Part 1: How did we get here?

As Friends of the Earth International turned 50 in 2021 we took a moment to reflect on our journey to date and the federation’s role as humanity faces its greatest challenges. 

The outline of the story is clear. Friends of the Earth International was founded in 1971 by four groups – from France, Sweden, England and the USA. Ten years later a small international secretariat was set up, initially staffed by volunteers, which rotated from country to country. By 1983 we had grown to 25 members and an executive committee was elected to oversee the federation. It was in 1986 that the annual general meeting was hosted for the first time by an organisation from the global south, Sahabat Alam Malaysia/Friends of the Earth Malaysia. Now present in 73 countries, we are the world’s largest grassroots environmental organisation.

But how did this remarkable evolution happen? And how are we placed to meet the challenges ahead? 

To answer 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 one 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.

Part 1

Friends of the Earth International group photo from the early 1970s
Friends of the Earth International group photo from the early 1970s.
© Friends of the Earth International

Edwin: We all have ideas from time to time, some good and some bad. I had a very good idea, which was to take Friends of the Earth, which had been founded in the United States by David Brower, and make it global – to transpose the idea and the name to every country. Because obviously our environmental challenges were not limited by national boundaries. 

With that, I proceeded to start Friends of the Earth in France, with many others; and then Friends of the Earth in the UK with many others, and Friends of the Earth in Sweden with others. 

Each one of these beginnings is a whole conversation in itself. But in 1971 I began to think about how we could knit all of these independent groups together. They all had the same name, which was conceived of by David Brower’s wife, Anne Brower. But how do they relate to each other? And how can we coordinate? 

At the time I was a lawyer in Paris. I felt strongly that it was important that the independence and diversity of the various national groups be maintained, and that the energy of grassroots organisation and activism be kept. I wasn’t interested in an overall governing body, but rather a sort of partnership. I looked for precedents, and the closest I found was the Red Cross. 

I proceeded to draft the first bye-laws of Friends of the Earth International as an association or a partnership of independent organisations, each speaking its own language, each translating the environmental movement and our concerns into terms that resonated with their own culture. 

I felt strongly that it was not up to the United States to tell everybody how to do it or to tell everybody what environmentalism meant in other countries. It’s up to each one of us with our own culture, our own biases, our own dreams and hopes to translate what being careful with the Earth means. 

“It’s up to each one of us with our own culture, our own biases, our own dreams and hopes to translate what being careful with the Earth means.” – Edwin Matthews

And actually that has developed beautifully within Friends of the Earth International, because each group sees the environmental challenges in a different way, and the diversity is quite exciting. 

To begin with it included France, the UK, Sweden and the United States. I think we had our first meeting in Paris in 1971. We met for several days and ended up on a long walk in the forest of Rambouillet with – of course – a French lunch in an auberge in the forest. It was a great moment. We proceeded to have other meetings in Sweden and London and elsewhere. That’s basically how it began. 

The important thing, I think, is that the independence of the groups, and the sense that they’re all cooperating towards a common end, has been maintained. And I’m happy about that. 

I would urge you all, and everyone on this planet – all of us have ideas – to take your idea and do something with it. That, if anything, has been what Friends of the Earth has been about. It’s not just about talking, it’s about doing.

“Take your idea and do something with it. That is what Friends of the Earth has been about. It’s not just about talking, it’s about doing.” – Edwin Matthews

Ricardo at Climate COP Poznan December 2008
Ricardo Navarro (third from left) at the 2008 UNFCCC COP in Poznan, Poland.
© Friends of the Earth International 

Ricardo: It’s really amazing. Now we are about 2.5 million people in different countries. One of the wonderful aspects [of our federation] is that we keep the diversity – that is extremely important. Of course, we all work towards a sustainable world, environmentally, socially, politically. But we are diverse, and that is very important because it is not an idea developed in one country. We have to thank you, Edwin, for all the effort. It’s incredible that you started that 50 years ago. 

Edwin: But it’s also not very long, because the world is moving faster and faster, and not in all good ways at all. But Friends of the Earth is a hopeful avenue that I think has great promise for the future. 

