Drawing on the experience of communities facing harm in Sierra Leone, Myanmar, India, the United States, Kenya, and elsewhere, I offer a pathway by which we can advance environmental justice: by combining the power of law with the power of people, and by building from grassroots struggles toward fundamental changes in laws and systems. I then describe common priorities for the environmental justice movement globally, namely, empowering communities to govern the places they live and to lead the transition to a sustainable economy. After grappling with the objection that community rights could get in the way of a speedy energy transition, I close with a reflection on how we can advance environmental justice when democracy itself is under threat.

When Mrs. Binta Monya Jalloh took me for a walk in the dense rainforest behind her home in southern Sierra Leone, she said, “Welcome to the supermarket.” She pointed out bush yam, breadfruit, papaya, wild plum, cocoa. The leaves of one tree help with malaria, Mrs. Jalloh told me; another tree makes for good firewood. She then grew quiet, and said, “We almost lost all of it.”

In 2015, Mrs. Jalloh, a widowed grandmother in her sixties, found out that the entire chiefdom where she lives had been leased for fifty years to a European palm oil company, without notice or permission (see Figure 1). No one had bothered to ask the 22,000 people living there whose land it was. The company had secured the lease—which would allow it to replace 75,000 acres of rainforest with mono-cropped oil palm trees—from an illiterate interim paramount chief, behind closed doors, six hours away from the land in question. Seventy-five thousand acres is five times the size of Manhattan. The rent promised was two dollars per acre per year.

Figure 1.

Cover page of lease agreement obtained by West African Agriculture (photo by Namati).

Figure 1.

Cover page of lease agreement obtained by West African Agriculture (photo by Namati).

Close modal

Mrs. Jalloh had experienced disaster before. She’d fled with her family to Guinea in the 1990s, during Sierra Leone’s civil war. She told me that when she found out about the lease agreement, she had flashbacks. “I didn’t want to become a refugee again,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose my home.”

Mrs. Jalloh and her community are not alone. I have worked in support of grassroots land and environmental justice struggles for twenty years in Sierra Leone, India, Myanmar, Kenya, the United States, and elsewhere. Over and over, I have seen environmental harms heaped upon people with less wealth and power and upon people who face discrimination.

Regulators often speak of a fine balance between economic development and environmental destruction. Jairam Ramesh, one of the better ministers of environment to have served India, said, “India needs to be liberated both from the high GDP growth hedgehogs and the conservation-at-all-costs hedgehogs. … [W]hat India needs more is the smooth fox, cunning and crafty, to find a balance between high growth and enduring conservation.”1 Ramesh was invoking the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who said hedgehogs know one thing while foxes know many.

But at the coalfaces where environmental harms take place, I haven’t observed much fox-like balancing. The fifty-year lease in Makpele didn’t get signed because the parties sat down together, weighed pros and cons, and concluded that, in this instance, the palm oil and the jobs were worth the lost forest. No. What happened in Makpele, and what I’ve seen again and again, is exploitation.

In international negotiations, calls for climate justice typically refer to the moral responsibility of those countries that caused the problem, such as the United States and Europe, toward those that disproportionately bear its consequences, such as Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Kenya.

But environmental injustice straddles that divide; it’s something rich countries and poor countries have in common. The United States environmental justice movement developed in the late twentieth century in response to the citing of toxins and polluting industries in poor communities and communities of color. In 1982, the governor of North Carolina decided to dump 10,000 truckloads of soil contaminated with PCBs in Warren County. Dollie Burrell and other female residents lay down in the trucks’ path. Five hundred people were arrested—Ms. Burwell was arrested five times—and the protests captured national attention. Asked why her home was targeted as a dump site, Burrell answered, “We were poor, we were Black and we were politically impotent.”2

In 1987, Charles Lee, Vernice Miller-Travis, and the United Church of Christ published Toxic Waste and Race, showing a strong correlation between where America puts toxins and where people of color live.3 Lee and others organized the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. By then, Vernice Miller-Travis had cofounded WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem, along with a former magazine editor and former politician named Peggy Shepard. They’d found out that asthma rates in Harlem were four times the national average, and they’d begun to challenge the concentration of polluting facilities in their neighborhood.

Vernice told me she had expected a small gathering. When she walked into the meeting room at the Washington Court Hotel and saw hundreds of people of color, who’d traveled from all over the country, filing in, she took Peggy’s hand and wept. Vernice said to Peggy, “We are not alone.”

The people convening at that hotel—Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian—traced their roots to the U.S. civil rights movement. They had little connection to, and received almost no support from, mainstream American environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Those “big greens” were dominated by white people and experts and had largely failed to work in solidarity with the communities bearing the brunt of environmental harms.4 Some of the major environmental organizations also had historical ties to eugenics and white supremacy.5

In a global history of environmentalism, Ramchandra Guha observes a similar split. “Scientific forestry,” for example, originated in Germany and was exported by colonial powers throughout the world. Scientific foresters adopted top-down measures, dismissing and dispossessing people who lived and depended on the land.

Especially in the colonies, [scientific forestry] followed a “custodial” approach, with the strengthening of state control having as its corollary the denial of customary rights of use exercised by peasant and tribal communities. For the acres and acres of woodland taken over by the state were by no means pristine, untouched forests; rather, they had been controlled and used by humans down the centuries.6

Guha also charts bottom-up forms of environmentalism, from the Chipko movement against deforestation in the Indian Himalayas to the efforts by Indigenous communities to protect the Amazon to the pursuit of remedies after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal.7 People from those bottom-up movements would likely have felt kinship with those who gathered at the Washington Court Hotel in 1991.

Enter climate change, for which injustice is both fuel and byproduct. On the one hand, the causes of climate change—fossil fuel extraction, industrial pollution, deforestation—are concentrated in marginalized communities.8 Arguably, exploitation has allowed those activities to continue longer, and more recklessly, than what is in humanity’s best interest. The organizer Hop Hopkins puts it this way: “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people.”9

On the other hand, marginalized communities also suffer disproportionately from the consequences of climate change, including more frequent and more severe floods, storms, droughts, heat waves, and crop failures.10

Yet justice for communities is largely missing from the way we are attempting to solve the problem. The Paris Agreement is top-down and technocratic: it focuses on national commitments to transfer technology and reduce emissions. The most recent climate talks in Egypt resulted in important progress toward a loss and damage fund, which aims to address the unfairness between nations. But little was said or done about the rights of communities facing harm. In fact, some analysts in the United States and elsewhere worry that respecting community rights causes more problems than it solves, because opposition from local communities could hinder a rapid transition toward renewable energy.11

On the ground, outside of international negotiations, environmental injustice is worsening in many places. Recorded killings of environmental defenders are at their highest since Global Witness began tracking them a decade ago.12 Democracy and the rule of law are under threat—according to Freedom House, 2022 was the seventeenth consecutive year in which more countries declined in freedom than gained.13 This has made it more difficult, and more dangerous, for communities facing environmental harm to exercise their rights.

In the face of democratic breakdown and environmental collapse, is there a coherent global story about what environmental justice means today? A story that has relevance in both rich countries and poor countries, and in both rural areas and urban ones? A story that’s about speeding up the transition to a sustainable economy, rather than getting in the way?

And if there is such a story, is there a pathway from the world we have now toward one that is just? A pathway that people everywhere can walk?

I see one emerging.

Parts I and II of this article offer a vision for how we can walk forward together: by combining the power of law with the power of people and by building from grassroots struggles to fundamental shifts in laws and systems. Parts III, IV, and V are about where we should be going: toward a world, I argue, in which communities are empowered to govern the places they inhabit and empowered to lead the affirmative work of building a sustainable economy. I grapple in these three parts with the objection that respecting community rights could obstruct a rapid climate transition. Part 6 is about how we can navigate the gravest dangers that stand in our way: the threats to democracy and liberty.

This piece appears alongside an article by Dan Farber.14 I aim to complement Farber’s analysis in two ways. While Farber focuses on the United States, I attempt to offer a global perspective on environmental justice. And while Farber focuses on the perspective of a well-meaning regulator, I attempt, throughout, to focus on what we can learn from communities facing harm.

How do ordinary people win against extraordinary imbalances of power? Communities in harm’s way tend not to have much money. Out of desperation, people sometimes resort to violent resistance, by throwing stones at machines, for example. But companies and governments typically respond with overwhelming force.15

For all its flaws, for all the ways in which it’s been designed to repress, law is one of the few tools we have to constrain power. But law itself is often dominated by elites and difficult to access. With friends and partners over the last twenty years, I’ve been involved in a quest to democratize law: to take it out of books and courtrooms and combine it, instead, with the other key asset that communities have: their own people power.

A. Reversing a Land Grab in Sierra Leone

When Mrs. Jalloh (see Figure 2) found out about the lease agreement that would have destroyed her home, she did not know much about law. She is from a traditional Muslim family; her father refused to send her to school when she was a girl, and she hasn’t learned to read. But Mrs. Jalloh knows how to fight.

Figure 2.

Mrs. Binta Monya Jalloh in Jabama village, Makpele Chiefdom, speaking with Sonkita Conteh, the director of Namati Sierra Leone (photo by Namati).

Figure 2.

Mrs. Binta Monya Jalloh in Jabama village, Makpele Chiefdom, speaking with Sonkita Conteh, the director of Namati Sierra Leone (photo by Namati).

Close modal

She started raising alarm among neighbors. Makpele is near the Liberian border, and many Makpele residents have traveled to Monrovia, the Liberian capital. Mrs. Jalloh reminded them of the massive oil palm plantations you pass on the way. Mrs. Jalloh speaks five languages, including Kallokwa, the Liberian creole of English, and she’d spoken to Liberians from some of those plantation sites. Their forest is gone, Mrs. Jalloh reported back to her neighbors. They don’t have space to plant their own crops. Many of them have had to leave their homes.

According to custom in Sierra Leone and much of Africa, the land belongs to three groups: the ancestors, those who are here now, and those who are not yet born. If we let this happen, Mrs. Jalloh said, we aren’t the only ones who will have been robbed. They’ll have stolen from our forefathers and descendants.

Although many of her neighbors agreed with her, at the outset, few were willing to say or do anything publicly. The plantation was not required by any explicit government policy.16 But as is often the case, government officials were backing the corporation in practice and creating a climate of fear.

Mrs. Jalloh’s brother, Saffa Tamu, was elected paramount chief to replace the interim chief who’d put his thumbprint on the lease agreement. Chief Tamu didn’t condemn the lease on entering office, but he said each section of the chiefdom should be able to decide whether they want to take part.

In response, the top two officials in the district came to Makpele with a group of armed police officers and detained Chief Tamu for two days in the local police station. The officials didn’t charge him—he hadn’t committed a crime—but they pressured him to sign an endorsement of the original lease. Chief Tamu refused, unintimidated, and was eventually released.

People in Makpele took note. We’re much less powerful than the chief, Mrs. Jalloh heard her neighbors say. We don’t want to lose our land, but we don’t want to end up in jail either. Mrs. Jalloh found a few others with whom to form a residents’ association so they could stand up as a collective rather than as individuals. “If one of us has to go to jail,” she told people, “let it be me.”

Some asked her where she got her guts, especially as a woman. “Land business na man business,” goes a common expression in Sierra Leonean Krio; land affairs are for men to handle. In response, Mrs. Jalloh would joke in Krio, “Me na man we e poil.” I’m a man that spoiled and turned into a woman. People started to join her.

Looking for support, Mrs. Jalloh and her fledgling residents’ association reached out to a pair of community paralegals working in a neighboring district. Community paralegals are organizers who have knowledge of law. They help people facing injustice to understand relevant law and to use that knowledge in pursuit of a solution.

Community paralegals first emerged in South Africa in the 1950s as part of the struggle for freedom. Often housed in offices of the African National Congress, paralegals helped their fellow Black South Africans to navigate and defend themselves against the many codes of the apartheid regime regarding where and how you could work, live, travel, or learn. Since the transition to democracy in 1994, paralegals have continued to work across South Africa; they help people to seek implementation of progressive legislation and South Africa’s egalitarian constitution.17

Today, community paralegals exist in some form in many countries. Unlike conventional paralegals, who are primarily assistants to lawyers, community paralegals work directly with the communities they serve. Community paralegals often help people to engage with local governments and with administrative institutions that you don’t need a lawyer to go before—agencies that administer ID cards, for example, or welfare entitlements, or environmental regulation.

Similar to the way community health workers and nurses are connected to doctors, community paralegals are typically supported by lawyers, who can advise on complex issues and litigate when necessary.18

I helped start Sierra Leone’s first community paralegal effort in 2004,19 and I’ve been working with paralegals ever since. Tommy Ibrahim and Baindu Koroma, the pair to whom Mrs. Jalloh reached out, have served as community paralegals in Sierra Leone since the aughts; today, they work with Namati, the international organization I started in 2011.

The first thing Tommy and Baindu did was track down the lease agreement, which was in English, and translate it into language that members of the residents’ association could understand. Tommy and Baindu also explained key provisions of law and, alongside association members, analyzed the lease against those provisions. They found several violations.

