How to link grass-roots communities with international legal allies

A community land protection meeting being led by Namati's partner, CTV, in Inhambane province, Mozambique. Photo by: Namati

The rising global appetite for natural resources has made community land protection one of the most urgent challenges of our time. Across the globe there are millions of people whose lands and environment are being harmed by escalating resource exploitation.

Consider the villagers of Koh Kong province, Cambodia, where thousands of people have been — and continue to be — forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for huge plantations. The Cambodian government illegally leased the villagers’ farmlands and ordered their crops and homes to be demolished. The villagers have protested, sent formal complaints, and attempted to negotiate with the company and government officials, to no avail.

Across the world, communities are being displaced and denied access to their land and natural resources on an industrial scale. Global investment in natural resource exploitation is having profound effects on who can use land and resources — creating opportunity for some, but having devastating impacts on many.

At the same time, the courageous community organizers and national advocates who work to challenge irresponsible resource developments must overcome huge gaps in power and information between themselves and the proponents of developments.

But injustice need not be inevitable.

In the case of Koh Kong, two local nongovernmental organizations contacted the volunteer lawyers at the International Senior Lawyers Project, who helped formulate a legal strategy to move the villagers’ case beyond the jurisdiction of Cambodia’s judicial system. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to negotiate, the villagers decided to sue two U.K.-based sugar companies in the English High Court of Justice, where their case is ongoing.

A new collaboration between Namati, International Senior Lawyers Project and Avaaz called Lawyers for Resource Justice helps connect grass-roots communities to powerful legal assistance. The initiative sees volunteer international lawyers provide customized legal support to empower vulnerable communities to use the law to protect their rights and amplify their voice internationally.

We believe that communities and national advocates, not external experts, are the leading agents of social change. At the same time, these local champions can often benefit significantly from the support of international lawyers who can help hold international investors to account in their home jurisdictions.

Collaborations between local advocates, community organizers, and highly skilled experts can effectively support communities to protect their rights, lands and environment. Cases from Cambodia, Liberia and Kenya demonstrate how communities and grass-roots advocates can leverage international legal support to hold governments and investors accountable if they fail to protect and respect human rights.

We believe that collaboration between international and local experts can build vital support for communities attempting to prevent and remedy damage from resource development in their homelands.

Together, grass-roots power and international allies can ensure that natural resource development truly respects the rights of local communities and the environment.

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About the author

  • Marena Brinkhurst

    Marena Brinkhurst is program associate in Namati’s community land protection program. She is a planner, natural resource manager and researcher with experience working with indigenous communities on land and resource tenure systems and rural community development. Her interest in community land rights began while studying biofuel development in India in 2008 and indigenous land rights struggles internationally.