Phones for Justice

Phones for Justice: Empowering Myanmar Communities in Land Disputes

In recent years, conflicts over land rights have attracted much attention, as large-scale land deals in the Global South have become increasingly controversial. In Myanmar, land has become a valuable commodity since the Government initiated its political and economic reform process in 2011. These reforms include actively seeking major foreign investment to grow the country’s economy and reduce poverty. Research shows that one third of land concessions in emerging markets are marked by friction between local communities and companies, and if conflicts become violent, the resulting costs for communities, but also for investors, companies, and governments are significant.

It is to meet this challenge in Myanmar that Ulula, and Namati have built a mobile-based land rights platform that helps empower rural communities to claim their rights in land disputes with companies.

The project has been shortlisted for the Hague Institute’s 2015 Innovating Justice Challenge. We now need your help to advance to the next round: please follow this link and cast your vote for our project. It takes less than 30 seconds!


Land-related Conflicts: What is at Stake?

Land conflicts are on the rise globally, especially where large-scale land acquisitions lead to natural resource mismanagement and over-exploitation. These acquisitions frequently violate the human rights of the local population and become land grabs. Case studies from Liberia, Cameroon and the Mekong region, to Peru and Ghana, show that the impact of land-related conflicts is considerable, and in many cases avoidable. But how much land is actually subject to these risks?

The Rights and Resources Initiative recently released a report that quantified land tenure threats by looking at the percentage of company land concessions that overlap with indigenous claims. By analyzing public data for over 153 million hectares of concessions in 12 emerging markets, the study found that 31 per cent of all land-use concessions overlapped with community land claims. In some countries – like Peru and Cameroon – the figure is above 80 percent.
Land tenure risk poses costs to communities, investment, governments, businesses and society at large. The same study shows that conflicts linked to overlapping land claims can halt development projects, or increase operating costs by up to 30 times. In the Philippines, a land conflict linked to the Tampakan mining project – which is predicted to add 1 percent to the national GDP – puts a $5.9 billion investment at risk. In Cameroon, the study also showed that 83 per cent of timber concessions overlapped with community forests, creating a potential for lost profits in the timber sector equal to 0.4 percent of the national GDP.

For companies and investors, addressing land grievances and resolving conflict is fundamental to managing operational and financial risk. For communities, land is often the most significant asset for rural families and source of livelihood for local populations. Beyond the economic value, land is also closely linked to community identity, history and culture.

Mobile Technology to Improve Access to Land Rights in Myanmar

The need for innovative solutions that help address shortcomings of current approaches to resolving land conflicts at the community level is clear. The most pressing needs are: better tools to help companies measure and manage land grievances and perceptions, more effective non-judicial grievance mechanisms (NJGM), and support to human rights organizations that support communities’ land rights.

All three challenges can be addressed by leveraging simple mobile technology. Together with Namati, Ulula has developed Phones for Justice, a land rights engagement platform that conforms to standards set for NJGM by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and is powered by simple mobile phones. The partners are now preparing to pilot the platform as a mobile data and engagement solution to help address crucial land rights issues in Myanmar.

Land issues are a major source of contention and injustice in Myanmar, where 70 per cent of the population works or lives off the land. Throughout the decades of dictatorship, land dispossession and land grabbing was commonplace. Today, the government is discussing a new Land Law, but those that seek restitution fear that the new policy will create legal disputes, dispossess women, and leave thousands of farmers with insecure rights. In the meantime, land allocated to large-scale agriculture concessions and extractive industries increased by 170 per cent between 2010 and 2013.

By leveraging the emerging mobile industry in Myanmar, Ulula and Namati’s mobile phone project would be one of the very first attempts to use ICT for engagement and social justice.

Traditional ad-hoc consultations, such as focus group discussions or surveys reach only select social groups and risk reinforcing existing power structures or missing the voices of hidden peoples. Phones for Justice is different and leverages the landscape of mobile technology in Myanmar to offer a more inclusive and scalable NJGM.

The mobile-based NJGM consists of two parts: an SMS and voice-based system that connects communities with Namati’s paralegal network and a centralized information management process to manage grievances and measure trends over time. Namati will engage with companies on grievances and document cases for judicial proceedings as necessary. The information management system allows for data analysis and management of feedback.

The project follows suggestions of the UN Guidance Note for Land and Conflict, and provides detailed and publicly available data in order to reduce land conflicts. Once publicly available, data collected through the mobile platform can be combined with spatial data and empower local government officials to better enforce land rules and legislation in an environment where governance is weak. For example, the NJGM can ensure early and inclusive implementation of Free Prior and Informed Consent principles.

We now need your help to gather votes. Please consider following this link to vote for the project before September 17, 2015. 30 seconds is all it takes to make a difference!

Linda Pappagallo is a monitoring and evaluation specialist at ULULA. Caitlin Pierce is Namati’s program officer in Myanmar.

September 9, 2015 | Linda Pappagallo and Caitlin Pierce