Human rights and environmental defenders are risking their lives and being criminalized for standing up, being heard, modeling leadership, and contributing to movements. Skylight and our SolidariLabs networks have been watching with alarm at the growing number of threats to human rights and environmental advocates, particularly in Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico, for years.
One proven way to protect defenders in the field has been through personal physical accompaniment. Accompaniment can provide increased international visibility and raises the political cost of harming defenders; it expands awareness of defenders’ environmental, political and human rights struggles through diplomatic, government and media channels; it creates ties of moral support and solidarity.
It was at our first SolidariLabs gathering in Colombia in October, 2016 – well before the Covid-19 pandemic – that the idea of a virtual network of volunteers for defenders was born. The pandemic has been used by governments to further isolate defenders and will likely continue to be. The idea of a virtual network to support human rights advocates has only become more urgent.
To address this need, Skylight and the SolidariLabs networks created the Virtual International Volunteers Xchange, VIVX*, a virtual accompaniment volunteers network to add a layer of protection to human rights and environmental defenders in the field who are under grave threat. We started collaborating with defenders, civil society partners and former volunteer accompaniers to develop a mobile app that facilitates trusted networks of virtual accompaniment that defenders can build which we are calling “Trust Teams.” VIVX will also connect defenders with each other for mutual support, to share experiences and strategies for resistance.
*In Spanish: Voluntarios Internacionales Virtuales X. The “x” in Spanish is to make the word viva or vivo, meaning “alive,” gender neutral.
VIVX is designed to be a mutual support network to promote the social protection of defenders and activist filmmakers through their stories, which will be told in film profiles created in collaboration between them, sharing their struggles and the reasons they risk their lives to protect their communities and their lands. In public campaigns that will be launched by the VIVX network, these narratives will challenge the “official story” that seeks to stigmatize and criminalize human rights and environmental defenders as terrorists or enemies of economic development. Instead, the campaigns will uphold the positive concept that defenders are seeding the future by protecting the earth for all of us, as the first line of defense.
The VIVX network has as its connective tissue a mobile application developed collaboratively with defenders based on their own suggestions, expressed needs, preferences, and resources that they have requested. Defenders in the VIVX network are accompanied by an interdisciplinary cohort of volunteers drawn from the ranks of human rights practitioners around the world, including pro-bono lawyers, self-care specialists, and digital security experts.
We have developed the VIVX app in versions for iPhone and Android phones and established security protocols in collaborative workshops with filmmakers, defenders and volunteer accompaniers. For security reasons, it is an invitation-only network, with new members vetted and approved by consensus in the network. The application has been developed by a Latin American team and we are in the beta stage testing and evolving it to ensure that all security protocols in place are effective.
The initial focus is on Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico where we have held SolidariLabs and built a transnational network that is the core membership of VIVX. But we see VIVX as a replicable model that we would like to expand throughout Latin America as a new tool for promotion of civic engagement and social protection of environmental and human rights defenders. Through skilled filmic storytelling that strengthens the network and counters the toxic narratives, threats and attacks targeting defenders, VIVX will grow as members of the network invite other defenders and activist artists to join and amplify their impact.
Once launched, we will publicize through press and social media channels that there is an international cohort of defenders, filmmakers/artists and virtual accompaniers joined in a mutual support network. We will use communication strategies based on ”culture hacking” methods to raise the visibility of the VIVX network and flip the toxic narratives that target defenders so that their societies see them as a positive force for change and protection of our planet.