First, although the paramount chief does have responsibility as a custodian of the land, he was not entitled to enter into an agreement of this kind without the consent of land-owning families. Second, the leased area would encroach upon the Gola Rainforest Park, which is protected by the National Protected Areas Act. Mrs. Jalloh and her fellow association members had known from the start that the lease was wrong; now they knew it was also illegal.

Moreover, Tommy and Baindu found out that the company holding the lease20 was a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary industry group. That meant that the company had committed to a number of social and environmental standards that were not reflected in the contents of the lease or in the way it was secured.21

Armed with this knowledge, Mrs. Jalloh and the residents’ association found their footing. They confronted the company directly, and they demonstrated en masse. Because Tommy and Baindu are connected to a pair of practicing lawyers, the association could also wield the threat of litigation. At first the company dismissed the community’s objections; later the company offered Mrs. Jalloh and other leaders money, which they refused. After eighteen months of organized, legally informed resistance, the company acknowledged that its lease was invalid.

Since then, Mrs. Jalloh and her neighbors have been able to farm and forage without fear. “We learned,” Mrs. Jalloh said, “that no one can bend our hand. No one can take our land. We learned our rights.”

There’s more to the story. In another part of Makpele Chiefdom, a second residents’ association had formed, at times in explicit tension with the one Mrs. Jalloh led because the second association favored working with the company.

Unlike some traditional environmental organizations, community paralegals do not have prior commitments to a particular outcome. Tommy and Baindu assisted both residents’ associations. Whereas they helped Mrs. Jalloh’s group to reject the company altogether, Tommy and Baindu helped the second association to negotiate a deal.

Over several months, the paralegals informed the second association’s members about palm oil plantations—the benefits, the harms, and how those harms can be mitigated, including the company’s commitments under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The paralegals facilitated discussions about the communities’ priorities. They also assisted land-owning families to map—using handheld GPS technology—which land they wanted to offer the company.

Once community members had determined their asks, the paralegals helped them to negotiate directly with company officials. The resulting agreement was less than a tenth the size of the original, with dramatically better terms. I’ve offered a summary in Table 1.

Table 1.

Comparison of the original lease and the renegotiated lease (Sierra Leone)

Original leaseNew lease
Land size: 75,800 acres (entire chiefdom) Land size: 5,732 acres (land that the landowners willingly gave) 
Rent: $2 per acre per year Rent: $5 per acre per year 
No provision for profit sharing 5% of company’s annual net profit goes to community 
No environmental protections Environmental standards included in the lease and made legally binding, including protections related to swamps, high-conservation-value portions of forest, chemical use, and fire prevention 
Signed only by the interim paramount chief, chiefdom council, and the company, in a closed-door meeting Representatives of each land-owning family signed, in an open community gathering 
Original leaseNew lease
Land size: 75,800 acres (entire chiefdom) Land size: 5,732 acres (land that the landowners willingly gave) 
Rent: $2 per acre per year Rent: $5 per acre per year 
No provision for profit sharing 5% of company’s annual net profit goes to community 
No environmental protections Environmental standards included in the lease and made legally binding, including protections related to swamps, high-conservation-value portions of forest, chemical use, and fire prevention 
Signed only by the interim paramount chief, chiefdom council, and the company, in a closed-door meeting Representatives of each land-owning family signed, in an open community gathering 

That is the difference law and organizing can make. Communities are not homogenous. We should not romanticize them or instrumentalize them. But when people facing harm are able to exercise their rights, you end up with decisions that are better for them and better for the planet.

B. Land and Environmental Justice in Pre-coup Myanmar

Political and legal context shapes the kinds of problems paralegals and communities focus on. In Myanmar, for example, during fifty years of dictatorship, the military and crony companies stole millions of acres of land from farmers and ethnic minorities. Sometimes the military and its cronies would displace people to build something—a base, a plantation, a factory. Sometimes they would force people to pay rent to use their own land. When the United Nations conducted a survey about the justice needs of people in Myanmar in 2012, the desire for secure land rights topped the list.22

That year, in response to pressure from inside and outside the country, the military held by-elections for 45 parliamentary seats. Aung Sang Syu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 of them. This reconstituted parliament passed a new land law. It also set up a process by which communities could secure rights to lands they possessed and apply for the return of lands that had been stolen.

The process was complex and unfamiliar to most people, which created a possible opening for community paralegals. When you have even partially good law on the books, paralegals and communities can breathe life into those de jure commitments by learning the rules and insisting on their implementation.

I traveled to Myanmar for the first time that year. Though the flight from Calcutta was only 90 minutes, it felt like a journey across time, into a world that had been long forbidden.

Among the people I met on that first trip was Ma Khin Khin.23 Ma Khin Khin is 4’8” tall, soft-spoken, and fearless. She was a lawyer who’d become disenchanted with the corruption and unfairness of the legal system. In 2010, Ma Khin Khin took part in a four-month political education course sponsored by the NLD. She slept on the floor of a house in Yangon with forty other young people, listening to lectures and reading the writings of freedom fighters from around the world. She was deeply moved by the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement. “If he can,” she and her classmates would say, “why can’t we?”

Ma Khin Khin ended up cofounding, with another female lawyer and several activists, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of farmers. They had a tiny office upstairs from a fabric shop in a minor town in the central region of Myanmar.

Namati partnered with that organization to create Myanmar’s first community paralegal program in 2013. Ma Khin Khin and her colleagues recruited an initial batch of thirty paralegals across five states and regions. Most of them were democracy activists. Many had served time in prison. They thought of this as a historic moment and were determined to seize it.

One of the cases the paralegals worked on involved illegal manganese mining in the Ar Yel Mountains in Shan State.24 No one had asked the people who lived in the villages where the mining took place for permission. Villagers found out only when men arrived in construction hats.

At the beginning, the disturbance was minimal, site explorations and tests. But by 2014, according to one member of the community, eight companies were “tearing the mountains apart” in their quest for manganese dioxide.

The companies clear-cut swaths of forest, plowing under the trees the nearby communities used for cooking fuel and displacing the animals they hunted for food. The companies also dumped toxic sludge into mountain streams, turning the communities’ drinking and bathing water black. And they left heaps of mining waste exposed. When it rained, the waste washed into the rice plantations below.

Then there was the dust. Trucks hurtled along the Sili Nyauk–Maw Twee road day and night, clouds of thick toxic dust trailing behind them and clumps of the brittle mineral tumbling from their uncovered loads. The people living and working along the route found it difficult to breathe. Farmers reported that their crops were failing. One family whose fields once yielded eighty baskets an acre said they were now producing only thirty. The loss of income meant that many families could no longer afford to send their children to school.

Altogether, twenty-five villages in this ethnic minority region of Eastern Shan State were affected—a total of 6,900 people whose health, well-being, and livelihoods suffered due to the manganese mines.

A woman named Daw Nang Nwe had moved to one of those villages in 2005 and established a shop selling pork along the main road (see Figure 3). Well respected in her community, Daw Nang Nwe was elected the head of the local religious association. But by 2017, the toxic dust invaded her lungs and infected her skin. Red itchy bumps formed across her face and hands. A doctor told her she had to stay away from the dust, which was impossible unless she closed her shop. “I was very angry. I wanted to move,” she later recounted to us. “But I talked to my family and they said no, we need you. Stay, and together we will fight.”

Figure 3.

Ms. Daw Nang Nwe (photo by Namati).

Figure 3.

Ms. Daw Nang Nwe (photo by Namati).

Close modal

Together with other village leaders, Daw Nang Nwe spoke with the companies and wrote to the Township General Administrative Department. But their efforts had minimal effect. Several community members ended up reaching out to a pair of community paralegals, one of whom lived in the mining-affected area.

The paralegals and representatives from each village, including Daw Nang Nwe, started building their case. They dug into legal clauses, gathered evidence of violations, and composed their first official letter stating their demands. “We felt more powerful with paralegal guidance,” recalled Daw Nang Nwe. “We learned how to use the law, and it made us more confident.” The difference in their approach led to a new response; within three months the government had visited the area to discuss the issues and see the problems firsthand.

The visit was promising, but it didn’t necessarily mean a solution would follow. The laws and guidelines around mining and environmental conservation were largely new; they had rarely, if ever, been invoked by ordinary people and were equally untested by the government. Anticipating setbacks, the paralegals and community leaders continued their legal research, and in doing so, they made a game-changing discovery: none of the eight companies had valid mining permits.

Whatever reservations or doubts the communities had before were gone. The information, said Daw Nang Nwe, “was good for us. It motivated us. We realized ‘we can fight with this.’”

Confronted with the fact that the mines were operating illegally, the government ordered the companies to cease all operations in the Al Yer Mountains. Rural villagers from one of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups had successfully achieved the closure of eight unlawful mines.

A year after the closures, the mountain streams were once again running clear, the forests were showing signs of renewal, and the toxic dust that choked crops and people alike had disappeared.25

I heard similar stories over and over in Myanmar between 2013 and 2020, from the delta in the southwest to the plains where Ma Khin Khin lived to the hills of Daw Nang Nwe’s Shan State, which are mostly home to ethnic minorities. During those eight years, paralegals and communities we worked with achieved at least partial success in over 2,400 cases related to land rights and environmental justice, positively affecting the lives of over 55,000 people.

The system was still largely repressive. Military land-grab cases were particularly difficult to solve, despite the specific administrative mechanism that was set up to address them. But the process of using law in tandem with organizing cracked light through doors that had long been shut. And even a little light was illuminating—people started to imagine, and demand, even more.

That era ended on February 1, 2021, when the military rejected the results of an election. Unlike the attempt by Trump and his followers the month before in Washington, D.C., the coup in Myanmar was successful. Paralegals continue to work today, but the way they do so has changed significantly. Later in this article, I will explain how.

C. Comparative Experience Across Several Countries, and a Common Orientation Toward Law

Each place where we’ve worked is its own story. In Kenya, over sixty percent of the country’s landmass is dry rangeland. Maasai, Samburu, Turkana, Borana, and other pastoralist communities have depended on that land for centuries, but they have never had legal rights to it. This has left them vulnerable to theft and exploitation by colonial settlers, the Kenyan government, and corporations.

Kenya passed a law in 2016, the Community Land Act, which for the first time creates a pathway by which pastoralist communities can secure rights to their lands. In partnership with Indigenous-led groups like Samburu Women’s Trust and IMPACT, we have supported paralegals to help their communities follow the steps laid out in the law: map their boundaries, deliberate and adopt bylaws, and elect land-management committees. Our goal is robust implementation of the Community Land Act nationwide.

In the United States and India, there are strong environmental laws on the books but significant gaps in enforcement. In India, the Comptroller Auditor General found rates of noncompliance with permit conditions to be as high as fifty-seven percent (see Table 2).

Table 2.

Noncompliance rates in a sample of 352 industrial projects in India26

Condition% Noncompliance
Non-preparation and implementation of action plan / non-allocation of funds for conservation of flora and fauna 57% 
Non-implementation of the catchment area treatment plan 56% 
Improper storage of fly ash (thermal power projects) 33% 
Non-implementation of the Fishery Conservation & Management Plan 33% 
Condition% Noncompliance
Non-preparation and implementation of action plan / non-allocation of funds for conservation of flora and fauna 57% 
Non-implementation of the catchment area treatment plan 56% 
Improper storage of fly ash (thermal power projects) 33% 
Non-implementation of the Fishery Conservation & Management Plan 33% 

In the United States, federal enforcement actions declined by about fifty percent during the Trump administration and have not yet recovered.27 In Washington, D.C., where I live, over 250 facilities violated the Clean Water Act in the last three years.28

In both India and the United States, environmental activism has traditionally focused heavily on litigation. But litigation is costly, slow, and often disempowering. We have found that communities can sometimes secure enforcement by directly engaging local government and administrative institutions—pollution control boards in India, for example, and state environmental agencies in the United States—invoking law with specificity (citing specific permit conditions, for example), and providing simple, community-generated evidence of violations (like photos taken with a cell phone).

Researchers with the Centre for Policy Research found that communities using this approach achieved remedies in over 150 cases across four Indian states between 2018 and 202129: stopping a coal plant from unlawfully encroaching on community grazing land,30 for example, and ensuring that a bauxite refinery implements compulsory measures to mitigate air emissions.31

In Washington, D.C., one of the community paralegals Namati works with is Rhonda Hamilton. Rhonda was born and raised in the Buzzard Point neighborhood, which is largely African American and heavily polluted. One of many issues Rhonda has worked on arose while the D.C. government replaced the 100-year-old, lead- and asbestos-ridden Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge that crosses from Buzzard Point to the other side of the Anacostia River.

The contractor leading construction created a large, open pile of dust and debris on which small children often played. Rhonda secured the dust plan for the bridge, under the D.C. Right to Information Act, and found that the construction company was failing to comply with a number of the plan’s provisions—including a requirement to install a dust-control fence. Empowered with this information, Rhonda contacted D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and convinced it to have representatives accompany her and other Buzzard Point residents on a site visit.