I’m deeply disturbed about what’s happening to our civilization and to life on the planet. And I think over the last 50 years we have developed some very serious problems that threaten our very existence, and if we don’t attack those together – each country in its own way – there is no hope. In a sense Friends of the Earth provides hope, and we need that now more than ever. 

José: Thank you Edwin. Now Meena, I would like to ask how you see environmentalism has changed over the years and how has Friends of the Earth developed? 

Meena Rahman speaking to delegates at the 2008 Biannual General meeting in Honduras
Meena Rahman speaking to delegates at the 2008 Biannual General meeting in Honduras.
© Friends of the Earth International

Meena: Thank you to Edwin and also Ricardo for capturing a bit of that history, the evolution and the importance of Friends of the Earth International, and the diversity and the connection with the grassroots. 

I represent Friends of the Earth Malaysia. Sahabat Alam Malaysia is a literal translation of Friends of the Earth International from English to Malay. We were the first to host the Friends of the Earth International meeting in the developing world and to show this is an organisation that’s connected with grassroots communities. 

At that time many of us were involved in the forest struggles, in the rainforest movement and so on, and fighting for Indigenous People’s rights; but the connection to Friends of the Earth International was a very important watershed for us – it actually helped our local struggles. I think that’s the beauty of this organisation, this federation, the connection from the grassroots. It’s not about typical conservation groups, but much much more about really supporting the frontline struggles of local communities, Indigenous Peoples, farmers and fisherfolk and so on. This is still going on, and it’s very vibrant.

“That’s the beauty of this organisation, this federation, the connection from the grassroots. It’s not about typical conservation groups, but much much more about really supporting the frontline struggles of local communities, Indigenous Peoples, farmers and fisherfolk and so on.” – Meena Rahman

I would like to reflect on the fact that we assume that creating and agreeing our vision and mission was easy for this federation. It was not easy at all. So that’s the next part of the story I’d like to share. 

Friends of the Earth International group photo in front of  the business ‘fat cat’ that was used to highlight the failures of the Davos World Economic Forum, at the biannual general meeting, Switzerland, 2002
Friends of the Earth International group photo in front of the business ‘fat cat’ that was used to highlight the
failures of the Davos World Economic Forum, at the biannual general meeting, Switzerland, 2002.
© Martin Galea De Giovanni/Friends of the Earth Malta

I became active in Friends of the Earth at the Beatenberg meeting [BGM, hosted by Pro Natura/Friends of the Earth Switzerland in 2002]. For those of us who have taken part in Friends of the Earth annual general meetings (then) or the biennial general meetings (now), it’s quite amazing: you have flags and countries and the people sitting around the table, with rules and procedures. It was really like a mini United Nations. It was quite overwhelming for a very new person. 

But it was around that time that we found we did not have a clear vision, we did not have a clear mission. We each saw things from our own context and our own circumstances. 

The vision and mission of Friends of the Earth International which is there now was born out of a huge process. It’s something we cannot take for granted, because at the time that I was getting involved in the federation it was quite clear that there was a paradigm fight in terms of a North-South clash. I recall our brothers and sisters from the Latin American region (ATALC), particularly, challenging the federation about the paradigm, the ideology, the context of our fights, and challenging capitalism and neoliberalism. 

Now, we could either have broken apart into smithereens or regrouped, and I think we managed a huge process from that big clash, and that was a very important lesson. From clashes come an evolution of changes.

I had the honour and pleasure of steering the federation during that time when I was involved in the network process to solve the problem. We were on an island off Colombia where there was this big fight among a few of you. It was all men – there were no women, and that was the other criticism that we had. Karin was there but at that time there were very few women there. It was very difficult because of course we all are very passionate people. 

But the network process led to a consultation with member groups, bottom up, so every word that you see in the vision and the mission was fought over. From every region it was a participatory process, it was a struggle, and we never took any word for granted. It was an amazing journey. We brought the federation together in a very clear vision and mission, and with a strategic plan which continues to guide the federation today. 

“Every word that you see in the vision and the mission was fought over. From every region it was a participatory process, and we never took any word for granted.” – Meena Rahma

Those conflicts have, in a way, gone, and we are evolving – we have evolved – into a much better federation. 

That was the 2004-08 term. I was very much part of that process of ensuring that the federation became much stronger. And I’m happy to have handed over to the next chairs to steer the federation through what it is now. 

Press interviewing Nnimmo Bassey during an action to support African nations at the 2009 UNFCCC COP in Copehnagen
Press interviewing Nnimmo Bassey during an action to support African nations at the 2009 UNFCCC COP in Copenhagen.
© Friends of the Earth International

Nnimmo: Thank you so much, Meena. You did a great job, and we were lucky to have had you here at the federation at that time. It was indeed a very difficult process. Sometimes you would have a headache just sitting down to debate over what was eventually accepted as the vision and mission of the federation. But that was fantastic. 

Today when I look back, especially at the three key words that capture all that we do mobilise, resist, transform I just can’t imagine how much trouble it was to arrive at that. A lot of collaboration, a lot of difficulties. 

Because all of this had been so clearly set out, when I was chair it was more or less easy to see how this was to be implemented. It still was not very smooth because there were pockets of – I wouldn’t like to say resistance but a lot of clarifications still had to be made and some people did not quite fully understand what the impact of the vision and mission would be. 

I know that it was also beautiful – it really showed that the bottom-up approach to building a vision and mission, and organising underscore the fact that we are a grassroots federation. The grassroots nature thrives in diversity. Without a healthy soil, you can’t have healthy biodiversity, and so the grassroots and the base, the base of the federation was – is – vital. 

I believe this is what is keeping the vitality of the federation, the diversity and the differences, and the commonalities. These are the things that have helped the federation remain strong, remain inclusive, and to be the federation that every group would like to be a part of. Unfortunately – or fortunately – we don’t have multiple groups within nations, but we still have the big network of groups within nations that we collaborate with. 

“The diversity and the differences, and the commonalities – these are the things that have helped the federation remain strong, remain inclusive, and to be the federation that every group would like to be a part of.” – Nnimmo Bassey

And so, over the years, this vision and mission have powered the network. 

What really struck me was the clear moves that the federation made at key moments, especially through global activities like at the COP[15] in Copenhagen. The People’s Summit in Cochabamba in 2010 was another vital moment where we saw the key role that Friends of the Earth International played in the movement that eventually came up with the draft Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, and [related] principles that we could use even now to fight for climate justice and to protect Mother Earth. 

And so today when I look at the group, the programmes of the federation, and how they are growing all I can say is more energy to the activists, more energy to people, and more strength to our peoples. We’re working knowing that at the end we’re going to achieve a clear picture and vision that we have as the federation. 

These strong guideposts over the years have been very helpful in aligning us on the right path given the existential struggles we are confronted with right now – whether it be climate change, economic injustices, neo-colonialism, and all the attacks on human rights defenders, and the gender disparities. Fighting all this has been possible because we have a clear path. I want to thank all those who laid the plans for this to happen. Thanks to Edwin, to Ricardo, to Meena, and those who have carried on the job: Jagoda, Karin, and now Hemantha. I send you strength as you step into the battlefield, so to speak. 

“Whether it be climate change, economic injustices, neo-colonialism, attacks on human rights defenders, gender disparities – fighting all this has been possible because we have a clear path.” – Nnimmo Basse

Jagoda Munic during a sit-in to protest the draft agreement at the 2015 UNFCCC COP21 in Paris.
Jagoda Munic during a sit-in to protest the draft agreement at the 2015 UNFCCC COP21 in Paris.
© Wale Obayanju ERA/Friends of the Earth Nigeria

Jagoda: Nnimmo, thank you for guiding us through that rough sea as a very good captain of the ship. These documents that we adopted – we are using them to this day, so it shows their quality and how they’re still relevant, maybe more so than ever. 

After Nnimmo it was not easy to step into my predecessors’ shoes. It came after the economic crisis in 2008, so there were people talking about the economic system, us included. 

