuss and to let people understand that environmentalism is not only about biology. Of course we see the environment being degraded, destroyed, and there are a lot of irresponsible people around who just throw the garbage into a river and things like that; but all this destruction is the logical consequence of an economic, political and ideological system that is not right for the planet.
We have an issue like climate change, for example, that is to do with the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But that is the result of production and consumption: fossil fuels that were underground are now going into the atmosphere. That is the problem – demand in the economic system. I am happy that in Friends of the Earth we have discussed that.
Another thing is that we are a very important political force. I know a lot of people are afraid of getting into politics. But if you decide not to go into politics, that in itself is a political position. So the issue is to be on the right side of politics. Issues like the Palestinian struggle or South African apartheid – in Friends of the Earth we had a big discussion about this. A lot of people were scared of getting into the political discussion, but we had to. And I believe we have overcome that and moved forward.
“The issue is to be on the right side of politics… This is a matter of justice. We cannot be proper environmentalists if we don’t deal with issues like justice.” – Ricardo Navarro
Also there’s this understanding that environmental destruction is not only the destruction of the trees and rivers – it’s also the destruction of the people. This is a matter of justice. We cannot be proper environmentalists if we don’t deal with issues like justice.
That brings us to another issue, which is about joining forces with a lot of people who are demanding their own rights – for example, indigenous communities demanding their own rights, unions.
I think all these tactics that we have used at Friends of the Earth International are very proper and useful. They have helped us to become the movement we are now.
Meena: I think the strength of Friends of the Earth International depends on the strength of our member groups. The way we evolved the membership development process was strategic, recognising that the federation itself will not be able to take on much if the member groups were weak. I think that was a very important strategic recognition.
Second, for many of our member groups – including mine when Sahabat Alam Malaysia was going through a huge crisis, and we did not have enough funding – it was Friends of the Earth that helped us out with a little money that came from the membership support. Had it not been for that we would have died. So I am very thankful to Friends of the Earth International for ensuring that the family and members of the family continue to be resourced and supported.
And I think we must not underestimate the contribution over the years of all the chairs, the secretariat and the secretariat team. And that the regional structures are not just for structure’s sake: it is people from the member groups who are driving these structures and ensuring that member groups’ issues are resolved, and that they are resourced.
The School of Sustainability started in Latin America, has now spread to Asia, and I think also exists in Africa. This was very deliberate: to teach our young people from our organisations about the big-picture narrative – system change thinking. Many of our member groups and our staff are very good on the front lines, but often may not have that big picture, and an understanding of the drivers of the destruction. I think the School of Sustainability brings that and is a very important resource for us.
The alignment of national work with the international, the programmes, has always been difficult. A federation is not just a collective of actions at the national level. A federation is also how local actions and national actions inform the international processes, the spaces where we fight – whether in the climate fight at the UNFCCC, or in the Convention on Biodiversity or in the World Trade Organisation or the Human Rights Council. I think it is the dynamic between the international and the national that brings the synergy to the programmes, to the steering committees, who are very important and very vibrant.
“A federation is not just a collective of actions at the national level. It is also how local and national actions inform the international processes, the spaces where we fight.” – Meena Rahman
Regarding ‘mobilise, resist, transform’ – if you unpack each of these strategies, it’s a huge thing, but we managed to bring this together. When we have a big fight in the federation over issues and articulation, once we have resolved it I think it’s very easy for the rest of us to convince others outside. That’s been the richness of Friends of the Earth.
The final thing, the Shell case – a huge victory in Nigeria battling with Shell. I’m sure Nnimmo can tell us that without Friends of the Earth, it would not have been possible.
Nnimmo: Absolutely, Meena. Without collaboration between groups in the Friends of the Earth network, bringing Shell to its knees at the Hague would have remained a dream. That is the beauty of the work, the practice of the federation: having groups collaborate, physically present on site to deepen struggles through the campaigns of Friends of the Earth Netherlands and other groups like Friends of the Earth Nigeria working together to litigate and to hold the corporation accountable.
This intensification of struggle is so important. It helps us in many other areas to share knowledge, to share strategies, to find out what worked elsewhere, what didn’t work, so that we maximise the time we have and the resources we have.
One of the strategies that Friends of the Earth International uses when engaging multilateral bodies is the inside-outside strategy. You need people inside to bring intelligence, to follow the processes, to see the big picture. You need people outside to mobilise and put pressure on what is going on inside. We see this consistently done by Friends of the Earth International, whether it’s in the climate negotiations or the Convention on Biological Diversity negotiations. This is fundamental to the kind of gains that we’ve seen.
The federation has played such a key role in the development of environmentalism for justice, that we could say we present a model for other groups to learn from. It’s still a process and is sometimes difficult because we are a federation of independent groups. We need a flexible structure that is nevertheless coherent in terms of the content of what is to be done and what the struggles [are] about.