The group pointed out the impacts on the community, referenced city and state regulatory requirements, and demanded action. Not long after, the DOEE mandated a dust-control fence to reduce the pollution and keep the children off the site and agreed to conduct a broader inspection. Rhonda said that making sense of environmental laws and the agencies that are supposed to enforce them is like solving a thousand-piece puzzle. “But the more we fight back,” she said, “the more we learn.”

In Sierra Leone, administrative institutions are much weaker, so paralegals and communities have tended to advocate directly with traditional authorities and with companies. In Mrs. Jalloh’s case, that’s how they won. If those methods fail, communities we work with have resorted to litigation, with support from a pair of lawyers based in Freetown.

To make litigation empowering rather than intimidating, the Namati Sierra Leone team invites affected community members to pack the courtroom. Paralegals hold community education sessions after every hearing and involve community leaders in setting litigation strategy. Pursuing litigation this way, communities have secured a number of precedent-setting wins in the Sierra Leonean courts, including the reversal of a major land grab,32 the first-ever eviction of a plantation company by a community,33 and a judgment to restitute harms created by the country’s largest iron ore mine.34

All these diverse experiences share a basic approach to law, one that differs from the way law, and the practice of environmental law in particular, has traditionally functioned. I’d summarize the difference as shown in Table 3.35

Table 3.

Traditional Law vs. Law + Organizing

Traditional law, including environmental lawLaw + organizing for environmental justice
Driven by experts Driven by ordinary people 
Highly technical Technical channels demystified and used in tandem with others, including direct action 
Distant from, and sometimes exploitative of, affected communities Focused on building collective power among communities facing harm 
Traditional law, including environmental lawLaw + organizing for environmental justice
Driven by experts Driven by ordinary people 
Highly technical Technical channels demystified and used in tandem with others, including direct action 
Distant from, and sometimes exploitative of, affected communities Focused on building collective power among communities facing harm 

When I lived in Sierra Leone after the end of that country’s civil war, people seemed to regard law not unlike the way they related to black magic: as something to be feared rather than understood. Since then, I’ve observed versions of that fear, or if not fear, disaffection, everywhere I’ve worked, from Myanmar to Maryland. At times, the rampant corruption and heedless destruction have left me feeling disaffected as well. The approach on the right side of the chart offers a pathway toward a different relationship: one in which people regard law not with fear or cynicism, but rather as something they can understand and wield in pursuit of justice.

Every struggle like the one Mrs. Jalloh and her neighbors undertook is vital. These struggles are often life and death for the people involved, and by reducing environmental harm—deforestation, air and water pollution—they protect all of us.

I don’t want to overstate the victories, however. In Sierra Leone, though we’ve had some success with agribusiness projects, we’ve struggled to achieve genuine redress in the context of abuses committed by mining companies. The legal framework for mining is less favorable, the regulatory body is very pro-industry, and the companies in that sector seem less concerned with appearing to behave responsibly.

Everywhere we work, communities have lost many battles. Even when they win, the successes are always only partial. The palm oil company operating in Makpele has failed to comply with some of the terms of the lease communities negotiated; residents are now pushing for enforcement. In the Ar Yel Mountains, since the coup, some new companies have restarted mining, without the community’s consent.

Working case by case can sometimes feel like bailing water from the ocean with a small cup. As a movement we need to confront the ocean itself. We need to work toward fundamental shifts in the laws and systems that make injustice possible.

A. The Customary Land Rights Act in Sierra Leone, and How It Came to Be36

In Sierra Leone, Mrs. Jalloh became part of a movement that conceived of, fought for, and won a transformative law: the 2022 Customary Land Rights Act (CLRA).37 That victory was the culmination of a decade of local struggles.

Between 2013 and 2021, paralegals working with Namati Sierra Leone supported communities to take on over 300 instances of land or environmental injustice.38 Paralegals periodically connected communities with each other to compare experiences and to reflect on data from the body of cases as a whole.

Clear patterns emerged. Chiefs would often sign deals without the consent of their constituents, for example. Also, communities almost never had access to environmental license agreements issued by the government for projects that took place on their lands. Yet those licenses were crucial—they laid out binding conditions related to air and water pollution, land use, and community benefits.

Reflecting on these patterns, community members began to imagine what a better system might look like. This vision took initial shape in the Wi Land Na Wi Fyuchɔ pledge (Our Land Is Our Future) during national elections in 2017. Coauthored with many community members, the pledge affirms that “our land is our common heritage and the foundation for our development.” It decries displacement and destruction caused by mining and large-scale agriculture as well as deadly disasters, such as a landslide in Freetown in 2017, caused by “failures in regulation.”

“Our nation can overcome this crisis,” the pledge states. “To do so we need responsible, democratic natural resource governance. We need to empower the people who depend on the land. And we need to protect the land itself.” The pledge asks electoral candidates to commit to concrete measures that could advance each of those three priorities.39

At a forum in Freetown, community leaders from across the country addressed officials from various political parties, arguing for the pledge on the basis of their lived experience. Seventeen parties ultimately endorsed the pledge that year, including the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which won the election. The pledge attracted supporters from other sectors as well, including universities and faith-based organizations.40 It became a hook with which to engage the government and a framework for change when opportunity arose.

In 2019, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Lands committed to move forward on land reform, something it had long promised in light of the fact that much of Sierra Leone’s land is held under customary tenure and not documented or registered. At a meeting with lawyers and experts in Freetown, the question of who would be contracted to draft the legislation came up. There was consensus in the room: no lawyers knew the realities of the current system like Sonkita Conteh and Eleanor Thompson, the two team leaders of Namati Sierra Leone.

The Ministry got more than it bargained for. What could have been a technocratic piece of legislation focused on formalizing customary tenure ended up being a remaking of land and environmental governance and one of the most progressive laws on land and environment in the world. Every provision that Sonkita and Eleanor drafted grew from discussions with communities who’d taken on violations in their own places.

Here are four of the major changes enacted by the new law:

  • Grant all communities the right to free, prior, informed consent over any industrial project on their territory.41

  • Incorporate environmental license conditions into binding agreements between companies and communities.42

  • Ban industrial development in ecologically sensitive zones, including old-growth forests.43

  • Empower local land use committees and require that women make up at least thirty percent of every committee.44

The CLRA did not pass without a fight. Community members who helped shape the bill turned out in large numbers at consultations held nationwide during 2019. They spoke from their own experience about why the changes were necessary and countered voices in favor of the status quo.

Foreign investors were among those who objected to the bill. Gerben Harringsma, the white CEO of the Sierra Leone operations of Socfin, which owns the largest palm oil plantation in the country, predicted that requiring consent from communities would make major investment in agriculture “totally impossible.” He said that if the law passed, he’d never come back to the country.45

Socfin is notorious for land and human rights violations.46 For many Sierra Leoneans, Socfin embodies a neocolonial model of development, by which white people extract wealth and Sierra Leoneans hardly benefit. So the comments by Harringsma may have helped the bill politically rather than hurt it. But the objections from the private sector, along with initial resistance from the National Council of Paramount Chiefs,47 did force some concessions during the process of negotiation.

The original bill required village area land committees to be at least fifty percent women, for example, and specified that “free prior informed consent” (FPIC) required the consent of sixty percent of members of the community, at least half of whom should be women. In negotiations, the quota for women in village area land committees was reduced to thirty percent, and a looser option, “fair representation,” was added as a way of obtaining FPIC.48

All told, in light of the circumstances, those concessions and others like them were relatively minor. Communities who’d shaped the bills kept up pressure throughout, calling and meeting with individual parliamentarians and traveling from across the country to be present in parliament when the bills were due for a vote (see Figure 4). Ultimately both bills passed in August 2022. The new legislation was covered widely in the press, both nationally and internationally.49

Figure 4.

Community members demonstrating in favor of the CLRA at the parliament building in Freetown (photo by Namati).

Figure 4.

Community members demonstrating in favor of the CLRA at the parliament building in Freetown (photo by Namati).

Close modal

B. The Legal Empowerment Cycle

This progression that took place in Sierra Leone, from grassroots struggles toward transformative legislation, is part of what we call the legal empowerment cycle or wheel.50


On the left side of the wheel, people like Mrs. Jalloh, Daw Nang Nwe, and Rhonda Hamilton use existing rules to take on injustice in their own places. Win or lose, they can come together with others to envision, and fight for, better rules. People involved in grassroots struggles bring two key assets to lawmaking that others who typically hold the pen for laws and policies (such as agency officials, legislators, lobbyists, and experts) lack.

The first is learning about how the current system is working in practice, drawn from data and lived experience across many attempts to make the system work. The second asset is leadership. The process of knowing and using existing rules to take on a problem in your own neighborhood, we have found, can build confidence and credibility, putting people in a stronger position to lead larger-scale movements to improve rules and systems for everyone.

We think of this as a cycle, rather than a one-way street, because we know that laws and policy commitments don’t implement themselves. Adopting the CLRA on paper doesn’t automatically change land governance in Sierra Leone in practice. Paralegals and communities can breathe life into the new legislation by invoking its provisions to solve lived problems. Those grassroots struggles will give rise to more learning, more leadership, and new demands for systemic change. This wheel—of knowing law, using law, and shaping law—is one all of us can take part in turning. It represents a deeper version of democracy.

Movements have turned this wheel everywhere Namati works. In Myanmar before the coup, for example, paralegals and communities persuaded parliament to recognize in law, for the first time, the customary land rights of ethnic minorities.51 In Maryland in 2022, communities and advocates, drawing on their grassroots experience, succeeded in codifying in the state budget President Biden’s Justice 40 principle, under which at least forty percent of investments in climate change should go to disadvantaged communities.52

Turning the wheel doesn’t always involve pressing for new law. Sometimes communities come together to address a systemic breakdown that is hindering the implementation of existing law. An example of that occurred in Kenya in 2019. Over the prior two years, community paralegals working with Namati and several Kenyan partner organizations had supported eleven communities from across the country to complete the steps required under the 2016 Kenya Community Land Act: document their boundaries, adopt rules for governing their land, and elect land-management committees.

In the meantime, the government ignored the law it had adopted; not a single community received rights under the Community Land Act. Then in July 2019, representatives from all eleven communities we’d worked with traveled to Nairobi and marched to the Ministry of Lands. Among them was Matito Leriso (see Figure 5), who lives in a village called Lenguruma in Isiolo County. Like Mrs. Jalloh, Matito is a grandmother in her sixties who has not gone to school. She had never visited Nairobi before.

Figure 5.

Matito Leriso of Lenguruma, Kenya (photo by Namati).

Figure 5.

Matito Leriso of Lenguruma, Kenya (photo by Namati).

Close modal

The official who received the marchers spoke dismissively at first. “You’re in the wrong place—you should have approached your county governments.” The marchers responded with confidence, saying that “the law requires community land registrars at the county level, and the national government has failed to deploy them.”

They showed him their applications—the detailed bylaws, the maps, the names of elected committee members, one third of whom were women, as required by the Kenyan constitution. At this point, the official called his boss.

Kenyan land experts and NGOs, including Namati, had sought to meet with the Secretary of Lands about implementation of the Community Land Act for months. We couldn’t get an appointment. These herders, arriving unannounced and en masse, wearing their traditional regalia, saw her in one day.

The Secretary initially offered to look into resolving the applications from these eleven communities in particular. “We’re not just here for ourselves,” Matito said to the Secretary. “There are thousands of communities like ours, and we need you to make this law work for all of us.”

The march was covered in major newspapers and TV programs. Under pressure, the Ministry of Lands agreed to set up a committee to implement the law and, most importantly, to hire the twenty-four community land registrars who are supposed to process applications across the country. It was a breakthrough. It would not have happened without the learning and leadership that emerged from grassroots efforts to implement the law in specific communities.53

A. Converging Around the Power to Govern, Which Has Three Pillars

In addition to working on the ground in six countries, Namati convenes the Grassroots Justice Network, a global community of justice defenders. Our membership comes from over 3,500 organizations across 175 countries. Among the many issues our network members address, including criminal justice, the right to health care, and citizenship discrimination, the nexus of land, environment, and climate has emerged as one of the key issue areas that are most prominent.54

This is, I believe, a sign of our times. Decisions about the environment are made in the context of acute imbalances of power. Those decisions have enormous consequences for the people involved and for the species. For many people today, pursuing justice means pursuing land and environmental justice.

Since 2021, we have convened about twenty leading members of our network who focus substantially on land and environment. Members of this smaller group include Samburu Women’s Trust, the Indigenous-led Kenyan group I mentioned above, which supports Matito Leriso and others in the pursuit of community land rights; Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (YLBHI), a national legal aid network in Indonesia; Bangladesh Environmental Law Association; Consejo de Mujeres Indígenas y Biodiversidad, an Indigenous-led group in Guatemala; WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem, which Vernice Miller-Travis and Peggy Shepard cofounded; and the Highlander Research and Education Center (formerly Highlander Folk School), the 100-year-old movement-building organization based in Tennessee where many historic leaders have received training, including Rosa Parks and John Lewis.

