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How can we make digital technologies work for democracy, human rights and environmental justice in our communities? What are the most urgent threats posed by digital technologies for environmental defenders and local communities, and how can those threats be mitigated? What actions must be taken by governments, technology companies, funders and civil society?

These questions formed the basis for a rich discussion during a session hosted by APC on Day 2 of the Tech for Democracy Days of Action, “Making digital tech work to democratise local communities and support environmental justice”. A key aim of the session was to identify urgent threats, challenges and emerging opportunities for digital technologies to work for local communities and environmental justice. The session also focused on recommendations to key stakeholders in the digital ecosystem, particularly governments and the private sector.

The session was framed by inputs from four speakers working across issues of digital and environmental rights and justice: Irene Poetranto, from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto; Sarbani Banerjee Belur, from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and the Asia regional coordinator for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) project "Connecting the Unconnected"; Carlos Baca, from APC member organisation Rhizomatica; and Tamara Terso, from APC member organisation Intervozes.

Poetranto discussed the Citizen Lab’s recent research and report in the 2020 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch), “On/offline: Multidimensional threats faced by environmental human rights defenders in Southeast Asia”. She described how digital attacks on environmental defenders are part of a continuum of violence that includes physical attacks and threats faced by defenders, their families and their communities. Citizen Lab interviewed environmental defenders in Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines, who described receiving threats of physical violence through email and social media, including to accounts of friends and family. Commercial spyware and surveillance tools, often developed in the global North, are routinely used around the world by state and corporate actors against environmental and human rights defenders and local communities. Irene emphasised that surveillance and attacks on environmental and human rights defenders are happening across the world – and global responses are urgently needed. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are essential to protect and defend human rights, and develop effective mechanisms for remedy. Poetranto identified the need for a global moratorium on the sale and use of commercial spyware, and the need for long-term funding strategies to support environmental defenders and their communities in responding to changing contexts and threats.

Belur reflected on the barriers to meaningful access to the internet and community networks in rural areas, and the impact of profit-motivated internet infrastructure and service provision. Community-led development and deployment of digital technologies, supporting the “unconnected” to connect themselves, is a key area of work for Belur. She described how communities have been able to develop technologies that help to preserve traditional knowledge around biodiversity and farming practices, and shared a case study that was featured in the 2020 edition of GISWatch, “From ethno-biodiversity and cultural conservation to sustainability: Case study of the Aaple Pathardi community network”.

Terso continued the discussion, reflecting on the exclusion and marginalisation of local communities in the development and deployment of digital infrastructure and services in Brazil. Large digital infrastructure projects and “5G rollout” are promoted by the Brazilian government and big corporations as being universally beneficial, when in reality they are having devastating consequences for communities and ecosystems, and widening gaps in access to information, education and public participation in decision making. These digital infrastructure megaprojects reinforce a long history of oppression and violence against Black and Indigenous communities in Brazil, and erasure of ancestral knowledge, threatening livelihoods and ecosystems. Terso shared a current project being co-implemented by Intervozes to produce a collective mapping of access, uses and conceptions of the internet and other information and communications technologies among quilombola and rural communities in the Brazilian Northeast.

For his part, Baca shared reflections from the perspective of methodological proposals to design and implement community communication projects, and the importance for local communities to have the agency and resources to make decisions about connectivity and digital technologies that are rooted in the needs and dreams of the communities. He further reflected on how our individual and collective use of technology can separate us from the reality of environmental degradation, and create barriers to effective action in defence of the land. Baca emphasised that community-led development and deployment of digital technologies are essential to support environmental and land defenders to identify and respond to threats in their territories.

Opening the discussion with all participants in the session, the speakers reflected on questions of global priorities and recommendations to different stakeholders – including governments, corporations, funders and civil society. The speakers emphasised the need for long-term funding strategies to support local communities and environmental rights defenders in their work, including support for communities to build their capacity to lead in the development and deployment of digital technologies that meet their needs. Pathways for digital safety and digital resilience must be rooted in the contexts of local communities.

Closing the discussion, participants in the session reflected on the future of connectivity, and opportunities to move beyond a “one-size-fits-all” model of digital technologies, which is often framed around motivations of profit and scale. We know that there are alternatives to mainstream models of digital connectivity, and we all have a responsibility to support local communities in the development and use of autonomous technologies that are rooted in ancestral and traditional knowledge, and the collective priorities of that community.

Image courtesy Gram Marg.