Law, economies and justice: a new programme

Lorenzo Cotula outlines a new IIED programme exploring the role of law in strategies to promote fairer, more sustainable economies

Lorenzo Cotula's picture
Insight by 
Lorenzo Cotula
Head of IIED's law, economies and justice programme
04 October 2022
Articulating the role of law for a just transition in 2023 and beyond
A series of blogs that explores ways to navigate law, economies and justice in times of transition
Aerial view of a village surrounded by vegetation

Aerial view of Sekedau village surrounded by palm oil plantation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia (Photo: Nanang Sujana/CIFOR, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Around the world, people are experiencing first-hand the social and ecological consequences of deepening economic transformations – from large-scale investments in agriculture, energy, mining, manufacturing and infrastructure, to trading arrangements that integrate small-scale producers in global value chains.

Many governments look to international investment and trade as sources of economic growth, jobs and public revenues. But these processes often shake established ways of life, drive deforestation, expropriate land and foster inequalities, particularly where they exacerbate longer histories of racial injustice, gender disparities and cultural discrimination.

Against this backdrop, many have been charting alternative pathways: from Indigenous Peoples reclaiming their ancestral territories, to small-scale farmers organising to supply consumers direct and legislators rebalancing economic interests, environmental protection and social rights, all the way to efforts to redesign international treaties on trade and investment.

As climate change, biodiversity loss and social inequalities demand systemic change in economic models, these experiences provide opportunities for learning and scaling. And as different visions come into contest, there are questions about whose rights are protected and how, whose voices are heard and with what outcomes – in village meetings, national policy processes or United Nations talks.

IIED’s new law, economies and justice programme works with partner organisations from across the globe to explore the role of law – both as part of the problem and as a resource for change – in strategies to promote fairer, more sustainable economies. As a team of 13 researchers and practitioners, we have been reflecting on our approach, building on years of collaborations with research institutions, non-governmental organisations, associations of small-scale producers, grassroots groups, governments and multilateral agencies.

In this blog, I share some of our thoughts on key concepts shaping our work, hoping this might help us enhance our collaborations across research and practice.


The notion of justice captures our vision of change and the issues we explore through our research and action. A justice framing resonates with many of our partner organisations mobilising to promote more equal societies in harmony with nature. It also presents a rich intellectual history grounded in philosophy, political theory and jurisprudence, providing opportunities for our work to bridge theory and practice.

We tackle themes that cut across procedural justice – who has what say in decision making – and substantive justice of social, economic and ecological outcomes. For example, justice struggles in agrifood systems involve renegotiating control over land, seeds and innovation, while also enhancing procedural mechanisms to enable those most affected to have a say in global food governance.

Conceptions of justice vary. A traditional emphasis on the distribution of material assets within national polities has been complemented by ideas of justice that address global and transnational issues, consider questions of recognition and representation and focus on ‘human capabilities’ rather than material goods alone.

The more holistic conceptions resonate particularly strongly with our work, which typically spans local to global processes – from understanding how women’s groups are seeking a stronger voice in local land governance, to reconsidering the international treaties that govern investment flows between states.

The present ecological crises bring to the fore the intersections between social and environmental justice: countries that contributed the least to climate change stand to be most affected by it and face more difficult challenges moving away from fossil fuels; as climate COP26 highlighted, recognising indigenous and customary land rights is an essential part of addressing climate change; while ‘just transition’ declarations and guidelines (PDF) call for ecological transitions that respect labour rights and support workers shifting from climate-obsolete to low-carbon industries.


Social and environmental justice problems fundamentally question the economic model that has taken the world to the brink of climate catastrophe. We have the Paris Agreement and human rights instruments, but the nuts and bolts of the global economy remain primarily shaped by commercial considerations, and conventional analyses artificially separate economic relations from social and ecological realities.

Our work aims to confront the economic drivers of social and environmental harm and to re-ground economic governance within a more holistic consideration of interlinked social, ecological and economic dimensions.

This includes arrangements governing trade, commodities, investment and finance and their far-reaching implications for land rights, food systems, energy, territorial governance and democracy. These issues reflect power imbalances that cut across global North and South, with global policy frameworks impacting local realities around the world, and grassroots innovation providing valuable lessons for global policy change.

We talk of ‘economies’, plural, because we are interested in exploring diverse forms of economic organisation – from ‘circular’ economies and farmer or worker cooperatives, to trading systems that are embedded within local territories.


As the law crystallises prevailing economic organisation, it is a key arena for reconfiguring relations between people, nature and economies around notions of social and environmental justice.

Legal arrangements enable unfair, unsustainable investment and trade, codifying inequalities rooted in historical legacies and power relations. For example, many national laws undermine rural people’s land rights, and mining laws often favour large-scale extraction over artisanal producers. Supply chain contracts skewed in favour of large businesses can severely constrain options for small-scale producers, while international treaties on foreign investment protect fossil fuel assets over the rights of future generations.  

At the same time, recourse to law features prominently in justice strategies, often alongside collective mobilisation. Small-scale producers, workers, Indigenous Peoples, women leaders and environmental activists have claimed rights to challenge trade and investment patterns, secure better terms, seek redress or demand alternative policy approaches.

Renegotiating the law is thus a key part of our partners’ strategies – including reforms that protect customary land rights, regovern trading arrangements, promote gender equality, rebalance business rights and obligations, recognise indigenous systems mediating the relationship between humans and nature and enhance public participation in decision-making.

Innovative implementation can push the boundaries of existing law, for example through locally negotiated territorial charters, public accountability initiatives, precedent-setting litigation, harnessing soft-law instruments to shift interpretation of binding law and ‘people’s law’ approaches that ask deeper questions about what law is and whose law matters.

Our approach

We believe that, for policy reform and implementation to address social and environmental justice problems, it should proceed from the viewpoint of those whose rights are most directly at stake. We want to work in allyship with socially, politically and juridically marginalised groups and their supporting organisations – such as rural producer organisations, national civil society, grassroots associations, public interest lawyers and research institutions; while also engaging with governments, parliaments and multilateral and industry bodies to support rights-enhancing change.

This involves, for example, collaborating with partners to: facilitate grassroots deliberation on legislation that responds to small-scale farmers’ needs; accompany national coalitions demanding land law reform and testing approaches to strengthen land rights in practice; provide technical assistance to governments and advocates working to regulate land-based investments; channel artisanal miners’ priorities into global standard setting; and contribute to international talks on issues such as investment, human rights, food systems and the environment.

Our work aims to engage with ongoing – and often constrained – reform processes, while also laying the conceptual, empirical and collaborative foundations for more transformative change. Responding to the interconnectedness of issues, we employ holistic methods that integrate grassroots action and global policy work. And as our entry point is real-life problems such as the impacts of transnational investments, the approach necessarily cuts across diverse disciplines and areas of law too often considered in isolation.

The challenges are difficult, and we look forward to deepening collaborations with both researchers and practitioners.

With thanks to Thierry Berger, Nathaniah Jacobs, Rose Mosi, Emily Polack, Brendan Schwartz, Amaelle Seigneret and Philippine Sutz for comments on this blog.