Over monthly Zoom calls (with translation), and during a two-city in-person gathering in Mexico City and Nairobi, we have compared experiences and asked ourselves whether, across our diverse contexts, we have key demands in common.

I have been surprised by the level of convergence. The core common idea that emerged—shared across poor countries and rich countries, across urban communities and rural ones—is the right of communities facing harm to govern the places where they live.

The right to govern has three key pillars.55 First, it involves the right to manage common natural resources, like grazing lands, green spaces, forests, swamps, and water bodies. Second, the right to govern involves a community’s power to decide whether to welcome an outside investor or development project, as captured in the principle of “free prior informed consent” (FPIC). Communities want accurate information about what’s proposed, the ability to say yes or no, and, if yes, on what terms. Conditions set by communities can be incorporated into binding agreements between companies and host communities, or incorporated into permits issued by regulatory agencies, or both.

Third, when communities are hosting or coexisting with industrial activity, they should be able to participate in the enforcement of rules shaping that activity—limits on pollution, for example, or requirements to make local hires a priority. Currently, regulatory enforcement, when it happens at all, tends to be a technocratic exercise based on reports submitted by the companies themselves and occasional inspection visits by agency officials. The communities living next door to industrial facilities are often not even aware that an inspection visit or enforcement action is taking place. Many communities around the world have expressed a desire to play an active role in monitoring and enforcing regulation on industrial activity, including both conditions set by the host community and conditions imposed by state agencies.

The right to govern would necessarily look different in different contexts. Communities like Mrs. Jalloh’s and Matito Leriso’s have ownership claims over large swaths of common land. Governance power flows from a recognition of those land rights. In peri-urban or urban areas, land is often parceled into smaller plots, and communities are a mix of homeowners and renters. In those latter contexts, the right to govern is less about land ownership and more about land use.

Where they exist, local zoning boards are, in principle, sites for making community decisions about land use. But zoning as it functions now has significant problems. Zoning boards are often captured by local elites and functioning at a level—the county, for example—that is distant from specific communities that are overburdened. In the United States, local zoning boards are also sometimes barred from making decisions about consequential development projects, such as fossil fuel infrastructure, on the grounds of preemption by federal legislation.56

To address these gaps, the movement group Renew Rhode Island introduced “Green Justice Zone” legislation in the state legislature in 2021. The bill would require facilities seeking to operate in overburdened neighborhoods to obtain a “Green Justice Zone permit” via a community referendum.57 This is an example of how FPIC and the right to govern could work in an urban U.S. context.

Members of our network are not sanguine about the prospects of securing robust rights to govern in the near future. Juliana Valencia is a Colombian human rights lawyer who’s supported the U’wa people to protect their lands against extractive industries. “Governments and companies like to talk about consultation,” she said at the convening in Mexico City. “It’s a box they can check quickly and move on. … They don’t want to talk about consent.”

When Peggy Sheperd, cofounder of WE ACT in Harlem, listened to Sonkita Conteh of Namati Sierra Leone describe the CLRA, she asked, “How’d you do that?” Peggy has achieved many improbable things during her thirty-four-year tenure as WE ACT’s Executive Director. Today, she cochairs the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. But she said she couldn’t imagine FPIC being granted to environmental justice communities in the United States in her lifetime. Business interests and governments won’t let it happen, she said. Community members are allowed two minutes each to speak at a public hearing, and the regulator can choose what to do with their comments. FPIC is a distant dream.

But Ash-Lee Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Institute, had challenged our group. “What is the impossible thing,” she asked us, “that we might achieve together which we could never achieve alone?” After a year of discussion, the right to govern is one of the impossible, necessary things we have landed on.

Granting communities facing harm the right to govern is both a matter of justice and crucial for combating the climate and biodiversity crises. Research from Latin America, Asia, and Africa suggests that stronger governance rights for forest-dwelling communities leads to less deforestation and lower carbon emissions.58 Experience from China, India, the United States, and elsewhere suggests that greater community involvement in the enforcement of pollution regulation leads to better industrial compliance.59 In the United States and Canada, the Indigenous Environmental Network estimates that Indigenous communities who have blocked fossil fuel projects, invoking their right to free, prior, informed consent, have reduced those nations’ annual emissions by twenty-five percent.60

Worldwide, national governments are moving too slowly in addressing the causes of climate change, including fossil fuel use, industrial pollution, and deforestation. We are not on course to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, above which the droughts, floods, fires, storms, and ocean acidification we’re already experiencing would become profoundly worse. It’s communities who are fighting at the front line of the struggle to avert climate catastrophe. We can bolster those frontline struggles by respecting the rights of communities to govern the places they inhabit.

B. Matito Leriso, and Why the Right to Govern Matters for Climate Adaptation

No matter what we do now, though, the climate is changing significantly, and while we can and must slow those changes, we must also learn to adapt to them. Community governance rights are crucial for that work of adaptation as well. I was recently reminded why that’s the case by Matito Leriso, the Indigenous woman from Northern Kenya whom I mentioned above.

Matito is a pastoralist—she makes her living by stewarding cows and goats—and half her animals have died in the recent drought, which was the worst Kenya has seen in forty years. When the grass dried up in her hometown, Matito’s son dropped out of secondary school to walk with the cows in search of pasture. Matito objected. Deprived of the chance to go to school herself, she’d worked tenaciously to get her son this far. “If not me then who will do it,” her son asked her, “and how will we survive?”

After the march Matito joined in 2019, the government did follow through on its commitment to hire community land registrars. And it did begin honoring applications for community land rights, but only from the small number of communities that had been declared “group ranches” by the government in the 1970s. The vast majority of community lands, including Lenguruma, where Matito is from, are classified as “trust lands” and held by county governments.

I visited Lenguruma in April 2022 with Namati teammates and colleagues from Samburu Women’s Trust to discuss strategy going forward. During a meeting in a dried riverbed, community members hatched a plan to make implementation of the Community Land Act an issue in the 2022 county elections.

I sat with Matito in the sand of the riverbed after the meeting. I asked her how she’s able to make pursuing land rights a priority while living through such a disastrous drought. Matito said that to survive droughts, which she knows are getting more frequent and more severe, “we need the power to manage the resources we have.”

She gave the example of acacia pods, which are a vital backup source of forage when the grasses go dry. She observed that many people were breaking the custom of forgoing the pods until and unless there’s a genuine lack of grass—like raiding a piggy bank in normal times, leaving it empty when you really need it. As a member of the Community Land Management Committee, Matito had proposed a fine for violators—a goat and 5,000 shillings—to make the custom an enforceable rule.

Matito told me the fine has been working for the people of Lenguruma. But others have come in from outside and taken the pods, before it was time to do so, without the community’s permission. Without recognized land rights, Matito said, there’s little Lenguruma can do.

“The same is true of government and corporations. As of now they can grab what we have at any time. If we’re going to survive drought going forward,” she said, “we need to be able to make decisions about our small patch of the earth.”

The Global Commission on Adaptation reached a similar conclusion. Cochaired by Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates, and Kristalina Georgieva (then CEO of the World Bank), the Commission analyzed key priorities for adapting to climate change in both rural and urban settings and in relation to several systems, including agriculture, water management, and disaster preparedness. The Commission noted, “Unfortunately, in most countries, participatory planning with local populations is uncommon, even though it helps develop shared goals, coordinate action, and build on local knowledge.”61

The Commission developed a set of principles to strengthen “locally led adaptation,”62 which over 100 organizations have since joined, including the governments of Nepal, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The first of those eight principles endorses “giving local institutions and communities more direct access to finance and decision-making power over how adaptation actions are defined, prioritized, designed, [and] implemented.”63

C. And Yet: FPIC vs. NIMBY and Other Reasons to Doubt Community Governance

Many corporations and governments have long resisted the rights of communities to govern the places where they live because granting those rights constrains state and corporate power.64 That sort of pushback is familiar. In the United States today, the idea of community rights also faces pushback from a less obvious source: some of those favoring robust action to address climate change and inequality.

Writers like Ezra Klein and Jerusalem Demsas have noted that wealthy communities often manipulate procedural protections to block essential investments in things like affordable housing, public transportation, and renewable energy. These observers point to myriad examples: In Washington, D.C., for example, wealthy white communities successfully held up a proposed commuter rail, the purple line, for twenty years. The Sierra Club had named the purple line one of the country’s top twenty-five transportation projects because it promised to reduce car usage and sprawl. In a lawsuit, the purple line opponents claimed to be worried about harm to two rare crustacean species which later appeared not to inhabit the area.65 In Berkeley, California, wealthy homeowners blocked the expansion of local university enrollment by claiming that adding students would increase pollution.66

Klein asks whether a prior generation’s solution—procedural protections related to the environment—has become this generation’s problem.67 In a spirited essay titled Community Input Is Bad, Actually, Jerusalem Demsas concluded that “deference to community input is a big part of why the U.S. is suffering from a nearly 3.8-million-home shortage and has failed to build sufficient mass transit, and why renewable energy is lacking in even the most progressive states.”68

The United States’ major climate reform, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), was passed in August 2022, the same month the CLRA was adopted by the Sierra Leonean parliament. Unlike the CLRA, the IRA does nothing to strengthen the rights of communities facing harm to govern the places where they live.

To the contrary, the deal struck with Senator Manchin to pass separate “permitting reform” legislation would likely go in the opposite direction. Senator Manchin was seeking, at least in part, to accelerate the approval of fossil fuel projects such as the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. Most people favoring robust climate action do not share Manchin’s view, respecting instead the International Energy Agency’s finding that construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure must stop immediately.69

But Demsas notes in another article that, as of September 2022, twenty of the thirty-one energy proposals on the federal government’s permitting dashboard were for renewable projects. “In 2022,” she writes, “making it harder to build disproportionately harms renewable energy infrastructure.”70 Demsas questions why the environmental justice movement, which largely opposed Manchin’s proposal, seems to emphasize process (e.g., community rights) rather than outcomes (e.g., which sort of energy or transport infrastructure we should build).

I find these arguments by Klein, Demsas, and others to be compelling and certainly worth grappling with. Are community rights more problem than solution in some contexts? Is there a way to respect the rights of communities without enabling more counterproductive NIMBYism?

We certainly should not romanticize local communities, which tend to contain the multitudes of the human condition, from public-spiritedness and neighborliness to violence, greed, and hate. When Mahatma Gandhi argued that the future of Indian democracy depended on empowered village-level governance, the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar responded skeptically. “What is the village,” Ambedkar asked during a debate among fellow drafters of the Indian constitution, “but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”

It’s in the villages, Ambedkar argued, that caste hierarchy is most entrenched.71 In a similar vein, the U.S. civil rights movement sought to check racial abuse at a local level with federal interventions such as the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. Ultimately, we need effective, substantively sound governance at multiple levels—local, state, national, and international.

Another complex question that arises in our work, and that skeptics like Demsas sometimes allude to, is how to define “community.” Most of us are part of many communities. I’m a Kutchi, for example, and a Jain, an American, a justice advocate, a capoeirista, a Washingtonian. In the environmental justice context, a key element for defining community is place. Communities are demanding the ability to steward the physical landscapes they inhabit.

How big or small should the boundary be drawn, though? Where does one community end and another begin?

Before grappling with these worthy questions about community governance, I’d like to reflect on the substantive half of the environmental justice agenda.

Traditionally, the environmental justice movement has often been forced to focus on fighting against harm: land grabs, pollution, heedless destruction. Those fights continue to be crucial. They are pivotal to the well-being of the people involved and, in the aggregate, they have major consequences for the planet as a whole.

But Demsas is right that fighting harm is only part of the story. Transitioning to a sustainable economy is an affirmative project. It requires work: building alternative energy infrastructure; protecting and stewarding nature; cleaning up legacy pollution; increasing resilience; improving public transportation; building dense, affordable, and disaster-proof housing; building systems for reducing waste; shifting toward regenerative agriculture; etc.

Nearly everywhere I go, I hear communities who have had to say no to destruction expressing an eagerness to say yes to some of that affirmative work. People don’t want to have to choose between being poisoned and having a job. They want jobs that don’t poison them.72

Take the Curtis Bay neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, for example, which is known for environmental injustice.73 Curtis Bay is home to uncovered, four-story piles of coal (see Figure 6); the nation’s largest medical waste incinerator; a chemical plant; and a petroleum-processing facility. The neighborhood is also four miles south of Baltimore’s largest polluter, the Wheelabrator trash incinerator. The federal Environmental Protection Agency ranks Curtis Bay in the ninety-fifth percentile for hazardous waste proximity.

Figure 6.

Open coal piles across the street from a recreation center in Curtis Bay, Baltimore (photo by author).

Figure 6.

Open coal piles across the street from a recreation center in Curtis Bay, Baltimore (photo by author).

Close modal

Shashawnda Campbell grew up in Curtis Bay. Her younger brother struggled with severe asthma. Shashawnda herself had chronic bronchitis, which improved when she moved out of Curtis Bay but got worse when she began working in the neighborhood again. A 2017 report from the Baltimore Health Department showed the death rate from chronic respiratory disease in Curtis Bay and two surrounding neighborhoods to be more than double the average for the city;74 Baltimore itself has asthma rates fifty percent higher than the average for the country.75

The community of Curtis Bay has had to wage many battles against environmental harm, including a successful fight against a proposed crude oil rail depot in 2018. After a massive explosion occurred at the existing coal terminal in late 2021,76 many members of the community have been pushing for greater safety measures at the terminal. Some are asking for its closure.

