Meet the Community Lawyers
The Rainforest Foundation (RFUK) develops special field programmes for teams of young African lawyers known as Community legal field workers (CLFWs) to work with forest communities, indigenous peoples and local organisations to help them defend community rights in relation to land and resources, confront abuses of forest peoples’ rights and obtain essential legal documents such as identity papers. Since 2005, we have worked in numerous countries in the Congo Basin to support community lawyers, and are currently working in Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to train these local lawyers to provide direct support to communities to defend their rights.
Here, some of these lawyers talk to RFUK about their work, and the challenges that forest communities are facing.
Martial Djinang, an environmental lawyer and CLFW participated in the programme between 2005 and 2008. He has since acquired skills in project coordination and is currently the CLFW Project Co-ordinator in Gabon. Martial’s progression illustrates how we intend to build the legal capacity not only of communities and young lawyers but of national Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) who work to protect and promote forest communities’ rights. We ensure CSOs receive skilled legal staff that have experience in the field who are dedicated to their projects and have the ability to raise awareness of communities’ rights and challenges in civil society. They are also required to bring their expertise for legal analyses based upon a human rights approach.
Grace Ollomo is 28 year old lawyer and a CLFW based in Makokou, Ivindo Province, Gabon. She has primarily focused her support on facilitating negotiations with logging companies that exploit communities’ forest resources. She has trained forest communities on their rights to land and natural resources and enabled dialogue with local authorities and private companies.
Logging companies have obtained forest exploitation licences from the government to develop their activities on and around traditional lands. Communities that inhabit traditional lands rely on customary rights to access and use land but do not have legally recognised property rights as land belongs to the state. Educating communities on their rights to resources will enable them to make informed decisions and prepare for negotiations (with logging companies) regarding financial compensation or contribution to local community development projects.
Grace has stated “Loopholes exist in Gabonese legislation concerning indigenous forest peoples’ rights. These laws are not enforced and respected in the field. That is why we support these communities to identify the main legal issues they want to address. We train them on their rights and build case studies to inform partners and decision-makers of what really happens in these communities”.
An example of where this has worked successfully is in the lyoko Ngota community, Ivindo Province which is comprised of more than 250 people. They created MINABINIEKA (meaning ‘let’s do it’) - an organisation that has developed a strategy to negotiate with logging companies, resulting in some benefits to the communities that will play a key component in community food security. Three other communities have taken inspiration from the Iyoko Ngota communities by creating their own “MINABINIEKA” which aims to promote collective rights to land and natural resources. These communities have developed a strategy related to local development and have been trained on legal issues. They are working collaboratively with local authorities who have also been trained in legal issues to engage in a dialogue which seeks to implement actions in accordance with legal requirements to protect their rights.
Elvis Mbe Bolo - another CLFW - has been working closely with indigenous Baka communities in Minvoul, Woleu-Ntem province. He has supported indigenous peoples to obtain 32 birth certificates for their children, who are now registered as Gabonese citizens. Indigenous women in the area have also been trained to understand the significance of acquiring these documents for their children. Here Elvis explains why his work has been crucial “Indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable groups of people in Gabon. They are unaware of their rights and suffer from marginalisation and discrimination. I believe that the reinforcement of legal capacity to enable forest communities and indigenous peoples to defend and promote their rights is a tool to reduce social and economic inequalities and reduce poverty.”
Democratic Republic of Congo
Christelle Kiwewa (pictured) graduated in 2012 and is working with the Centre d’accompagnement de la population pour le développement de Mai-Ndombe (CADEM) in the Inongo territory. Christelle anticipates the programme will bring significant changes to the lives of communities and she has started providing training to local paralegals. Paralegals are fundamental in building communities’ capacities to understand how to use the law to their advantage to promote their rights. Christelle has stated why this programme plays a key role in helping communities “This programme is important for us human beings linked to nature and the environment, as we learn about sustainable management of the forest. But mostly, it is important for the ones closest to the forest - the local forest communities - to be able to know their rights and defend them”.
How does the project work?
RFUK has supported such programmes in four Central African Countries; it first commenced in Cameroon then proceeded to the Central African Republic (CAR) with Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) being the most recent additions to this successful approach. In total, this programme currently supports 9 active community lawyers working in the field, 2 of which are women. Dynamic lawyers aged 25-35 are chosen through a national selective process who have been trained and are placed under the supervision of NGOs in forest communities. The majority of these lawyers are recent graduates who studied general, public or commercial law but had no previous experience in dealing with the rights of indigenous and local communities.
Selection of lawyers
There are several steps for a lawyer to be selected; firstly a group is chosen to undergo initial training. This initial selection of lawyers is evaluated based on its success in the training, and then a smaller group of CLFWs are selected from this to participate in the project. The training aims to equip lawyers to support indigenous and local communities through enhancing their understanding and translation of international and national legislation in relation to the management of the environment. This also extends to community rights and development, and the implementation of local strategies which enhance the recognition of their rights. Once initial training is completed, lawyers are placed in forest communities for several months to learn about legal issues communities are facing, and to build a relationship of trust with those communities to enable them to support them directly by developing and implementing legal solutions to tackle the problems encountered. When lawyers are seconded to communities, they are under direct supervision and receive continuous mentoring from local partner organisations that benefit from the CLFWs’ knowledge and experience. This particular approach ensures that legal capacity is built in at the field level so it continues long after the project has finished. The lawyers also serve to enhance legal capacity in the local NGOs that are housing and supporting them throughout the project.