A Legal Lifeline for Communities Threatened by Resource Development Projects

Date of publication: 
29 April 2015

Rising global demand for natural resources has made protection of community lands an urgent priority, particularly in countries with little or no legal protection for community land rights. There are millions whose lands and environments are harmed by large-scale resource development.

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 huge plantations. The Cambodian government illegally leased the villagers’ farmlands and ordered their crops and homes demolished. The villagers have protested, sent formal complaints, and attempted to negotiate with the company and government officials, to no avail.

These types of injustices are not inevitable. In the case of Koh Kong, two local NGOs contacted the volunteer lawyers at the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP). The ISLP lawyers helped formulate a legal strategy to move the villagers’ case beyond the jurisdiction of Cambodia’s corrupt and ineffective judicial system. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to negotiate, the villagers decided to sue two UK-based sugar companies in the English High Court of Justice, where their case is ongoing.

There are thousands of communities around the world who could benefit from such powerful legal support to challenge irresponsible and exploitative resource development projects in this way. A new initiative, launched last week, can help.

Lawyers for Resource Justice is a collaboration between ISLP; Avaaz, a global web movement for organizing citizens; and Namati, a grassroots justice organization, to increase the legal support available to communities affected by large-scale resource development projects. We connect national and grassroots organizations with the Global Legal Empowerment Network, and link them to volunteer international lawyers who provide customized legal support and access to international jurisdictions. This initiative helps to empower vulnerable communities to use the law to protect their lands and environment, and amplify their voices internationally.

In this initiative, multidisciplinary teams of lawyers and other experts work with courageous national advocates and communities. Together, they develop strategies to prevent or remedy damages from large-scale resource development projects. Support includes providing legal training, proactively engaging government and investors on proposed projects, and representing communities in litigation against existing projects.

Take, for example, Kenya’s Kerio Valley region, where the discovery of potentially vast oil reserves has sparked anxiety among local residents. Community members, most of whom are subsistence farmers, have heard disturbing reports of the destructive effects of oil exploration and development in neighboring Turkana. They are troubled by complaints from Turkana community members that the oil company has not meaningfully consulted with them regarding impacts on security, livelihoods, and access to food and water.

Kerio Valley residents, lacking formal title to their lands, are especially worried about receiving appropriate compensation for land and resources. Although residents welcome the economic growth that hydrocarbon development might bring, they are concerned about environmental damage, local employment opportunities, and fair distribution of benefits.

In the summer of 2014, a community-based organization from Kerio Valley requested ISLP’s assistance in obtaining timely, clear, and complete information regarding oil development in the region and in representing the community in talks with the oil company. In response, ISLP enlisted volunteer lawyers with experience negotiating on behalf of marginalized communities facing resource development. The lawyers are backed by a highly skilled advisory team composed of an oil and gas expert, a corporate social responsibility specialist, authorities on relevant Kenyan law, and ISLP staff. ISLP’s lawyers and staff have worked closely with members of the organization to identify community concerns and have traveled to the Kerio Valley to liaise with community members, discuss priorities and challenges, and strategize a way forward.

Exploratory drilling in the Kerio Valley is slated to commence in mid‐2015. In the meantime, ISLP aims to help residents reach an agreement with the developer that will govern compensation and community benefits during initial exploration, and outline a workable plan for continuing community engagement once the scale of any oil reserves is determined. In so doing, ISLP hopes that Kerio Valley will become an example of true “shared prosperity,” and avoid the resource curse that too often plagues communities facing resource development projects.

We believe that communities and grassroots organizations, not external experts, are the leading agents of social change. The approach of Lawyers for Resource Justice is to improve access to customized, strategic legal support when and how local advocates choose. By working together, we can link grassroots power with international expertise to ensure a truly rights-based approach to resource development.