Today, Shashawnda and the Community of Curtis Bay Association, of which she’s a member, are also engaged in an affirmative struggle. The Association is proposing to build a composting facility and zero-waste recovery park in the community, which would create fertile soil, reduce waste sent to the nearby trash incinerator and landfill, and thereby curtail both local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.77 The Association is proposing a facility that is community owned and community run, one that creates dignified work for local residents. The proposed facility will eventually become self-sustaining, but it requires start-up capital. Shashawnda and the Association are advocating that the government make that initial investment.

In Sierra Leone, Mrs. Jalloh and her residents association said no to the palm oil company in part because they wanted to say yes to the Gola Rainforest Park. The park hires community members as forest guards and guides, offers scholarships to local students, and provides technical and financial support to farmers engaging in mixed-crop farming in the buffer zone around the park. As of this writing, Namati is working with Mrs. Jalloh’s community to negotiate an even stronger partnership with the park, including more transparency around, and a greater share of, the payments the park receives from the voluntary carbon market. In explaining why she prefers the park over the plantation, Mrs. Jalloh said she wants a way of flourishing that involves stewarding the forest rather than destroying it.

Accelerating the transition toward a sustainable economy is, in my view, an equal priority for the global environmental justice movement, alongside community rights to govern. Achieving the transitions that are necessary requires shifts in economic and development policy across all levels of government, and in many domains, as mentioned above, including energy, transportation, agriculture, conservation, and waste management.

Investments in transitioning our economy need to come at a scale and speed that allow us to stay within the globally agreed target of 1.5 degrees of warming. Currently, we are not even close. The decision document from the most recent climate talks in Egypt notes a need for $4–$6 trillion in climate finance per year up to 2030—only $1 trillion per year is invested currently.78 If we do not transition fast enough, everyone will suffer, and people who are more vulnerable will suffer disproportionately.79 I hear communities in every country where we work increasingly emphasizing this point: the climate transition is not someone else’s problem. Their own lives are on the line.

What we do with climate finance matters as much as the quantum that’s invested. We should pursue the transformation of our economy in a way that addresses inequality and that harnesses the leadership of people who are bearing the brunt of environmental harms.80 The Biden administration took a major step in this direction by committing to the “Justice 40” principle, which means that at least forty percent of the benefits from investments in green infrastructure should go to disadvantaged communities.81

Building on discussions among the small group of organizations I mentioned above, our network is advocating for a global analogue to the Justice 40 principle; i.e., we want a significant proportion of climate and environmental finance to go directly to communities facing harm.82 Currently, most international climate finance goes to national governments and corporations. Researchers estimate, for example, that only one in ten dollars for climate adaptation goes to communities.83 Although Biden’s Justice 40 initiative refers to the benefits of investments, a simpler version would focus on the investments themselves.

We need to invest in communities in part because national governments, corporations, and experts don’t have all the solutions. With resources to experiment, communities can demonstrate what a sustainable economy looks like.

With that affirmative side of the environmental justice agenda in mind, we can return to the concerns about community governance. Despite the genuine risks and complexities, I believe that the goal of empowered communities is worth fighting for. For those who have borne the brunt of environmental harms—in rich countries and poor countries alike—the suggestion to trust that higher authorities are now doing the right thing doesn’t go down well; it feels ahistorical.

When I asked Vernice Miller-Travis, who co-wrote Toxic Waste and Race and cofounded WE ACT in Harlem, about Demsas’s arguments, Vernice reflected on the way “bias has shaped generations of land use decisions made by every level of the U.S. government,” leading to the racist distribution of harm we have today.84 “Community rights,” she said, “ain’t the problem.”

As discussed above, I have found that disadvantaged and overburdened communities often welcome investment; they are more YIMBY than NIMBY. But that’s not universally true. And newer, greener technologies will create harms of their own, albeit at a far smaller scale than harms caused by the older, largely combustion-based industries they are replacing.85

Our network member ProDESC of Mexico supported the Indigenous community of Union Hidalgo, in Oaxaca state, to cancel a plan for a wind park because Électricité de France, a utility company owned by the French government, had secured permits for the park without community consent.86 Another network member, FIMA of Chile, works with Indigenous communities in the Atacama plateau who are being harmed by brine evaporation, a destructive, water-intensive form of lithium mining.87 Lithium is a critical element in the manufacture of electric car batteries.

In cases like those, community governance rights are crucial to ensure that the new green economy does not reproduce the exploitation that has characterized the extractive economy we have had to date.

If we are to find our way through the environmental crisis and the other grave threats we face as a civilization, trust between citizens and their governments is crucial. My sense is that deepening community governance, rather than overriding it or setting it aside, is necessary for creating that trust. Indeed, in our work on legal empowerment, we’ve seen that partnering with neighbors to solve a local problem can build muscles of engagement, which can then be exercised to address even larger problems, at higher levels of government.88

Ultimately, a sustainable economy requires a culture of stewardship. We can grow the roots of that culture, I believe, by taking care of the specific places where we live.

But is there a way to reconcile respect for community governance with the risks described above? I believe there is.

A. Tailor the Right to Govern, and Simplify Rather Than Weaken

Of the three pillars I outlined, Demsas’s worries do not bear much on the third pillar. If we are committed to the rule of law and implementation of rules on the books, then community involvement in enforcement is a boon both for the community and for society at large. The first pillar, regarding community governance over common natural resources, may also be unobjectionable to Demsas et al., except to the extent that communities see protection of their commons (e.g., grazing lands, forests, swamps, water bodies) as incompatible with investments that are necessary for the greater good, like alternative energy and housing.

It’s the second pillar, involving decisions about development, that worries Demsas and her fellow critics the most. I see two ways to structure reforms so as to mitigate their concerns.

First, reforms granting the right to FPIC could be tailored so that the power to say no is given only to communities who have been harmed historically. Currently, when FPIC rights are respected by law, the right is typically granted only to Indigenous peoples. The 2006 Forest Rights Act in India, for example, offers communities belonging to Scheduled Tribes the power to determine whether industrial development should happen on their land.89

It’s possible to widen access to FPIC beyond Indigenous peoples, even without meeting the high standards of the CLRA in Sierra Leone, which granted FPIC rights to every community in the country. The Green Justice Zones legislation from Rhode Island that I mentioned, for example, didn’t apply to the whole state, but rather to the most polluted neighborhood in the state. That neighborhood, the industrial area around Port of Providence, is inhabited by people of color, but mostly not people who identify as Indigenous.

A targeted version of FPIC could be incorporated into legislation designed to address cumulative environmental impacts. In recent years, New York and New Jersey passed laws that bar the granting of permits that would worsen pollution in overburdened (New Jersey’s term) or disadvantaged (New York’s term) communities.90 These laws are a breakthrough; they address a long-standing demand of environmental justice movements around the world. Environmental regulators make permitting decisions one facility at a time and typically fail to account for what happens when polluting facilities are clustered in specific places.

The New Jersey and New York laws leave it to the state departments of environment to determine whether a specific permit application would worsen cumulative impacts. Conceivably, these reforms could go one step further, allowing the community itself to determine whether a permit should be granted, perhaps through a referendum following a public hearing in which key facts are presented. This right to decide whether to welcome industry (the second of the three governance pillars I’ve described) would not be granted to all communities, just to those determined by the state to be overburdened or disadvantaged.

A second way to mitigate the Demsas–Klein concerns is to make the FPIC process simpler and faster. The NIMBY stories Demsas and Klein tell almost all involve lengthy, expensive lawsuits, which is a prominent feature of American environmental regulation in particular. Right now in the United States, communities do not have the right to say no, which is why they resort to various legal challenges. An alternative would be to give (at least disadvantaged) communities the right to say no but require that they come to a binding decision relatively quickly.

I asked Crystal Cavalier-Keck about the arguments against community voice. Crystal is a member of the Saponi Nation in North Carolina; she is a leading advocate in the fight to cancel the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.91 Speaking of her community, Crystal said, “We’re okay with doing our part to host the nation’s energy infrastructure. Let us choose which kind of infrastructure though.” Because of the pollution risks associated with natural gas, and because of its contribution to climate change, her community, she said, would prefer either solar or wind. “Once we choose,” Crystal said, “you can hold us to it.”

B. Defining Community

Drawing on hundreds of cases she studied over the course of her career, commons scholar and Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom concluded that “moderate size” was a key factor in whether community-driven commons management would be successful.

For land-related resource systems, such as forests, very large territories are unlikely to be self-organized given the high costs of defining boundaries (e.g., surrounding with markers or fences), monitoring use patterns, and gaining ecological knowledge. Very small territories do not generate substantial flows of valuable products. Thus, moderate territorial size is most conducive to self-organization.92

Reforms to recognize customary tenure rights, including the Kenya Community Land Act and the Liberian Community Land Act, often deal with the question of community definition by allowing communities to define themselves when they submit applications for recognition. In some cases, the registration process requires boundary agreements with neighboring communities, so, to apply, communities need to negotiate and agree with each other. In the event of conflicting or competing claims, the laws typically set out a process for intercommunity adjudication.

In urban and periurban contexts, there are often multiple nested jurisdictions, such as wards, boroughs, municipalities, and counties. Strengthening community governance may involve decentralizing certain functions and decisions to more local levels or introducing a new neighborhood mechanism, such as the Green Justice Zone, that works in tandem with the existing ones.

Like the tailoring and procedural simplification we discussed above, this is a domain where the design of community governance reforms can and should vary by context.

C. Protect Rights Within Communities

What about Ambedkar’s retort to Gandhi? Bias persists within many communities against one or more groups of people, including women, ethnic minorities, lower castes, migrants (a growing population, in part because of climate change), youth, and renters or land users (as opposed to landowners). Reforms to strengthen community governance should include protections against intra-community discrimination and elite capture.

As of this writing, Matito’s community, Lenguruma, has not yet received a title under the Kenya Community Land Act. Matito told me that the greatest impact of their work so far has been on the rights of women. “Previously land issues were discussed by men,” she said. But the paralegals explained that the law requires the participation of all adults in the community and that, to be compliant, the land management committee needs to be at least one-third women. Matito herself ran to serve on that committee, and won. “Now there’s no meeting without us,” she said.

The Sierra Leone CLRA has sections dedicated to discrimination and gender equality. In addition to requiring that land-use committees include at least thirty percent women, as mentioned above, the CLRA protects the rights of land users (who are typically people who have migrated into a community after its founding) and ensures that women will have equal inheritance rights (which are not granted under the customary law of some Sierra Leonean tribes).93

I don’t see a dichotomy between Ambedkar’s push for equity and Gandhi’s push for robust community governance. We need both.

What does the discussion in parts 3, 4, and 5 boil down to? In Table 4, I summarize the policy vision that I see emerging for the global environmental justice movement.

Table 4.

What does global environmental justice look like?

Communities, especially those who have been systemically harmed or marginalized, have the power to govern the places they live. 
That means communities are empowered to (1) manage common natural resources, (2) make informed decisions about outside investment, and (3) take part in the enforcement of social and environmental protections. 
We can mitigate the risks of obstruction and intra-community inequity by (1) limiting full FPIC rights to those communities who have been disproportionately harmed, (2) simplifying decision-making, and (3) adopting protections against discrimination and elite capture. 
Communities are empowered to lead the transition to a sustainable economy. 
Governments at all levels should make investments and shifts in policy which reduce or eliminate destructive activity, accelerate more sustainable alternatives, and increase resilience at the scale and pace necessary to meet the scientifically grounded goals of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees and conserving half the Earth’s surface by 2050. 
A significant proportion of investments should go not to corporations or governments, but to communities facing harm. 
It’s safe to stand up for your community and the planet. 
Governments should protect environmental and human rights defenders against retaliation. (I will come to this in part VI.) 
Communities, especially those who have been systemically harmed or marginalized, have the power to govern the places they live. 
That means communities are empowered to (1) manage common natural resources, (2) make informed decisions about outside investment, and (3) take part in the enforcement of social and environmental protections. 
We can mitigate the risks of obstruction and intra-community inequity by (1) limiting full FPIC rights to those communities who have been disproportionately harmed, (2) simplifying decision-making, and (3) adopting protections against discrimination and elite capture. 
Communities are empowered to lead the transition to a sustainable economy. 
Governments at all levels should make investments and shifts in policy which reduce or eliminate destructive activity, accelerate more sustainable alternatives, and increase resilience at the scale and pace necessary to meet the scientifically grounded goals of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees and conserving half the Earth’s surface by 2050. 
A significant proportion of investments should go not to corporations or governments, but to communities facing harm. 
It’s safe to stand up for your community and the planet. 
Governments should protect environmental and human rights defenders against retaliation. (I will come to this in part VI.) 

