Climate campaigning with Johnny Chatterton: “When small fish turn the tables”

Campaigning expert Johnny Chatterton and John Smith Fellows give key insights on how to hold the powerful to account with limited resources

From social justice to climate change and other issues impacting the wellbeing of communities – what do you do when you want to right a wrong but you’re facing a powerful adversary? On 20 October, our Fellows met with experienced global campaigner Johnny Chatterton, to discuss just that and exchange strategies for empowering local campaigners.

Johnny is co-founder of Attainable, an organisation offering funding and additional resources to support high-potential activists in running campaigns for a variety of causes.

During the workshop we also heard from two John Smith Fellows, Mkhitar Avetisyan and Olya Melen-Zabramna, who presented their own campaign success stories from Armenia and Ukraine.

Campaigning is like a wave

Johnny says: “For Attainable, successful campaigning is about supporting people power and capitalising on what knowledge and resources local campaigners may possess, I see it as small fish turning the tables and holding the powerful to account.”

During the workshop Fellows learnt about the life cycle of a campaign, which Johnny describes as a wave with four key moments, which are common across all campaigns and countries around the world.

“Critical to running a successful campaign and ensuring and defending a victory is learning how to build and use momentum and pressure to your advantage,” says Johnny. “Campaigners have to maintain faith and ensure there are people with time and energy to push the campaign forward and ramp up the pressure when needed.”

Three key insights for successful campaigns

Recently, Attainable published a report which investigated how non-profit climate campaigners utilised the concept of net zero to support their campaign strategies. The report was based on interviews with dozens of campaigners from India, Africa and Latin America who’ve been supported by Attainable. The report found that the three following factors were critical to successful campaigns:

  • empowering local campaigners to use their voice
  • breaking the issue down and making it relatable to everyday life
  • creativity and exchanging innovative and inspiring ideas with other campaigners from all corners of the globe.

Johnny said: “We found that un-focused awareness-building campaigns without small, clear goals resonate less with people and are less successful in achieving their goals. Campaigners must keep issues simple and easy to understand, demonstrating how they affect everyday lives to grow a supporter-base and build initial momentum.”

Local campaigners know best how to effect change in their own communities and capitalising on this knowledge is central to a victory. Empowering people to use their voice is what builds the power of campaigns and inspires people to take action. As Johnny said: “People react best to people.”

Maintaining links and solidarity between campaigners is also important to help manage feelings of isolation that are common to those spearheading campaigns. These insights from Johnny were also reflected in the campaign experiences presented by our Fellows from Armenia and Ukraine.

Campaigning insights from Armenia

Mkhitar Avetisyan, a recycling pioneer in Armenia and co-founder and president of Innovative Solutions for Sustainable Development of Communities (ISSD), has run successful and innovative campaigns to raise awareness of and promote a circular economy and sustainable waste management in Armenia.

Armenia is the sixth highest waste-producing state in the world per capita. Mkhitar said: “In Armenia people didn’t believe that it is possible to create value from the waste and this was a stumbling block to change.” But Mkhitar persevered with encouraging organisations to allow ISSD to install waste sorting units.

One of the biggest challenges in his campaigning was convincing the National Assembly of Armenia to install these bins. The first time they rejected the proposal, but Mkhitar was undeterred, he talked with them for four months before eventually convincing them to lead the way as the elected representative body of Armenia and install 20 waste sorting bins. Currently, ISSD supports over 2,500 waste sorting bins across the country and Mkhitar hopes to increase that number exponentially. He said: “We started from zero and now we have more than 600 organisations joined on to our recycling project.”

Waste as a resource

For Mkhitar, education and training are essential for the success of a campaign. ISSD carried out many training sessions in organisations and schools, to teach individuals about the importance of a circular economy and a clean environment. To raise awareness among Armenian youth, Mkhitar, in collaboration with the UK embassy in Yerevan, facilitated From Waste to Art workshops, with children participating from over 20 schools. By creating collages and souvenirs from waste, displaying these in an exhibition and later selling these as products, youth in Armenia were able to understand that waste can be a resource. Mkhitar has also created an innovative Treasure Hunt for children up to 10 years old, who must answer environmental-based questions in order to find a treasure.

Mkhitar said: “The key obstacle in campaigning is not raising awareness but rather equipping people with a sense of agency and urgency to act. We need to breathe fresh air, we need to drink fresh and clean water and we have to live in a clean environment. Everyone agrees on this, but what is essential to making change happen, is empowering people to feel like they can make a difference.”

Campaigning insights from Ukraine

In Ukraine, Olya Melen-Zabramna, lawyer and head of the legal department at public-interest group Environment-People-Law, shared a powerful video from a local campaign against a pig farm in the village Bilyky. The farm was causing pollution and damaging both the environment and affecting the respiratory health of the residents. Before Olya got involved as a legal advisor, locals had already begun their campaign, putting pressure on the local municipality, writing letters of complaint and talking with various regional institutions. However, they quickly found that writing letters was not enough to raise momentum and put adequate pressure on local authorities as the Russian investor behind the pig farm was powerful.

The key turning point was empowering the local campaigners with knowledge and legal resources to turn the tables and hold the powerful stakeholders to account. The locals realised that to campaign successfully and exercise their rights they had to seek legal expertise, be aware of the rights they possessed and the impacts of pollution on the local environment.

Olya said: “The more they were equipped, the more it was difficult to talk with them and to persuade them to stop with their campaign.” Equipped with legal and environmental knowledge, the residents took the pig farm to court, while they also physically blocked the territory of the farm and preventing delivery of the pig food.

Resistance in the face of violence

Despite violence from police officers who were deployed to remove them from the premises, the local campaigners were passionate, committed and able to maintain momentum. They persisted for eight months, taking shifts night and day to make sure the territory around the pig farm was always blocked. They also organised press conferences with journalists to make sure outside pressure on the municipality and the Russian company was maintained. For such actions, ten key activists were taken to court by owners of the pig farm, asking the court to compensate pig farm owners for material damages. But this incident of preventing the activists from their active role in the campaign had the opposite effect. Finally, the court closed this case.

In April 2017, the investor finally closed the pig farm and the residents of Bilyky were able to breathe well again. With Olya’s legal advice, they also pushed the local municipality to sue the pig farm in court to dissolve the land lease agreement and won this legal battle too.

The campaign against the pig farm highlights what Attainable found in its own report: empowering the local community to use their own voice and maintaining momentum throughout the campaign are essential for successful campaigning strategies.

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Photo credit: Marcelo Perez del Carpio / Climate Visuals Countdown