November 4, 2013 – Areng Valley (Koh Kong). A monk during a tree-blessing ceremony in a forest nearby Pra Lay Village. Monks tie orange sashes around trees to raise awareness of the environmental destruction the construction will cause to the Areng Valley. © Thomas Cristofoletti / Ruom.
By Heather Eisenlord, ISLP
Rising global demand for natural resources has made the protection of community lands an urgent priority. As we celebrate our shared planet this Earth Day, we think of the millions who live in countries with limited or no legal defenses to stop their lands and environment from being threatened or damaged by resource exploitation—and consider how lawyers are uniquely positioned to help.
Around the world, communities are being displaced and denied access to their lands and natural resources on an industrial scale. 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 large-scale industrial sugar plantations. Villagers protested, sent formal complaints, and attempted to negotiate with company and government officials, all without success. Two local NGOs contacted the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), whose volunteer lawyers helped them formulate a transnational legal strategy to move their case beyond the jurisdiction of Cambodia’s corrupt and ineffective judicial system.
But these types of injustices are not inevitable. In Kenya’s Kerio Valley, ISLP has assembled a team of legal experts to help residents achieve positive impacts and benefits from anticipated oil exploration and development on their lands. The team is working closely with local advocates and community representatives to inform them of their rights, gauge expectations, impart valuable negotiation skills, and formulate strategies for continuing engagement with the oil company. These and similar efforts demonstrate that communities, with the right legal support, can make their voices heard.
There are thousands of communities around the world who could benefit from expert legal support to alleviate the very significant disparities of power that often accompany resource exploitation. With this support, they can also gain timely access to information about development projects that have real and sometimes devastating impacts on their lands and livelihoods. A new initiative, launching today, can help.
Lawyers for Resource Justice (LRJ), a new collaboration between Namati, Avaaz, and ISLP, connects grassroots organizations with volunteer international lawyers to deliver high-level legal support directly to affected communities. LRJ will help communities prevent or remedy damage from large-scale resource development projects by empowering vulnerable communities to use the law to protect their interests and to amplify their voices internationally.
Every LRJ project comes from and fully involves local partners, including local lawyers, who provide critical guidance on domestic legal issues. We bolster this expertise with foreign and international lawyers from a range of legal fields who can bring creative solutions and lend cross-jurisdictional legal firepower to efforts to protect community rights, lands, and the environment. Through this approach, we intend to highlight the economic and social value generated when communities gain a seat at the table with governments and corporate interests. Cases like the ones described on our website demonstrate how LRJ can provide communities and local advocates with the legal tools they need to effectively participate in decisions that impact local development and to hold governments and investors accountable if they fail to protect and respect human rights.
LRJ is now accepting requests for legal assistance at resourcejustice.org. There is no application deadline, but we cannot guarantee support to all applicants. We encourage applications from groups working preventatively on proposed or anticipated resource developments because this allows for a wider range of possible strategies.
Lawyers for Resource Justice believes that collaboration between transnational and local experts can yield vital supports for communities to prevent or remedy damages from natural resource projects and foster a true rights-based approach to development. Please support us by sharing this initiative widely.
Heather Eisenlord is Director of ISLP’s Human Rights Program.