Grassroots Legal Empowerment Strategies for Protecting Rights to Land, Natural Resources, and Environment

This paper was prepared for the 3rd UNITAR-Yale Conference on Environmental Governance and Democracy, 5-7 September 2014, in New Haven, USA. Abstract: Around the world, communities face increasing threats to their lands and ecosystems from large-scale land acquisitions and expropriation for industrial agriculture, mining, deforestation and infrastructure investments. Many of these activities dispossess communities from their lands and lead to environmental degradation, human rights violations, loss of livelihoods, and inequity. While action is needed at national and international levels, local communities and civil society need more immediate and practical tools to protect their lands, natural resources, and ecosystems. Namati is an international organization dedicated to strengthening people’s capacity to exercise and defend their rights in practical ways. Namati specializes in developing innovative ways to empower and mobilize civil society organizations, communities, and vulnerable groups to protect their rights to land, natural resources and a healthy environment. In this paper, we provide an overview of Namati’s approaches, tools, and research findings. We focus on Namati’s Community Land Protection Program, which since 2009 has supported over 80 communities in Liberia, Uganda, and Mozambique to document, protect, and manage community lands and natural resources. This work has generated unparalleled comparative and cross-national data on the effectiveness of legal empowerment strategies for protecting land and resource rights. We also draw examples from Namati’s work on land rights and environmental justice in Sierra Leone, Myanmar, and India. We offer specific and practical recommendations for policy and practice, focusing on strategies for effective use of paralegals and legal aid to strengthen, defend, and enforce land and environmental rights.