As Meena mentioned, we cannot tell this story of the federation without mentioning the regional structures. These structures stand between the international and the grassroots and the national bodies, and they help to step down and pick up signals about what needs to be done at grassroots.
And the secretariat provides the platform for cross-fertilisation of ideas, for sharing key information that comes from other structures. This has also been very useful.
Before I hand over to Jagoda let me mention two vital moments. What happened in Copenhagen – where our delegation was kept out of the hall – showed the disdain of the multilateral system for the presence of civil society, for the voices of the grassroots. But we got through the harassment, and this is commendable.
“We can’t be discouraged, we can’t be stopped from being where we ought to be and where we want to be at that time. The persistence, and continuous struggle, has helped put pressure on the system, and hopefully – hopefully – with continued persistence we will eventually bring about the transformation we are aiming for.” – Nnimmo Bassey
Finally, having a federation across the world, and the solidarity between the global North and the South, between all the continents, has been vital in building the strength and cohesion that we need, especially now we are facing such existential challenges. Coming together and staying together with all the energies from all areas and all sectors is what we need. Because we don’t fight in silos. We are fighting for ourselves, for our justice, for our rights, for our right to live in dignity, and to live with all our rights respected. The 50 years of our struggle have been 50 years well invested. And I look forward to many more years of struggle and celebration of successes.
Jagoda: Thanks Nnimmo. Just to flag some important skills that can be useful for us in the future: we learn from our conflict, we learn from our differences, and we have developed a more coherent, more strategic, more diverse – and I would say stronger – organisation. I think we can all be proud of where we are in terms of our strength at this moment in time.
The skill that we should bring in the future is to listen to each other carefully – try to understand what the other person is saying. It’s important not to have a single story. It’s important to have this diversity, and build campaigning, build tactics, choose tactics in a diverse way for our regional structures, and from grassroots to international, because the outcome will be better. It will meet the different needs. It will take into account different perspectives and different knowledge.
That learning that we have had in the process – it’s very important. It’s important that different regions and different countries are learning from each other, because there’s always something new you can learn. Respect also is important to mention. And to get out of our comfort zone.
When you look to the future, I want to see the federation even stronger, even better, learning all the time, adapting, developing new skills. We have such brilliant people in our federation that can achieve much more than we have done in the past 50 years.
When we look externally, as Edwin said, we need hope. What I hear when he says this is that you’ve invested your life into an environmental justice movement and still we haven’t reached our goals: we still see all the injustice in the world, we still see how the environment is degraded. The IPCC report last month – it’s scary. We don’t have much time. Actually, we don’t have any time to stop climate change. It’s beyond stopping already. That’s what I heard from him.
At the same time I hear our young activists getting depressed because – oh my god, this is so overwhelming, what is happening? How are we going to deal with that?
So, yes, we should bring hope to people, but we should go beyond hope. We should go back to what Edwin also said at the beginning: action. Choose strategic action. Don’t stop. I mean, it doesn’t matter if maybe it’s late, 50 years late to act on something. It’s better now than in 50 years’ time.
“Choose strategic action. Don’t stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s 50 years late to act. It’s better now than in 50 years’ time.” – Jagoda Munic
We will still have to work to make this vision happen. I think we can, and we should inspire people to share our vision. The social, environmental justice narrative is the one that is really attracting people, and that’s the right one.
I think that narrative and solutions – concrete, real solutions on the ground from the grassroots to international – can help us build our movement even stronger, and combat the power on the other side that has much more resources and money. It’s kind of David and Goliath. We are weaker in terms of power at the moment, but building that power with movements, grassroots movements, globally – sooner or later we will achieve our vision.
Karin: From what we have been sharing today I think it’s clear that our strategies and tactics are informed by collective processes, both within the federation and with our allies, locally, nationally and internationally. The tactics and strategies that we develop are nurtured by this grassroots approach, by the popular struggles in defence of territories, in defence of peoples’ rights worldwide.
We also have, as a very important strategy, the convergence of social movements. We have that internationally, for example in the climate justice movement, in the food sovereignty movement. We have it regionally, in Latin America with La Jornada Continental, where diverse movements are converging, but also the African caravan for land and seeds and water, and in the climate justice movement in Asia Pacific. This convergence for us is very important.
In order to build convergence we need to build trust among the movements. It’s not just looking out for the brand. We are quite different from other organisations in that regard – we don’t care about branding our actions, branding our struggles. But we care about the process of building trust, of building unity among the movements, of making sure that our political outcomes are deeply rooted in the struggles of the peoples worldwide.