I am arguing that this focus on justice and community empowerment is a must-have, not a nice-to-have, if we are to find our way through the environmental crisis. In Table 5, I summarize why that’s the case.

Table 5.

Why does it take empowered communities to fight climate change and mass extinction?

  • Government action is coming too slowly. It is communities standing up for themselves and the planet who are the front line of the struggle to avert catastrophe.

  • To be successful, large-scale reforms should not be designed by experts alone, but should grow from the lived experience of those most affected.

  • When reforms are adopted, they don’t implement themselves. It takes empowered communities to breathe life into them.

  • No matter what we do now, climate change is happening. Community power is necessary to build resilience and adapt.

  • Government action is coming too slowly. It is communities standing up for themselves and the planet who are the front line of the struggle to avert catastrophe.

  • To be successful, large-scale reforms should not be designed by experts alone, but should grow from the lived experience of those most affected.

  • When reforms are adopted, they don’t implement themselves. It takes empowered communities to breathe life into them.

  • No matter what we do now, climate change is happening. Community power is necessary to build resilience and adapt.


But how do you advance environmental justice when democracy itself is under threat?

A. Myanmar Post-coup

When the Myanmar military seized power on February 1, 2021, mass protests broke out across the country, larger than any in the nation’s history. Ma Khin Khin, the lawyer who cofounded Myanmar’s first paralegal program, felt hopeful. The whole country is rejecting this, she thought. Democracy will win.

Ever committed to legal empowerment, Ma Khin Khin thought to spread awareness about law. Myanmar’s 2008 constitution heavily favors the military (for example, it reserves twenty-five percent of parliament for army representatives), and generals justified the coup by citing a constitutional provision that allows for military control under certain circumstances. But that provision applies only if the president concludes that the rule of law is untenable, and in this case, to the contrary, the military had arrested the president.

Ma Khin Khin pointed out this flaw in the military’s constitutional reasoning on Facebook and through a megaphone during protests in her hometown. She addressed her fellow protestors from the clock tower at the town center, standing with other female lawyers, each wearing a black Mandarin-collared lawyer’s coat over a brightly patterned longyi. Ma Khin Khin followed, in this moment, the guidance she had given community paralegals for nearly a decade: she insisted that the law was more than a ruse.

Soon after, the coup took a darker turn nationwide. With orders from the top, soldiers began responding to protests with live ammunition and arresting dissidents in large numbers. Till then, Ma Khin Khin had not feared for herself. The military tended to respect lawyers as professionals, even ones who identified with the opposition. But the color of the regime changed quickly.

Around nine o’clock on the night of March 28, five trucks of soldiers pulled up to the place where Ma Khin Khin was staying. They didn’t find her that evening, but Ma Khin Khin’s friends and colleagues insisted that she leave town by morning. Volunteers had been preparing backpacks with essentials for the many protestors who were now being arrested: soap, underwear, toothbrush, comb, packets of tea leaf salad.

Ma Khin Khin had kept one of those backpacks for herself, just in case. It’s all she carried when she left home before daybreak. There was a checkpoint at the bridge to cross the Irawaddy River, so friends arranged a canoe. From the other side, a paralegal drove her by motorcycle for five hours, after which she hitched a ride with a truck.

She stayed safely for several months in a different state with the family of a former client. But later that year, her name appeared on a list of advisers to the opposition that got leaked and published. At that point, her friends insisted she flee Myanmar altogether.

Of the forty-five community paralegals with whom Namati worked closely before the coup, several were forced to leave their home regions. The majority—about thirty-five—are continuing to work. Ma Khin Khin is continuing, too, offering guidance and coaching virtually, from the country where she has taken refuge.94

In discussions in 2021, the paralegals considered whether, in light of the coup, it still made sense to focus on land and environment. The regime in power is illegitimate; the economy has plummeted; the country is at war.

They decided to maintain the focus, for a few reasons. Land continues to be essential for most people’s livelihoods. We don’t have another UN survey on people’s justice needs, like the one that informed our thinking when we got started in 2012, but informally and anecdotally, based on discussions with communities, it seems the results of such a survey would be the same. You’re not secure if the place you dwell or till or forage or do business can be damaged or taken at any time.

Also, it’s safer to engage in land questions than to push for democracy head-on. Land is a somewhat technical subject, with rules and procedures that are still ostensibly in place, and it’s not the fight the military is most concerned with now.

Within that broad focus on land and environment, paralegals have shifted how they work and the kinds of cases they deal with. Whereas before, paralegals would often accompany community members to government offices, they now work more behind the scenes, advising and organizing, to avoid direct exposure.

Previously, military land-grab cases were a major focus. But the administrative process for addressing those cases, which was set up by the democratically elected parliament, is no longer functioning, and direct appeals for redress are dangerous and unlikely to be successful. So, for the most part paralegals aren’t touching those cases these days. Instead, paralegals are looking for spaces where there’s room to engage, organize communities, and solve lived problems.

In the post-coup period, paralegals have found some success in supporting communities to apply for community forestry certificates, for example. Compared with other parts of the government, the forest department is relatively more technocratic and less influenced by the military, and forest officials have continued to process community applications. A certificate is not a perfect shield; ultimately, the military can do what it wants. But early experience suggests that delineating and certifying a forest offers at least partial deterrence against grabbing by companies, elite individuals, and the military.

The process of registering a community forest is also a chance to strengthen community governance. Much like their counterparts in northern Kenya, paralegals facilitate the election of forest management committees and the adoption of community bylaws for managing the forest. That kind of local organizing builds and sustains community power. “Community power is what we need,” one colleague told me, “to achieve democracy in the long run.”

B. Environmental Injustice and the Struggle for Democracy Are Intertwined. And Environmental Defenders Are at Risk

Beyond Myanmar as well, land and environment are often key battlegrounds in the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. In China, for example, pollution is one of very few issues on which activists have been able to make headway since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.95

In Brazil, Bolsonaro expressed indifference about climate change, showed disregard for Indigenous peoples, and pursued an extractive approach to the Amazon.96 Lula narrowly defeated him in 2022 on a Green New Deal platform that included protection of an additional half a million square kilometers of the Amazon, respect for the land rights of Indigenous people, and investments in decarbonization and sustainable agriculture.97

Balsonaro may have taken notes from authoritarian-leaning Trump, who denied climate change, expanded oil and gas extraction, and decimated the EPA.98 Biden has continued some of Trump’s emphasis on expanding oil and gas, but on balance Biden has delivered more on climate and, in particular, more for communities who have been overburdened by pollution, than any other president in U.S. history.99 Nearly everywhere today, the struggle for environmental justice and the struggle for democracy are closely intertwined.

It’s shameful but unsurprising, then, that standing up for the planet in the twenty-first century can get you killed.100 Frontline Defenders reports that the majority of people who are murdered for protecting human rights are working to defend rights to land and the environment.101 In the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon, the pandemic unleashed new levels of brutality, with twenty-one Indigenous land and environmental defenders murdered in the first quarter of 2021 alone. Nearly all of them were attempting to secure land rights over their territories to stop illegal deforestation by, among others, coca and oil palm plantations.

Jiribati Ashaninka, president of ORAU, an alliance of fifteen Indigenous peoples in Peru, spoke to me from his home in Ucayali, the region where many of the killings took place. “Our communities have asked us leaders to fight” against land grabbing and illegal deforestation, he said. “They have asked us to claim our rights, and because of that we are at risk.”

Ashaninka said every murder sends a message. “Some of our leaders have gone silent on the issue of land rights,” he said. “Some have gone deeper into the forest to hide.” He said killings have occurred for years, but no one has ever been convicted. Peru’s minister of internal affairs sometimes issues a report, he said, but “that isn’t useful when you’re dead.”

In addition to advocating for the rights of communities to govern the places they inhabit and lead the transition to a sustainable economy, members of our network are unified in demanding legal protections for environmental defenders. Governments protect those who serve as witnesses in criminal prosecutions, for example, and those who blow the whistle on abuse from inside a corporation or state agency. We should do the same for people who stand up for their communities to defend against land grabs or unlawful pollution.

The Escazu Agreement across Latin America and the Caribbean is a positive step in this direction. Among other things, Escazu requires all its member states—as of this writing, fourteen countries including Mexico and Colombia—to create legal protections for environmental defenders.102 It’s the first multilateral agreement to do so.

C. Global Solidarity

In the face of grave threats, the global justice movement can be a valuable source of learning and solidarity. Six months after the coup in Myanmar, we organized a secure Zoom call with veterans in our network from South Africa, Thailand, and Cambodia, all of whom have lived through, and fought for justice through, brutal dictatorships. Over 100 community paralegals from across Myanmar dialed in and listened, with the help of translators.

Tshenolo Tshoaedi, a long-time paralegal from South Africa, recalled conferring with community members in church confessionals, one of the only places where it was safe to meet. Yeng Virak, a land rights lawyer and founding member of our network, described how Cambodian authorities jailed him for what he said at a Human Rights Day celebration in 2005. A campaign helped secure his release and, using his case as an example, got imprisonment removed as a possible penalty for defamation.103

Echoing the words Vernice Miller-Travis spoke to Peggy Shepard at the opening of the People of Color Summit in 1991, these veterans said to their counterparts in Myanmar, “You are not alone.” We’ve seen similar things. And we’re still here.

We are not alone, several of the Myanmar participants repeated back. The atmosphere on that call was cathartic.

When authoritarian leaders like Balsonaro, Trump, Narendra Modi, and Victor Orban win elections, it’s often because of the force of the stories they tell about national identity. Trust me, these leaders often say, because I will protect you from the others (minorities, immigrants, government bureaucrats) who want to take what’s rightfully yours. Put your faith in me, and we will restore our nation’s greatness. For those who respond positively to this story, it cuts deep. It’s visceral and emotional.

To defend democracy and achieve a harmonious relationship with nature, we cannot rely exclusively on legal principles or alarming statistics or technical expertise, though all of those are important. It’s also not enough to point out the dangers of the authoritarian story. We need an alternative story, one that resonates viscerally, about who we are and where we must go.

I hear the seeds of a story like that from people who are fighting for their own places and the planet: people like Mrs. Jalloh, Shashawnda Campbell, Daw Nang Nwe, Rhonda Hamilton, Ma Khin Khin, and Matito Leriso. It’s a story about coming together to protect nature and one another, community by community. It’s about replacing inequality and environmental destruction with a new, more reverent, more sustainable way of life.

Those people are showing us something else, too: how to turn the deep story about environmental justice into reality. Identify and take on environmental injustice where you live. Is the river that runs through your town being poisoned? Is there land being destroyed? Is there an opportunity to replace something extractive with something that’s relatively protective and regenerative?

Get to know the people most affected. Find out what the rules say and try to use those rules, no matter how imperfect, in combination with your own collective people power to achieve a solution. Win or lose, come together with others to fight for better rules and systems, ones that deepen community governance, accelerate the transition to the world we need, and counter repression.

Know law, use law, shape law.

It’s a pathway all of us can walk.


India Needs a Smooth Fox, Not a Hedgehog, Says Jairam Ramesh, Times of India (May 4, 2011), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/8156076.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst.


Darryl Fears & Brady Dennis, “This is Environmental Racism”: How a Protest in North Carolina Farming Town Sparked a National Movement, Wash. Post (Apr. 6, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/interactive/2021/environmental-justice-race/.


United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States (1987), https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1310/ML13109A339.pdf.


See, e.g., Philip Shabecoff, Environmental Groups Are Told They Are Racists in Hiring, N.Y. Times, Feb. 1, 1990 (noting that the Sierra Club had one person of color in its staff of 250 and that “the other groups [the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, the National Parks and Conservation Association, and the National Audubon Society] have similar records”).


In This Land Is Our Land, Jedediah Purdy outlines the white supremacist and/or eugenicist views of people like Madison Grant, who helped create the Bronx Zoo; Gifford Pinchot, “the country’s foremost theorizer and populizer of conservation and head of Roosevelt’s Forest Service”; John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club; and President Theodore Roosevelt himself. Purdy traces how those views influenced the modern environmental movement. Jedediah Purdy, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth 111–23 (2019).


Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History 38 (1999).


Id. at 98–124.


See, e.g., Philip J. Landrigan et al., The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, 391 Lancet 462 (2018) (“[I]n countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalized.”); Mary D. Willis et al., It’s Electric! An Environmental Equity Perspective on the Lifecycle of Our Energy Sources, 7 Envt Epidemiology e246 (2023), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10097546/ (“[N]atural gas extraction sites and disposal wells are disproportionately cited [sic] within communities of color across multiple geographic contexts. … Extraction sites in marginalized communities are also more likely to flare excess natural gas. … Natural gas infrastructure, such as pipelines, compressor stations, and power plants, are often located in the middle of low-income neighborhoods.”); Intl Union for Conservation of Nature, Issues Brief: Forests and Climate Change (2021), https://www.iucn.org/sites/default/files/2022-04/forests_and_climate_change_issues_brief_2021.pdf (noting that deforestation affects the 1.6 billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods, “many of whom are the world’s poorest”).


