Introduction to legal tools for citizen empowerment

Article, 03 October 2014

Can a half-acre of dry earth be more precious than gold? To farmers, herders and foragers in some of the world's poorest countries, the answer is very literally yes. Gold mining, agribusiness and other natural resource investments typically promise new jobs and public revenues. But they can also push poorer groups off their land and pollute their waterways.

Farm labourers in Mozambique working to clear land for planting crops. Land purchases by foreign investment companies for agribusinesses are pushing farmers off their land. Using legal rights effectively can help local people get a better deal for themselves and their communities (Photo: Mike Goldwater/IIED)

Strengthening local rights and voices

Effective use of legal rights can be a powerful tool for rural people to shape development agendas and increase local control, benefit sharing and public accountability in investment processes.

This requires concerted action at multiple levels – from calling on international human rights bodies, to rethinking international investment treaties and contracts to mobilising grassroots action to engage in legal reforms, register collective landholdings and enable communities to claim their rights.

Local level legal literacy and human rights advisory support requires diverse approaches from legal caravans, paralegal programmes, radio broadcasts or local deliberation tools.

This is the aim of the Legal Tools for Citizen Empowerment project, a collaborative initiative to strengthen local rights and voices in the context of natural resource investments in low-income countries. The initiative was launched by IIED in 2006, and put into practice with a range of partners in Africa and Asia.

The Legal Tools for Citizen Empowerment programme:

To find out more, please see Harnessing the law to contest 'land grabs', a briefing that captures lessons learnt from the project in its first 10 years.


Lorenzo Cotula (, principal researcher, Natural Resources research group; programme lead

Emily Polack (, senior researcher, Natural Resources research group

Philippine Sutz (, senior researcher, Natural Resources research group


The Arcus Foundation


The Department for International Development (DFID)

The European Union

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

Irish Aid