After mission, vision, and deciding our ways of working, campaigning, we had a huge debate in 2012 about social-economic systems, and then about how we measure system change, how we can implement our vision of the world – which is completely different from what we see today: it’s based on social environmental justice, and economic justice. 

This was debated in 2012-14, and in 2014 at the BGM in Sri Lanka we adopted a system change guidance. I would say this is still valid and in use today. It’s great to see how it is integrated in our work on a national, regional and international level, but also I would like to see, maybe next year, further development of that. 

The second thing I would like to share is that we also try to have more political convergence. Diversity is very important – we have different circumstances across the globe, groups are bigger or smaller; but this political coordination is really important, that we are all contributing to the same goals. 

During my time we also improved how we work on solidarity. Discussion about how we should maybe focus on more strategic long-term solidarity support in some countries came up then. In 2016 there was the murder of Berta Cáceres so we had missions to Honduras; in 2013 we had mission to Palestine where we met also with Palestinian activists. And we discussed how we can support them better. 

So this was the basis that I see being implemented even better now, and I’m glad that all that hard work that we did in those years enabled us to survive until today, and even adjust to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic that happened under Karin Nansen’s chairpersonship. 

Environmental justice is at the core of everything we do nowadays. Karin Nansen speaking at a press conference at the UN Binding Treaty on transnational corporations and Human rights, in Geneva, October 2017
Environmental justice is at the core of everything we do nowadays. Karin Nansen speaking at a press conference
at the UN Binding Treaty on transnational corporations and Human rights, in Geneva, October 2017.
© Victor Barro/Friends of the Earth International

Karin: Thanks Jagoda and friends. It’s wonderful to be able to reflect back on how our history has evolved, and how this was a very participatory and collective process. Even though we faced many crises and challenges throughout our history, I think we grew stronger because we came together. As my friends were saying, we came together, realising the importance of unity, the importance of the collective character of our campaigning work, our programmes, our solidarity work

And I think that is why we were able to transition from this more conservationist perspective, or environmental perspective, that was more northern-oriented at the beginning of Friends of the Earth International’s history. It was still positive – I’m not criticising the origins, because the origins have to do with those who were involved and had the great idea of coming together. But then, as we got more and more member groups from the South, we developed this environmental justice dimension – the political, social and ecological dimension – of our struggle. Our justice dimension became the core of everything we do nowadays in Friends of the Earth International. 

“As we got more and more member groups from the South, we developed this environmental justice dimension – the political, social and ecological dimension – of our struggle. Our justice dimension became the core of everything we do nowadays.” – Karin Nansen

We realised, for example, the need to recognise the historical ecological debt the North owes to the South, and this is key in the climate debate. We also realised the need to abandon or confront neoliberalism if we wanted to address the environmental crisis. And this is evident today in the context of the pandemic – how neoliberalism threatens our lives and our rights. 

We fought against the privatisation of water, for example. We also fought against the imposition of market logic in environmental policy. We fought against the power of transnational corporations. We decided that such transnational corporations were a key actor, and we needed to confront their power – not just specific projects led by transnational corporations which were very detrimental. We continued to campaign against specific projects, but we also got more to the core of how that power is expressed, and how that power is stopping any progress in terms of climate policy, in terms of biodiversity policies, in terms of food policies, etcetera. 

So after all these crises we saw more clearly the systemic character of the crises, of the social environmental crisis or social ecological crisis. It’s a systemic crisis, and thus it demands a system change agenda. 

The relationship with the grassroots, as it was referred to, was very important to inform the change and the strengthening of our politics and coming together. Also relationships with other social movements internationally – when we started to get together, for example, with Via Campesina in the late-nineties and with The World March of Women in the early 2000s – becoming strategic allies with these movements has been key for our development of our ideas, positions, narratives, but also for our own practices. This stronger justice perspective, I think, is very much informed by these alliances with other social movements, with the workers and labour movement. 

