Science for social justice: a researcher’s endeavour to protect the rights of environmental defenders

Dr Peter Bille Larsen in his office at the University of Geneva
Written by
Cristina Agrigoroae
Published on
March 7, 2024

Interview with Dr Peter Bille Larsen, researcher at the University of Geneva, diving into the science-policy dynamics of his work on conservation and social justice issues at both local and global levels. 

In a world grappling with environmental challenges, researchers not only play a critical role in understanding the natural phenomenons at play, but also in shedding light on the complex social interactions between humans and nature. Among them is Peter Larsen, a passionate researcher who has made it his work's mission to bridge social justice and sustainability politics, namely in the protection of environmental defenders such as indigenous people who have been repressed in the context of protecting their land. According to Global Witness, in 2022 only, 177 people were murdered for taking a stand to defend their rights, their land, and our environment. With a foot in the field, Dr Larsen’s work transcends the realms of academia, delving into the very heart of environmental governance and social justice. 

A compelling illustration of his endeavour is the Geneva Roadmap 40/11 initiative, a coordinated effort to implement the landmark Human Rights Council resolution 40/11, which recognises the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection and sustainable development. Launched in February 2020 with initial support from the Geneva Science-Policy Interface (GSPI), the Roadmap aims to mobilise the international community from both the human rights and the conservation fields to strengthen the effective implementation of the right to act for the protection of the environment. In this interview, Dr Larsen gives insights from his work at the science-policy interface to bring the Roadmap on the global agenda. 

  1. What were the motivations and factors that led to the creation of the Roadmap and who are its main stakeholders? 

The Geneva Roadmap 40/11 emerged due to the increasing recognition of violence against environmental defenders. Building on a meeting co-organized by the Environmental Governance and Territorial Development Hub/Institute (GEDT), University of Geneva, the GSPI, civil society organisations (CSOs) and UN partners, we sought to bring together academics and those actively working to support international efforts to better protect environmental human rights defenders. 

The primary stakeholders of the Roadmap are the environmental defenders themselves, as they face the most direct risks. Governments, in turn, play a significant role in adopting protective measures, which can be challenging due to political factors. Civil society actors, international NGOs, and humanitarian organisations also contribute to this complex landscape. And most recently, researchers such as myself have played an additional role as neutral parties seeking to develop an understanding of the issues at stake. 

In the past 20 years we've seen the human rights community being on a steep learning curve to recognize that environmental issues and environmental rights are at the heart of their mandate. This initiative was also part of a wider movement of the environment and human rights communities coming closer.

The Geneva Roadmap aims to bring everyone around the table by facilitating information sharing and collaborations, including global events, online training programs, and side events at the Human Rights Council. While lacking a formal structure, which makes coordination challenging, it has already contributed to policy discussions, influenced resolutions, and spurred ongoing conversations in various forums. 

  1. How can researchers like yourself and scientific institutions more broadly help inform policymaking in the protection of environmental defenders? What are the challenges that they can face? 

Besides research and teaching at the intersection between social equity and environmental sustainability, I have worked as a consultant, an expert and an advisor, constantly finding myself in field situations where understanding the issues really mattered on the ground.

As a science advisor and Commission member, I have worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its network for a couple of decades. There, I have been exposed to and contributed to the process of adopting international Resolutions, where I learned that policy engagement is very much about connections and timing. One of the Resolutions that the Geneva Roadmap group helped formulate has urged IUCN’s member states to adopt and uphold laws aimed at the protection of defenders and whistleblowers, and seek to ensure accountability and prosecution for threats and attacks against them.

A major challenge we often face as scientists is that we have a lot to say about the world, but we often say it too late, or we don't get in conversations with those directly dealing with the issue. We need more support to engage in UN processes or with NGOs. To be present, the second major constraint is funding. Global policy discussions often happen in diplomatic conferences all around the world and engaging in them requires a significant budget and investment of time. 