Looking towards the future, I think we need to keep deepening our understanding of the root causes of the systemic crises. The food crisis, the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis – they are all interlinked. We need to understand the root causes in order to really confront them, in order to really bring forward the peoples’ solutions, the solutions in which we really believe, and do exist already.
And [we need to start from an] understanding that the crisis is really a consequence of a system that is based on the exploitation of peoples and nature; a system that is there to continue to accumulate profits by a very few, which means a concentration of resources and power in few hands. This is really challenging democracy. The power of corporations is really challenging and putting multilateralism at risk. It’s really putting our planet at risk, it is deepening the climate crisis and so on.
So we really need to organise – we need to do more organising at the grassroots, at the regional, international level. We need to build peoples’ power. We need to reclaim politics. We need to reclaim control over our energy system, our food system, our forests and biodiversity, our economies. We need to look for a feminist economy. We need to build a new economy based on the centrality of the sustainability of life. And that means building internationalism, building solidarity, building internationalist solidarity, which means confronting together all the systems of oppression.
“We need to build peoples’ power, reclaim politics. We need to reclaim control over our energy system, our food system, our forests and biodiversity, our economies. We need to look for a feminist economy. We need to build a new economy based on the centrality of the sustainability of life.” – Karin Nansen
We are living in a system that is turning nature into a commodity, exploiting nature and destroying nature. But also it’s destroying peoples. It’s destroying our communities, our systems of life.
That means going back and saying we the people need to get together to control our societies, to control our systems, to take the power away from the transnational corporations and reclaim that power together.
This is what we are doing currently. It sounds like it’s too big, but it’s a process in which we have engaged. We realise that we need to reclaim public policy as well as international public policy. We need to make sure that we defend multilateralism, but also change it to become a just type of multilateralism.
This is the journey we are on today: the fight against oppression, the fight against patriarchy, racism, colonialism, class exploitation. It’s a fight that keeps us united and allows us to build this internationalism in which we come all together, in which we fight together. Each fight, each struggle taking place in every part of the world is our own struggle. And that’s how we build this internationalist solidarity.
Hemantha: It’s great to hear these encouraging words from our former chairs, all of whom are still in the network.
Our mission is clear. We are still building this network with the same model: resist, mobilise, transform. Compared to 50 years ago, the issues are very new, very different, and many of our frontline communities are suffering from various environmental injustices and are facing a lot of new troubles. So we cannot do this work alone as the federation – we need to work with all the like-minded groups in the future. We are building the federation and we are expanding our membership and we are building a strong membership.
We will continue our work as a federation and we will also confront our own local governments and their development processes, their injustices, their wrong legal systems.
We are also confronting global bodies, the UNFCCC, during the biodiversity convention discussions. We are demanding a legally binding treaty on transnational corporations. Our frontline communities are fighting on the ground, so we want to become a strong supporter of all these communities.
The last part of our motto is ‘transform’. We are calling for system change because with this neoliberal capitalist model, countries – the people – are really suffering.
So I think the role of the Friends of the Earth International is to build pressure, to keep up the momentum, to bring more and more like-minded groups to continue this fight until we see a world where there’s no injustice, and where people are living in a sustainable world, living in harmony with nature.
This federation is built on different structures: we have an international secretariat based in the Netherlands; and we have these regional structures based in different regions; and we have the international programme coordinators, most of them sitting in our member groups. We want to thank all of them. There are many other structures, and the members and the member groups’ working teams and their members as well. Without this kind of diverse structure we cannot keep fighting.
I want to thank all of them for their hard work to show this as the Friends of the Earth federation, and to build this campaign to fight against all the wrong paradigms that we are facing today. We want to shift this paradigm, and without their support we can’t do this thing. Thank you very much.
“Our role is to bring more like-minded groups to continue this fight until we see a world where there’s no injustice, and where people are living in a sustainable world, living in harmony with nature.” – Hemantha Withanage
Read more: Part 1
Listen: original podcast in English
Edwin Matthews, one of the early directors of Friends of the Earth in the United States (set up in 1986-89) and instrumental in founding Les Amis de la Terre in France in 1970, Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1971, and Friends of the Earth International.
Ricardo Navarro, from Cesta/Friends of the Earth El Salvador, chair of Friends of the Earth International 1999-2004.
Meena Rahman, from Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia), chair of Friends of the Earth International 2004-08.
Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International 2008-12.
Jagoda Munic, chair of Friends of the Earth International 2012-16, and today the director of Friends of the Earth Europe.
Karin Nansen, REDES/Friends of the Earth Uruguay, chair of Friends of the Earth International I 2016-21.
Hemantha Withanage, Centre for Environmental Justice/ Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, who took on the role in July 2021.
Gender justice and dismantling patriarchy: Karin Nansen at the Friends of the Earth International biannual general meeting in Nigeria, 2018
© Amelia Collins/Friends of the Earth International