Hop Hopkins, Racism Is Killing the Planet, Sierra (June 8, 2020), https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/racism-killing-planet.


See, e.g., Food and Agric. Org. of the U.N., In Brief: The State of Food and Agriculture—Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security 9 (2016), https://www.fao.org/3/i6132e/i6132e.pdf (“Since the areas most affected would be those with already high rates of hunger and poverty, food price increases would directly affect millions of low-income people. Among the most vulnerable will be those who depend on agriculture for their livelihood and income, particularly smallholder producers in developing countries.”); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability vii, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGII_SummaryVolume.pdf (“It is clear that across sectors and regions, the most vulnerable people and systems are disproportionately affected and climate extremes have led to irreversible impacts.”); U.N. Dept of Econ. and Soc. Affs., World Economic and Social Survey 2016: Climate Change Resilience—An Opportunity for Reducing Inequalities 31 (2016), https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/publication/WESS_2016_Report.pdf (“About 40 per cent of the Earth’s land surface comprises, and 29 per cent of the world’s population lives in, arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid zones, which are facing additional challenges owing to climate change. There is a larger concentration of the poor and other disadvantaged groups of people (such as pastoralists and ethnic minorities) in these areas.”).


Interrelated with climate change is the other great environmental crisis of our times, the loss of biodiversity. Due to a number of man-made phenomena, including habitat loss, pollution, warming, and a surge in invasive species, the Earth is on course to lose twenty to fifty percent of all living species within this century. The new international agreement on biodiversity, adopted in Montreal in December 2022, recognizes that respect for the rights of Indigenous communities is essential to achieving the agreed-upon goal of protecting thirty percent of the Earth’s land and thirty percent of the oceans by 2030. Open Ended Working Group on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, First Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework ¶ 12(1), CBD Doc. CBD/WG2020/3/3 (2021). This is a win for the Indigenous peoples movement and a significant normative shift. To date, conservation has often involved displacement or disenfranchisement of the people who live closest to nature. See, e.g., Thomas Worsdell et al., Rts. & Res. Initiative, Rights-Based Conservation: The Path to Preserving Earths Biological and Cultural Diversity? 4 (2020), https://rightsandresources.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Final_Rights_Conservation_RRI_05-01-2021.pdf (“It has been estimated that up to 136 million people were displaced in formally protecting half of the area currently protected (8.5 million km2).”); David Boyd & Stephanie Keene, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & the Envt, Human Rights-Based Approaches to Conserving Biodiversity: Equitable, Effective and Imperative 5 (2021), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/policy-briefing-1.pdf (“[M]any governments continue to embrace restrictive or exclusionary conservation approaches aiming to purge high-biodiversity areas of human inhabitants.”); Arun Agrawal & Kent Redford, Conservation and Displacement: An Overview, 7 Conservation & Socy 1, 5 (2009), https://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/5333/ConservatSoc711-5531198_152151.pdf?isAllowed=y&sequence=1 (“[T]he use of force is typically critical to displacement from protected areas and … displacement has caused impoverishment, social disarticulation, and political disempowerment.”).


Global Witness, Decade of Defiance: Ten Years of Reporting Land and Environmental Activism Worldwide (Sept. 2022), https://www.globalwitness.org/documents/20425/Decade_of_defiance_EN_-_September_2022.pdf.


Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2023: Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracy 1 (2023), https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/FIW_World_2023_DigtalPDF.pdf.


Daniel A. Farber, Inequality and Regulation: Designing Rules to Address Race, Poverty, and Environmental Justice, 3 Am. J. L. & Equal. 2 (2023).


In the context of attempts to overthrow repressive regimes, Chenoweth and Stefan have shown that nonviolent resistance has been far more effective than violence. Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2011).


The proposed plantation was in line, however, with the government’s overall push to attract foreign investment in the agricultural sector. See, e.g., Sonkita Conteh, Sierra Leone: Large Scale Land Investments and Sierra Leone’s Draft National Land Policy, AllAfrica (May 27, 2015), https://allafrica.com/stories/201505280679.html.


Jackie Dugard & Katherine Drage, “To Whom Do the People Take Their Issues?”: The Contribution of Community-Based Paralegals to Access to Justice in South Africa, in Community Paralegals and the Pursuit of Justice 43 (Vivek Maru & Varun Gauri eds., 2018).


In addition to lawyers, the vertical network that supports community paralegals typically includes lead paralegals and specialists in communications, learning, policy, campaigns, technology, and operations. In Vivek Maru & Varun Gauri, Paralegals in Comparative Perspective: What Have We Learned Across These Six Countries?, in Community Paralegals and the Pursuit of Justice, supra note 17, Gauri and I offer comparative reflections based on empirical studies of community paralegal programs in six countries.


That organization was called Timap for Justice. “Timap” means “stand up” in Sierra Leonean Krio. For a detailed description of that effort, see Vivek Maru, Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide, 31 Yale J. Intl L. (2006).


By this point, there had been a change of ownership since the initial agreement, which we have found is common in large-scale land investments. The frequent changing of hands is one of many factors that make accountability difficult.


RSPO Standards, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, https://rspo.org/as-an-organisation/our-standards/ (last visited June 19, 2023).


Summary Report of Rule of Law and Access to Justice Mapping, UN Development Programme (Mar. 10, 2014), (on file with author).


I have changed her name to protect her safety.


This story is drawn from Namati’s 2020 impact report. Black Water and Toxic Dust: Closing Illegal Mines in Myanmar, Namati: Land & Environmental Justice: Myanmar (2020), https://namati.org/impact-report-2020/myanmar/. McKinley Charles was lead author on this writeup; I assisted. Several colleagues in Myanmar researched the story; I am withholding their names to protect their safety.


As for Daw Nang Nwe, her rash had healed and her cough had subsided, and she was back to running her shop. She no longer thought about leaving the community that she had made a home. If the mines return, “we will keep pushing,” she said. “We will never stop fighting to ensure they follow the law.”


Union Govt Ministry of Envt, Forest & Climate Change, Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Environmental Clearance and Post Clearance Monitoring 50 (2016), https://cag.gov.in/en/audit-report/details/27540.


Envt Integrity Project, EPA Enforcement After 20 Years: Inspections, Investigations, Prosecutions Down by Half; 20-Year Decline Undermines Environmental Justice (2022), https://environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/EPA-Enforcement_20-Year-Review_Final_updated.pdf.


Facility Search Results, U.S. EPA, https://echo.epa.gov/facilities/facility-search/results (last visited Feb. 9, 2023).


Namati Centre for Policy Research database (on file with author). For a detailed exploration of how communities sought and achieved remedies to environmental injustice in India, see Ctr. for Poly Rsch.—Namati Envt Just. Program, Land Conversion, Social Impacts, and Legal Remedies in India: Whats Working? (Sept. 2020), https://grassrootsjusticenetwork.org/resources/land-conversion-social-impacts-legal-remedies-india-whats-working/.


See Namati, 2018 Annual Report 16–19 (2018), https://namati.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/2018-Namati-Annual-Report.pdf.


Namati, Impact Report 2019–2020 (2020), https://namati.org/impact-report-2020/; see also Tina Rosenberg, India’s Barefoot Lawyers, N.Y. Times (Aug. 8, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/opinion/indias-barefoot-lawyers.html. The Myanmar case figures quoted above are an order of magnitude larger because many of the Myanmar cases involved securing household land claims. In India, all the cases studied involved complex collective challenges like encroachment on common resources or unlawful pollution.


Karima Tawfik, No Consent in Nimiyama Chiefdom, Namati (July 22, 2014), https://namati.org/news-stories/no-consent-in-nimiyama-chiefdom/.


Amy Fallon, When People Power Meets Litigation: A History-Making Success Story in Sierra Leone, MobLab (May 19, 2019), https://mobilisationlab.org/stories/how-namati-equipped-sierra-leone-community-to-win-land-back/.


See James Courtright, In Sierra Leone-UK Mining Case, a New Attempt to Measure the Arm of the Law, Christian Sci. Monitor (June 19, 2018), https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2018/0619/In-Sierra-Leone-UK-mining-case-a-new-attempt-to-measure-the-arm-of-the-law.


The orientation toward law that I’m describing is kindred to the one called for by those who practice “movement lawyering.” See, e.g., Scott L. Cummings, Movement Lawyering, 5 Univ. Ill. L. Rev. 1645 (2017). As the term suggests, that approach is primarily focused on the way lawyers think and behave. The legal empowerment approach I’m describing places emphasis on the way people facing injustice know and use law themselves.


Sonkita Conteh and I have written another article that delves into the CLRA and how it was passed. Sonkita Conteh & Vivek Maru, How Sierra Leone Enacted One of the Most Progressive Land, Climate, and Environmental Justice Laws in the World, Envt Just. (forthcoming 2023).


Mrs. Jalloh’s case, and the struggle to pass the Customary Land Rights Act, are also portrayed in this short film: Namati, People Rising: Beside the Water, YouTube (Apr. 24, 2023), https://youtu.be/I53mUMoiEso.


Namati Sierra Leone, Namati Sierra Leone Casework Database (on file with author).


See Our Land Our Future: A Pledge, Our Land Our Future, https://ourlandourfuturedotcom.wordpress.com/ (last visited May 11, 2023).


Id.; see also Sonkita Conteh, What Next for Sierra Leone’s Endangered Forests?, Thomas Reuters Found. News (Sept. 24, 2018), https://news.trust.org/item/20180924150036-rliwb.


Customary Land Rights Act, pt. VII, ¶ 28 (2022). “Free prior informed consent” (FPIC) is a principle that originated in the Indigenous peoples movement. Indigeneity doesn’t have much meaning in Sierra Leone—communities in the countryside are all considered Indigenous. The CLRA honors the right to FPIC for all of them. The CLRA does not exempt mining, which the handful of places that have committed to FPIC rights tend to do. The Sierra Leone constitution does allow compulsory land acquisition under certain circumstances, but the government would need to justify the takings before a court or other impartial body. It’s debatable whether mining would fit within the purposes for which compulsory acquisition is permitted. See Sierra Leone Const. § 21(1)(a) (1991).


See Customary Land Rights Act, supra note 42, pt. VII, ¶ 34.


See id., pt. VI, ¶ 21(d). Sierra Leone, like many countries, has experienced rapid deforestation; some estimate the country now has less than five percent of its original forest cover. Sierra Leone Conservation and Wildlife Policy 2010, at 7 (2010), https://cdn.climatepolicyradar.org/navigator/SLE/2010/conservation-and-wildlife-policy_bf279d14f24a4af4b6c3730350416bdc.pdf. Deforestation often takes place without the consent of local communities, and at the behest of powerful elites. See, e.g., Sonkita Conteh, Annihilation by Deforestation; How The Pursuit of Short Term “Gain” Will Be The Death of a Country, Sierra Express Media (Feb. 8, 2021), https://sierraexpressmedia.com/?p=88441.


See Customary Land Rights Act, supra note 42, pt. V, ¶ 13; National Land Commission Act, pt. VII, ¶ 50(3) (2022). The National Land Commission Act was drafted by Sonkita and Eleanor alongside the CLRA; the two laws work in tandem. In practice to date, many decisions about land have been taken by paramount chiefs, as was the case with the initial lease in Makpele. Paramount chiefs are elected leaders with life terms; candidates must come from a “ruling family.” There are a few women paramount chiefs in the southern and eastern provinces, but nationwide, the vast majority of these chiefs are male. Each paramount chief rules a chiefdom, which has between 12 and 100 villages. Scholars like Arthur Abraham (writing about the Mende), Rosalind Shaw (writing about the Temne), and Mahmood Mamdani (writing about sub-Saharan Africa as a whole) have observed that the British colonial strategy of indirect rule involved modifying the chieftaincy to make it more authoritarian and less democratic. See Maru, supra note 20, at 435. This change shifts power away from paramount chiefs and toward communities, and it ensures women’s participation in land governance. Many people involved in conceiving of and advocating for the CLRA observed that excluding women from decision-making is unfair and leads to worse, more shortsighted decisions.


Alpha Abu, Major Investor Challenges Sierra Leone’s Landmark Land Bill, FarmLandGrab.org (July 29, 2022), https://www.farmlandgrab.org/post/view/31083-major-investor-challenges-sierra-leones-landmark-land-bill.


See, e.g., Hum. Rts. Defenders in Sierra Leone, Report of the Fact Finding Mission on the Human Rights Situation in Malen Chiefdom After the Violent Incidents in January 2019 (Jan. 29, 2019), https://www.farmlandgrab.org/uploads/attachment/Report_on_Malen_INCIDENT_Final_version.pdf; SOCFIN Under Scrutiny Over Alleged Abuses in Africa Despite Pledges to Clean Up Its Act, Earthsight (Feb. 22, 2019), https://www.earthsight.org.uk/news/idm/socfin-under-scrutiny-alleged-abuses-africa-rubber-palm-oil-plantations-despite-pldeges.