But the opportunities to engage are big and we should know that they exist. A lot of policy language waters down the conversation. If we’re talking about the sustainability challenges that we face today, we urgently need critical thinking that challenges the status quo, whether we engage from a corporate, a public or a grassroots perspective.

I believe that research institutions can promote scientific uptake in policymaking by supporting and funding research and evidence that is relevant to policymakers. While there’s interest in hearing the scientific voice, achieving meaningful impact takes time and persistence. Being present at international arenas, contributing to stakeholder dialogues and partnering with NGOs and networks are effective ways to bridge the gap between science and policy. 

  1. What has been the Roadmap’s impact to date?

We’ve sought to bridge the human rights and environmental community, and in that sense, it’s been quite successful. And once we started having that conversation, we were able to find like-minded people that were also interested in pushing that agenda. The GSPI was helpful to get foundational elements and conversations going, which later became part of a collective effort. 

While it’s difficult to estimate its impact, I would say that in terms of policy, having put forward the Roadmap, which also complements our academic analysis, has been critical in advancing the agenda of addressing environmental issues from a human rights perspective. For example, in a report we published in 2020, we proposed policy recommendations at a critical moment, when the new global plan for biodiversity was being negotiated. The new biodiversity framework was adopted in December 2022, including a target on the protection of environmental human rights defenders (p. 13). 

Another impact area is in training efforts for conservation actors, that allowed us to raise the issues in several global events and build awareness. Having global networks like the IUCN take up the topic and develop a resolution on it has been an important milestone, although it is too soon to estimate the impact on the ground.

There have been continuous dialogues and many of our members are part of conversations in different areas, both in UN mechanisms but also in regional approaches. For example, at the time of the Roadmap’s first consultation, we had defenders speak to UN Special Rapporteurs that were part of the group. One of them, Michel Forst, has now become the first rapporteur on environmental defenders in Europe and Central Asia in the context of the Aarhus Convention regional mechanism.

We are witnessing a growing effort and our intention is to support new initiatives and engage in relevant conversations to keep the issue of environmental defenders high on the international political agenda. 

  1. What are the lessons learned from launching the Roadmap and what are the potential pathways that it can take looking ahead? 

Some of the main lessons include the importance of securing long-term resources, especially human resources, and recognising that policy change takes time. We’ve witnessed “fire-fighting” approaches, where stakeholders tend to respond to singular situations such as an attack on an environmental defender, rather than adopting systematic problem-solving strategies addressing the systemic conditions that have allowed and led to such actions in the first place.

We’ve also witnessed the importance of collective ownership. Nowadays, the academic modus operandi tends to be individualised, based on individual performance and peer-reviewed journals. We need a change in academia where researchers are supported and encouraged to work across disciplines and with external partners. 

In the short term, Roadmap coalition members aim to continue facilitating regular dialogues and discussions at key events. In the long term, it could expand into initiatives that involve knowledge production, action research, and training programs, focusing on creating safer spaces for environmental activists. 

  1. What is the added value and what are the risks for a scientist pursuing advocacy work?

As researchers, we have a real contribution to make to understand the root causes, the diversity of issues, and to shed light on what's not being talked about. I’m convinced that engagement approaches are at the heart of working on these topics.

The scientific understanding may not necessarily coincide with public narratives. For example, there is this tendency in public discourse to create heroes and focus on the individual, where in fact, communities, organisations and networks are in play. We need to challenge our understanding of the issues and the way we see them.

When I started working on social justice and environmental issues, I was looking a lot at the impact of conservation initiatives and displacement of communities. And a lot of my work has involved making conservation initiatives more socially inclusive through policy language, helping organisations to do more inclusive planning and adopt rights-based approaches.

By engaging with relevant organisations, we understand more than we would have when standing from the outside. I think there's room for science in policy, and they are not necessarily in opposition, but rather can offer complementary spaces.

The Geneva Roadmap is organising an upcoming event on the sidelines of the 55th Human Rights Council on 11 March 2024 in Geneva. Take part in-person or remotely: Protecting Environmental Defenders: Updates and Challenges


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