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6 Lessons Learned Fighting Oppressive Regimes While Trying to Protect People and Planet

Insights + Opinion

The U.S. is bracing for President-elect Donald Trump. All initial indications are that the U.S. is in for a dramatic change of leadership, more like some of the authoritarian regimes we are used to reading about in other parts of the world. Over the last decade, I have worked as an environmental and human-rights philanthropist trying to protect people and the planet, some of that inside oppressive and authoritarian regimes.

Here's six lessons I've learned:

1. Small is better. Smaller organizations are more nimble, move more swiftly to take action, and are often more aggressive in their work and tactics. Authoritarian regimes often move swiftly and with little public process, and so the reaction from environmental and humanitarian groups needs to be similar.

2. Grassroots and local groups can be more effective. When environmental harm happens, it almost always happens on a local scale—an oil spill, a dam proposal, a timber sale, a power-plant polluter, etc. Local people are harmed, and so local groups are often the best and most effective voice that need to be supported to combat that harm.

3. Women, indigenous people, and people of color are excellent activists and spokespersons. Authoritarian oppression knows no boundaries, but it often undermines already oppressed people the worst. People who have been systemically oppressed are often grating to speak out, are excellent spokespersons, and have the most to fight for because they're poised to lose even more.

4. Structural change is needed, not just a win in the next election. Authoritarian regimes often get swept in under the guise of working-class nationalism, but when in power the same regimes often collude with multinational corporate capitalism to further undermine human and environmental rights. The fight is a battle against the regime of the day, and a war against multinational corporate capitalism over the long term.

5. Resource rights protectors need protection. Authoritarians often speak out against groups and individual people, take away groups' money, put people in jail, threaten their lives or worse. The activists and ordinary people who are defending the environment and human rights also need to be protected.

6. It's a marathon, not a sprint. The forces that sweep authoritarian regimes into power have been working to do so for decades or longer, and so the forces that fight against that power need to be funded and prepared for a protracted response.

The U.S. may now find itself in a similar position as countries like the China, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Philippines, Russia, Venezuela and many others where authoritarians have been swept into power over the last decade. As a public citizen who wants to take action, should you join a national environmental organization or should you join a local group fighting a dam or fracking? As a donor, should you give to a big environmental group lobbying in DC or to a local minority-action group trying to force their city council to clean up their drinking water? We will definitely need mass national mobilizations and we'll also need numerous local actions.

Environmental and human-rights activists and donors in the U.S. need to brace themselves, learn from other countries and dig in.

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