The residents of Margo Sari, a poor village in Indonesia’s Lampung province, live a long way from the goings-on this week around the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But as diplomats and politicians start their discussions on a new global development agenda, aimed at lifting people out of poverty and reducing inequality, the villagers have something very important at stake.
Their settlement sits among old-growth forest and rich farmland, and the villagers were forced to move here by the central government three generations ago. But the government never provided the necessary title deeds, and so the residents are still forbidden from logging the trees or cultivating the soil.
Today, without the necessary legal papers, the people of Margo Sari find themselves having to bribe corrupt police officers and greedy local bureaucrats to protect what they have. Believing the letter of the law should protect them, two residents have sought to understand the law better, so they can use it to protect their community, and have trained themselves as community-based paralegals. Working with local law students, they have managed to put those extorting bribes in prison: they are now mounting a campaign to get their land properly registered—engaging local politicians, staging demonstrations and petitions, attracting media attention.
These villagers are not alone; communities all over the world are starting to realize the importance of understanding the law and how they can use it to defend their property and rights in a world where people face increasing pressure on farming land. Across the world there is a movement to make the law accessible, not just through courts, but in day-to-day interactions, so that the prospect of facing legal sanctions puts pressure on those who might otherwise take advantage of the more vulnerable.
Paralegals are helping their communities to reach practical solutions, based on the law—whether faced with community-wide problems such as those of Margo Sari—or individual problems such as inheritance, child maintenance disputes or access to proper healthcare. Paralegal networks are appearing from Sierra Leone to Ukraine to Pakistan, helped by the increased accessibility offered by the internet and social media.
You can read more about what is happening in Margo Sari, and other stories of legal empowerment across the world, in the just-published Justice Initiatives: Special Edition on Legal Empowerment. Find out more in Bringing Justice to Health, which highlights the way that paralegals and other initiatives are helping deliver improved healthcare for communities living on the margins of society.
Together, these stories provide compelling support for a wider effort to ensure that access to justice is fully incorporated into the new development agenda, which states hope to agree over the next two years.
This week will see a flurry of activity towards this: the UNDP will be hosting a Global Rule of Law Dialogue to consider how justice can be integrated into the new agenda; the UK government and Open Society Foundations will be bringing donors together to focus on how they can collaborate better; practitioners of the 1500-strong Global Legal Empowerment Network will be meeting to strategize on how take the movement forward.
This is important work: while legal empowerment projects in places like Margo Sari can provide pressure from the ground up, we also need the support of governments and aid donors, at the UN and in capitals around the world.