Citizen power: Sustaining paralegal programmes to put knowledge back into communities' hands

Paralegal schemes build citizen power by helping communities develop the knowledge and capacity they need to speak up for themselves. A recent International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) webinar explored how such schemes can best be supported to make a long-term difference.

Emily Polack's picture
Insight by 
Emily Polack
14 October 2014
A Subanen harvest dance during a colourful street dancing competition of Kinabayo Festival. Community action by the Subanen tribe in Midsalip prevents mining companies from encroaching their land (Photo: Mark Navales/Google Licence)

A Subanen harvest dance during a colourful street dancing competition of Kinabayo Festival. Community action by the Subanen tribe in Midsalip prevents mining companies from encroaching their land (Photo: Mark Navales, CC BY 2.0)

Growing interest by investors and governments in acquiring farmland and other natural resources is increasing pressures on land for millions of rural citizens, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Yet rural communities equipped with legal knowledge and skills can challenge land acquisitions and hold on to the land they may have farmed for generations. 

Such legal empowerment aims to help people use the law, expand legal interpretations, or change the law to redress unbalanced powers. It needs resources, time, capacity and people's own 'agency' to claim and defend their rights, especially when defending land rights. 

Making land rights education accessible, participatory and culturally-appropriate ways takes time and considerable technical expertise. Taking legal experts 'to the field' can be very effective at sparking debate, raising awareness, clarifying rights or documenting violations, but high costs mean local-level trainings are often only run once or twice.

Community paralegals – people who know the law, but who are not qualified lawyers – are an increasingly popular way to build communities' understanding of land rights and their capacity to monitor local natural resource investments. 

But even paralegal programmes struggle to keep going financially and to scale up to help other communities. So our webinar, run by our legal tools for citizen empowerment programme, discussed what works best. 

Success stories 

Speakers included Carl Cesar "Cocoi" Rebuta, a consultant of the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC) in the Philippines, and Alda Salomão, from Centro Terra Viva (CTV) in Mozambique. Their presentations can be viewed on IIED's YouTube site and below.

Cocoi explained how LRC built community paralegal teams that successfully challenged concessions granted to a mining company. Similarly, in Mozambique, local paralegals supported by CTV tackled a natural gas project that was failing to comply with licencing procedures. The project's licensing process was delayed until the proper procedure was followed. CTV is now building a far-reaching paralegal programme to strengthen local capacities and reach communities in investment hotspots across Mozambique. 

Paralegals play many roles

Cocoi advised that paralegals shouldn't just play an advisory, a referral or a representative role, but should also mobilise community action. His example was how paralegal teams, supported by LRC, filed a legal case on behalf of their community but also mobilised the local community to write thousands of letters rejecting the mining project, including many from children. Soon after this petition action, the mining company pulled out.
Webinar participants agreed that a flexible, but also a carefully tailored approach, is important. Paralegals can be trained in wide-ranging skills, including communication, mobilising community action and documenting evidence. 

Paralegals' mandates can also vary widely. For example, in the Philippines they cannot conduct Public Interest Litigation but they can use the 'citizen arrest' process. In Mozambique, paralegals are trained to submit petitions to the attorney general or Parliament a simpler process than court proceedings. In both contexts, paralegals work closely with lawyers. 

Strategies for sustainability

Local and national struggles over agricultural investments or mining projects can take years, even decades. So how can funding for paralegals be sustained? How can junior lawyers be financed to spend time in remote areas? And what ongoing support do local citizens and community based paralegal teams need so they can actually use their greater understanding of rights and the law? 

On funding, participants agreed the resources should be local where possible, to ensure paralegal work is sustained. One participant described an initiative where paralegals were provided with IT equipment, which they used to provide some additional services to the community, such as printing. The small fees charged for the services subsidised their paralegal work. 

Participants agreed that local communities themselves need to identify and select who to train as paralegals. The support and training provided needs to be flexible and tailored to ensure the participation isn't limited to literate (often younger and male) community members.

Other 'qualifications' include the candidates' abilities to mobilise community members and their legitimacy and authority within the community and externally. Participants also raised the issue of involving women and youth in paralegal initiatives. Unfortunately, there wasn't time to discuss experiences of gender sensitive paralegal programmes, so please share any good examples in the comments below.

Linking local change to national reform

Paralegal initiatives can make governments more responsive to local needs and more likely to respect and protect the rights of local communities. In reality, many government bodies, especially at local level, do not have access to legal advice themselves.

Here, NGOs can help for example, in Mozambique CTV trained government officials, as well as community paralegals, in aspects of the law. A supportive response from government relies on trusting relationships, and these are not always present. In Mozambique, the government can be suspicious of NGOs despite their potential to offer support and advice. 

Participants discussed how local insights and local actions that gather analyses and build momentum for effective advocacy are crucial for legal reforms. Linking local to national, they said, was the key to wider systemic change. One organisation in Mali helped identify gaps in the mining code through dialogue with villagers during a series of legal 'caravans'. Sharing this analysis with the Malian government resulted in a revised national mining code. In Liberia, action-research testing how paralegals could help communities protect land in turn helped develop and implement a new community land rights policy. 

Stronger together…

Local paralegals and legal NGOs are stronger when they work together. CTV's Alda Salomao said that the paralegals could not have confronted the Mozambican authorities without the organisation's support. Equally, CTV's work was legitimised by community requests for support. Working together helped CTV provide targeted and specific assistance where it was needed most. 

…but able to stand alone

However, contentious campaigns against 'land grabbing' have led governments to sideline some NGOs and civil society organisations. So it's increasingly important that local communities have their own legal knowledge to galvanise local action. Ultimately, knowledge is power, agreed the webinar discussion. While NGOs play important convening and support roles that facilitate local negotiations with companies, governments, the courts and other third parties, paralegal schemes can put powerful knowledge, and the potential for action, firmly in local hands.

Watch a presentation from Mozambique from the IIED webinar:

Watch a presentation from the Philippines from the IIED webinar:

Emily Polack ([email protected]), a researcher with IIED's Natural Resources Group, joined the webinar and wrote up this summary with input from Thierry Berger and Lorenzo Cotula.

Related resources: