Mitigating risks in fieldwork

Investigating illegal logging carries with it significant risks, especially during fieldwork. In many countries, those investigating this subject have been arbitrarily detained, seriously injured or even killed, and anyone planning such work must take the risks seriously and take appropriate steps to assess and mitigate them.

The nature and degree of risk in undertaking fieldwork will vary significantly between countries and within them. In all cases, where the objective is to document illegal activities, it is wise to assume some level of risk. Field investigators may be subject to threats from loggers, company security or arrest by police, whether warranted or not. Travelling into remote forest areas, with limited or no communication with the outside world, they may suffer an accidental injury, or a vehicle breakdown that leaves them stranded.

In any of these scenarios, the risk mitigation strategy centres around a careful assessment of possible risks, and the development of contingency plans including an established system of communication with someone not directly involved in the fieldwork. The following steps provide some guidance and should be adapted according to local circumstances. Ultimately, if the risk is too great then the only suitable mitigation may be not to undertake fieldwork at all.

  • Prior to every investigation, a written assessment of the possible risks should be prepared.
  • Where a field investigation is expected to include areas outside of mobile/cellular telephone coverage, a satellite phone should be taken as an emergency backup; these can usually be rented for a reasonable cost.
  • Field investigators should develop a clear plan and itinerary, determining the days on which they expect to be in certain locations. They should seek to determine if and when they will definitely be out of contact by phone or other means.
  • The plan should be shared with a trusted contact, ideally a member of the team, who will not be involved in the fieldwork, and who agrees to ensure they are contactable by mobile phone 24 hours a day during the period of the fieldwork
  • The field team must establish a communication plan for checking in with the nominated contact, making note of limitations to phone access. The plan should determine what action will be taken in the event that contact is not made within a pre-determined margin of the specified time. This may include reaching out to other contacts known within the given area, or notifying officials where safe and appropriate. The plan should include contact details of relevant individuals to be contacted in different emergency circumstances, including mobile phone numbers.
  • In some regions, it may be appropriate for field investigators to identify a lawyer who can be contacted in the event they are arrested or detained. Ideally the lawyer should be contacted prior to the fieldwork.
  • Field investigators should use tried and trusted drivers where possible and ensure they are aware of the sensitive nature of the task; they should also carry out basic checks of vehicles (such as checking the spare tyre) before setting off.
  • Field investigators should have some form of cover story that justifies their presence in a particular area. This should not be elaborate, and should be as simple as possible. An example might be carrying out research on behalf of a university, or tourism.
  • Field investigators should ensure that they bring attention to themselves (such as by pointing a camera out of a car window) only to the minimum extent necessary to obtain key evidence; lower priority tasks (such as capturing video and photos to help ‘illustrate’ a report) should only be carried out after priority tasks have been completed.
  • Investigators should determine how they will communicate with local communities, and the extent to which their full purpose that should be shared. It is important to be honest whenever possible.
  • Investigators should ensure that where communities share information, they have agreed to the terms in which that information can be used. This is particularly important where the information is directly attributable to them. This agreement should be clear, unambiguous and respected.

Investigators should ensure that data is managed in such a way that any sensitive information does not fall into the wrong hands, in the event they are arrested or detained by company staff. At a minimum, phones, laptops and other hardware should be password protected. Hardware should be kept ‘clean’ of any incriminating or sensitive data, which can be stored on an external hard drive. Ideally, data should be encrypted and hidden from obvious access. Encryption software is easy to use and free to download.