OPINION: Care about the climate crisis? Support legal empowerment

by Kaitlin Hansen | Namati
Thursday, 19 September 2019 11:14 GMT

An indigenous man sits during a protest to defend indigenous land and cultural rights that they say are threatened by the right-wing government of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, in Brasilia, Brazil, April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is essential that global action plans to tackle climate change include funding and protection for grassroots justice and land defenders

On Monday, world leaders will convene at the UN Climate Action Summit to discuss their plans for preventing 1.5 degrees of global warming by 2030 - the ‘tipping point’ precipitating extreme drought, wildfires, and floods. To avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, it is essential that these action plans include funding and protection for grassroots justice defenders.

Bringing policy to life

In the past, many of the policies aimed at protecting our lands, forests, rivers, lakes, and oceans - as well as the people who depend on them - have been well-intentioned. Crucially, however, they have been challenging to understand, difficult to use, and sometimes missed the mark entirely.

Grassroots justice defenders help communities at the frontlines of environmental crises to understand, use, and shape the law to safeguard their resources and rights.

This process, known as ‘legal empowerment’, is enabling communities from Indonesia to Brazil to protect the land and resources on which they depend, monitor industrial environmental compliance, and push for better state regulations. I​n doing so, they are disrupting some of the activities most responsible for global carbon emissions.

How grassroots justice defenders help combat climate change

Securing Communal Land Rights - Indigenous peoples and local communities are estimated to hold as much as 65% of the world’s land through customary, community-based tenure systems. However, only 10% of this land is formally recognized, putting the majority at risk of commercial exploitation. 

Formalizing communal land rights is one of the most cost-effective climate strategies available. Forests owned by indigenous and local groups, for example, have significantly lower rates of deforestation, generating billions in the form of carbon sequestration and reduced pollution. 

Grassroots justice defenders, such as those who partner with Namati, help rural communities understand, document, and claim their land rights, enabling them to refuse or negotiate terms of investment with large corporations, and hold investors accountable if those terms are violated.

Keeping Big Polluters Accountable - In many countries, there are decent environmental regulations in place, but poor enforcement. Industrial projects often violate laws with impunity, polluting water, land, and air and putting the health of the people who live and work in these areas at risk.

From the Philippines to Zimbabwe, grassroots justice defenders are working with affected communities to challenge industrial facilities’ environmental non-compliance. They are holding the government accountable for enforcing permits and regulations, and advocating for systemic improvements to policies and procedures.

Supporting Grassroots Justice Defenders

Legal empowerment is an effective process for advancing climate justice, but its champions need support.

In 2018, more than three land and environmental defenders were killed every week for trying to protect their land and environment from agribusiness and extractive industries.

Meanwhile, domestic budgets and overseas development assistance continue to overlook the critical role they play. Donor aid for the justice sector in general declined 40% over the past four years, and the funding that does exist is typically directed toward top-down measures rather than grassroots interventions. 

To protect the planet, world leaders must protect grassroots justice defenders.

The 'Justice For All' campaign has issued recommendations on how to accomplish this, including: 

1. Establish a global fundAccess to justice accounts for just 1.8% of total international aid on average, in comparison to 13% and 8% for health and education, respectively. To encourage global giving, a multilateral financing mechanism could be established, such as a global fund for legal empowerment. 

2. Mandate that companies contribute to the cost of independent legal aid for communities affected by their investments. With independent legal aid, communities can negotiate equitable terms of investment and seek enforcement when environmental law is broken. This helps ensure companies will follow responsible land and environmental practices, preventing legal and public relations issues down the road. 

3. Ensure development banks enforce their own standards. Multilateral development banks have explicit social missions to improve livelihoods. Where they finance environmentally harmful projects, they undermine their efforts and perpetuate the same issues they seek to remedy. Development banks should make their own social standards a binding commitment to communities affected by their projects.

4. Protect grassroots justice defenders from intimidation and violence. Governments must fulfill their commitment to protecting civil society and help end attacks and litigious harassment of grassroots justice defenders. Greater international consensus should be built through multilateral agreements, such as the Escazú Agreement.

Grassroots justice defenders are doing their part to save the planet. Now it’s up to world leaders to do theirs.

Kaitlin Hansen is a Global Advocacy Fellow at Namati, an international legal empowerment organization