The same goes for the principles that we have developed: the principles of people’s sovereignty, including food sovereignty, the principles of climate justice, the need to dismantle patriarchy, the need to dismantle the sexual division of labour, was very much informed by these alliances. And importantly they need to dismantle all the systems of oppression. We cannot lead our environmental struggle, we cannot change the system, we cannot change the world if we don’t fight against racism, if we don’t fight against patriarchy, class oppression, if we don’t fight against heteronormativity but also colonialism and capitalism as well. 

So this is how our history has developed – in coming together, having many discussions and realising the systemic character of the crisis, and our responsibility as a grassroots-based organisation to really tackle the environmental crisis from a social perspective, from a feminist perspective, from a class perspective. This was something that came up strongly in our 2018 BGM in Nigeria – the need to better understand the class issues that permeate all the environmental struggles we are leading. 

“This is how our history has developed – having many discussions and realising the systemic character of the crisis, and our responsibility as a grassroots-based organisation to tackle the environmental crisis from a social perspective, from a feminist perspective, from a class perspective.” – Karin Nansen

So I think now the realisation that we also need to organise more, to build peoples’ power, is part of this journey that we have made together and how we have been able to build this solidarity internationally

Hemantha Withanage marching for climate justice at the UNFCCC COP23 in Bonn, Germany, 2017
Hemantha Withanage marching for climate justice at the UNFCCC COP23 in Bonn, Germany, 2017.
© Amelia Collins/Friends of the Earth International

Hemantha: Thank you, Karin. 

I think we have already crossed the planetary limits and the destruction of biodiversity is already happening; climate change has already become a serious catastrophe, and there are many climate refugees emerging in various places. We see that environmental justice is in danger, there are many people below the poverty line, especially in developing countries. 

This pandemic has already brought so many different crises to the surface again. The federation is a sort of environmental justice movement, and a process where all the actors come from different countries, develop collective identities, and are capable of jointly defining justice. Mobilising across borders is a very important process even today. 

Friends of the Earth International has this federal structure that is very distinct from many other conservation organisations. I think that is one of the reasons we were able to bring different small and big groups from different countries. Among the 73 countries, for example, countries like Germany, UK and US, the Netherlands have very big environmental justice groups joining this network. From Asia you can see Friends of the Earth Indonesia / WALHI which is very big – it’s a coalition of more than 400 organisations. The Korea Federation of Environmental Movement (KFEM), which is Friends of the Earth Korea, is a huge group. 

At the same time there are smaller groups also fighting on the same front together because of this structure we have built over the years. Wherever it’s possible to mobilise the groups – that’s our battleground. 

“Wherever it’s possible to mobilise the groups – that’s our battleground.” – Hemantha Withanage

We have used these kinds of moments in Johannesburg in 2002 during the World Summit on Sustainable Development where some of us joined this huge rally, walking almost nine hours, starting from a small community. That is where some of the differences also arise between the northern groups and the southern groups. In 2012 we joined the movements in Brazil, to rally against the UN bodies and how they are using that space for corporate capture, and the big, rich countries dominating decisions without giving enough space to smaller countries. 

I remember Copenhagen in 2015, when the Friends of the Earth youth group dropped a small banner and we all were banned – so all 90 people from the Friends of the Earth group were sitting and demonstrating: that’s the sort of battle we have done. In 2019 we joined the climate campaign in Madrid. There are many other occasions when we come together with like-minded groups and local communities, indigenous communities, and all sorts of all men’s and women’s groups to fight against these injustices and fight for justice. 

I think Friends of the Earth International is a very important forum into which we can bring various big groups. During last year’s biennial general meeting we were even able to bring a huge group from India to join Friends of the Earth International. We are still looking for other countries in Central Asia and the Mekong countries, and other African and Latin American countries to bring more and more member groups to join the federation. 

The battle we started – you started – 50 years ago, we are continuing. We are building this federation, bringing in more and more like-minded groups.

Read more: continue to part 2
Listen: original podcast in English 

Friends of the Earth International AGM in USA, 2002
Friends of the Earth International AGM in USA, 2002.

Participants

  • 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.

Main image:
Participants in the radio show celebrating Friends of the Earth International’s 50th anniversary
© Nicolas Medina/Real World Radio