When the CLRA was introduced in parliament, the National Council of Paramount Chiefs issued a resolution claiming that “the bill fundamentally undermines Chieftancy in a way that effectively abolishes Chieftancy.” Natl Council of Paramount Chiefs, NCPC Bo-Makeni Resolution on “The Customary Land Rights Bill” (2022), https://slobserver.org/wp-content/Library/220316%20NPCP%20-%20Resolution%20on%20Customary%20Land%20Rights%20Bill.pdf.


The final law reads, “No investment shall take place on any land subject to customary law unless the investor obtains the written free, prior and informed consent of at least 60% of the male and female adult members of the family or a fair representation of the community with rights to the land.” See Customary Land Rights Act, supra 41, at pt. VII, ¶ 28.


See, e.g., Elian Peltier, New Laws of the Land: Sierra Leone Reshapes Environmental Battleground, N.Y. Times (Aug. 9, 2022), nytimes.com/2022/08/09/world/africa/sierra-leone-land-environment.html; Can Sierra Leone’s New Land Laws End the “Resource Curse”?, BBC News Africa Daily Blog (Aug. 19, 2022), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0cv1mmv; SL Customary Land Rights Act Protects Ecologically Sensitive Areas in the Provinces, Awoko (Dec. 16, 2022), https://awokonewspaper.sl/sl-customary-land-rights-act-protects-ecologically-sensitive-areas-in-the-provinces/.


I have described this cycle in a few places, including Vivek Maru, Give the People the Law, Democracy (Sep. 4, 2020), https://democracyjournal.org/arguments/give-the-people-the-law/.


See Namati, supra note 31, at 23.


See Shashawnda Campbell (with Vivek Maru), Maryland Makes Historic Climate Commitment for New Fiscal Year, Balt. Sun (July 4, 2022), https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0701-justice-40-20220704-n3numzg7hramnp42wyv2q575e4-story.html.


The march is portrayed in a short film, Namati, The Road to Securing Land Rights in Kenya, YouTube (Mar. 5, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5StxV61IUHM; see also Jaron Vogelsang, Opinion: A Historic Step Towards Securing Community Land Rights in Kenya, Thomas Reuters Found. News (July 30, 2019), https://news.trust.org/item/20190730151357-yl708.


Namati Legal Empowerment Network Forum, 2021 Annual Network Survey Results (2021), https://community.namati.org/uploads/short-url/fMEzTtxD0yUnKDkOFnf8ZpXA5S9.pdf. Over 1,200 of the 3,500 organizations represented in our network work on land, environment, and/or climate justice. Namati Network Member Directory, https://namati.org/network/members/?member_type=org&region=0&country=0&issues=0 (last visited Feb. 1, 2023). The other most common area of focus is gender justice.


I first described these three pillars in Vivek Maru, Legal Empowerment and the Land Rush: Three Struggles, in The International Rule of Law Movement 195, (David Marshall ed., 2014), which referred to the three pillars as “three moments” in the relationship between communities and development.


For example, the D.C. Circuit ruled in 2013 that the Maryland Department of the Environment violated federal law when it refused to process an air quality permit application for a natural gas compressor station on the ground that the project was rejected by the local zoning board. Dominion Transmission, Inc. v. Summers, 723 F.3d 238 (D.C. Cir. 2013). In Virginia in 2013, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion stating that local zoning boards could not ban hydrofracking. Attorney General Mark Herring reversed the opinion in 2015. See Virginia AG: Localities Can Use Zoning to Prohibit Fracking, WMRA News (May 12, 2015), https://www.wmra.org/wmra-news/2015-05-12/virginia-ag-localities-can-use-zoning-to-prohibit-fracking.


The Green Justice Zone Act, Gen. Assemb., Jan. Sess. § 42-17.11-13 (R.I. 2021). Disclosure: I assisted with drafting this legislation, and I serve on the board of Renew New England, of which Renew Rhode Island is a member.


See, e.g., Ashwini Chhatre & Arun Agrawal, Trade-Offs and Synergies Between Carbon Storage and Livelihood Benefits from Forest Commons, 106 PNAS (Oct. 20, 2009), https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.0905308106 (finding that community-owned forests and local participation in rulemaking were linked to significantly lower carbon emissions in a sample of eighty forests in East Africa, South Asia, and Latin America); see also Protected Areas Successfully Prevent Deforestation in Amazon Rainforest, Univ. of Mich. News (Mar. 11, 2013), https://news.umich.edu/protected-areas-successfully-prevent-deforestation-in-amazon-rainforest/ (“[P]rotected areas established primarily to safeguard the rights and livelihoods of indigenous people performed especially well in places where deforestation pressures are high.”); Christoph Nolte et al., Governance Regime and Location Influence Avoided Deforestation Success of Protected Areas in the Brazilian Amazon, 110 PNAS. 4956 (Mar. 11, 2013), https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1214786110 (showing that Indigenous communities with secure rights over their land successfully prevent deforestation in the Amazon rainforest).


See Does the Squeaky Wheel Get More Grease? The Direct and Indirect Effects of Citizen Participation on Environmental Governance in China, Working Paper No. 30539 (Nat’l Bureau of Econ. Research, 2022), doi: 10.3386/w30539 (finding that citizen appeals to curtail unlawful pollution, sent to regulators via social media, led to substantial reductions in violations and emissions); Benjamin Van Rooij, The People vs. Pollution: Understanding Citizen Action Against Pollution in China, 19 J. Contemp. China 55 (2010) (describing how legally empowered citizens improved the regulatory compliance of industrial facilities); Krithika A. Dinesh et al., Ctr. for Poly Rsch., How Effective Are Environmental Regulations to Address Impacts of Industrial and Infrastructure Projects in India (2016), https://cprindia.org/briefsreports/how-effective-are-environmental-regulations-to-address-impacts-of-industrial-and-infrastructure-projects-in-india/ (describing cases in which community participation led to stronger regulatory response); History and Accomplishments, La. Bucket Brigade (2023), https://labucketbrigade.org/about-us/history/ (outlining how grassroots community monitoring organized by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade led to multiple instances of regulatory action).


Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon, Indigenous Envt Network & Oil Change Intl (Aug. 2021), https://www.ienearth.org/indigenous-resistance-against-carbon/.


Global Commission on Adaptation, Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience 18 (Sept. 13, 2019), https://gca.org/about-us/the-global-commission-on-adaptation/.


Global Commission on Adaptation, Principles for Locally Led Adaptation Action 1 (2021), https://gca.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Locally_Led_Adaptation_Principles_-_Endorsement_Version.pdf.




The Obama administration, for example, insisted that FPIC be diluted to “free prior informed consultation” in the Convention on Indigenous and People’s Rights. See Kelsey Landau, On Indigenous Peoples Day, New Ideas for American Indian Land Rights, Brookings (Oct. 14, 2019), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2019/10/14/on-indigenous-peoples-day-new-ideas-for-american-indian-land-rights/.


Katherine Shaver, Judge Dismisses Most of Lawsuit Against Purple Line, but Ridership Estimates Must Still Be Redone, Wash. Post (May 30, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2017/05/30/judges-dismisses-most-of-lawsuit-against-purple-line-but-ridership-estimates-must-still-be-redone/.


Maanvi Singh, Top California University May Have to Slash Admissions After Neighborhood Group Complains, Guardian (Feb. 17, 2922), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/17/california-ucb-student-housing-local-group-lawsuit.


Ezra Klein, Government Is Flailing, in Part Because Liberals Hobbled It, N.Y. Times (Mar. 13, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/13/opinion/berkeley-enrollment-climate-crisis.html.


Jerusalem Demsas, Community Input Is Bad, Actually, Atlantic (Apr. 22, 2022), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/04/local-government-community-input-housing-public-transportation/629625/. For a description of how some U.S. communities are resisting wind power, see Jennifer Hiller, “Over Our Dead Bodies”: Backlash Builds Against $3 Trillion Clean-Energy Push, Wall St. J. (May 8, 2023), https://www.wsj.com/articles/inflation-reduction-act-backlash-clean-energy-wind-solar-f3d4d900.


Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector 21, Intl Energy Agency (May 2021), https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050.


Jerusalem Demsas, Not Everyone Should Have a Say, Atlantic (Oct. 19, 2022), https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/10/environmentalists-nimby-permitting-reform-nepa/671775/.


Rachel Fell McDermott et al., Sources of Indian Traditions: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh 598 (2014).


Of seventeen principles agreed to at the People of Color Summit in 1991, the eighth principle states, “Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment.” Principles of Environmental Justice, First Natl People of Color Envt Leadership Summit (Oct. 1991), https://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html.


I am drawing here on an essay I co-wrote with Shashawnda Campbell. Campbell, supra note 52.


Balt. City Health Dept, Baltimore City 2017 Neighborhood Health Profile (June 2017), https://health.baltimorecity.gov/sites/default/files/NHP%202017%20-%2004%20Brooklyn-Curtis%20Bay-Hawkins%20Point%20(rev%206-9-17).pdf.


2019 Adult Asthma Data: Prevalence Tables and Maps tbl. C1, CDC (2019), https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/brfss/2019/tableC1.html.


Jessica Anderson et al., Explosion in Curtis Bay CSX Coal Silo Shakes Baltimore, but So Far No Injuries Reported, Officials Say, Balt. Sun (Dec. 30, 2021), https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-explosion-20211230-yjpvyokki5eqxjhhch3iyaw2my-story.html.


Food waste constitutes approximately a quarter of the waste burned at the Wheelabrator facility, Why Should Baltimore Recycle More?, Inst. for Local Self-Reliance (Mar. 2017), https://ilsr.org/report-baltimore-recycle/, so reducing food waste reduces air pollution from the incinerator. When food waste goes to landfills, it generates methane. The Environmental Integrity Project estimates that Maryland’s landfills cause four times more greenhouse gas emissions than the average Maryland coal plant. Envt Integrity Project, Greenhouse Gases from Marylands Landfills (2021), https://environmentalintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/MD-Landfill-Methane-Report-6.9.2021-unembargoed_with-Attachments.pdf.


See Indep. High-Level Expert Grp. on Climate Finance, Finance for Climate Action: Scaling Up Investment for Climate and Development (Nov. 9, 2022), https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/IHLEG-Finance-for-Climate-Action-1.pdf; UNFCCC, Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan (2022), https://unfccc.int/documents/624444.


See supra note 8 and accompanying text.


Targeting climate investments toward those who need them the most is an example of what John A. Powell calls “targeted universalism.” See Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021). In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee discusses several examples of targeted universalist programs, in which supporting the people who’ve been most harmed or neglected advances well-being for all. Id. at 275–79.


Exec. Order No. 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (Jan. 27, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/.


Biden’s Executive Order on Justice 40 applies to seven program areas: climate change, clean energy and energy efficiency, clean transit, affordable and sustainable housing, training and workforce development, remediation and reduction of legacy pollution, and the development of critical clean water and wastewater infrastructure. Justice 40 does not apply, as of this writing, to U.S. investments in climate change abroad, such as those made by the State Department and USAID. In my view, it should. (The one international program to which Justice 40 does apply is the International Boundary Waters Commission). See White House, Justice40 Initiative Covered Programs List (Aug. 18, 2022), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Justice40-Covered-Programs-List_v1.2_07-25-2022.pdf.


Marek Soanes et al., Intl Inst. for Envt & Dev., Delivering Real Change: Getting International Climate Finance to the Local Level (2017), https://www.iied.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/migrate/10178IIED.pdf.


Vernice invoked Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (2017), which traces how public policies, including discriminatory zoning, taxation, subsidies, and redlining, created neighborhood segregation in the United States.


See, e.g., Jim Krane & Robert Idel, More Transitions, Less Risk: How Renewable Energy Reduces Risks from Mining, Trade, and Political Dependence, 82 Energy Rsch. & Soc. Sci. 102311 (2021) doi: 10.1016/j.erss.2021.102311 (“We demonstrate that installing just 1 GW of wind capacity to replace coal on a grid like that in Texas reduces total mining by 25 million tonnes over 20 years. Even if the world increased 12-fold the annual global production of all rare earths, lithium, cobalt, and even copper, the metals produced would comprise just 3% of 2020 world coal production.”).


See Estefania Diaz, Spanish Energy Firm Renovalia Energy Must Vacate and Return Land to Zapotec Community Members of Unión Hidalgo, Mexico, ProDESC (Nov. 15, 2022), https://prodesc.org.mx/en/spanish-energy-firm-renovalia-energy-must-vacate-and-return-land-to-zapotec-community-members-of-union-hidalgo-mexico/.


See Amanda Maxwell & James Blair, Exhausted: How We Can Stop Lithium Mining from Depleting Water Resources, Draining Wetlands, and Harming Communities in South America, NRDC (Apr. 26, 2022), https://www.nrdc.org/resources/exhausted-how-we-can-stop-lithium-mining-depleting-water-resources-draining-wetlands-and.


See also Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), which argues that a decline in local civic engagement is connected to an overall loss of trust in government.


Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (2006). Like many legal guarantees regarding FPIC, this one has been honored largely in the breach. See, e.g., Mayank Aggarwal, Forest Rights Act: A Decade Old, but Implementation Remains Incomplete, Mongabay India (Dec. 13, 2018), https://india.mongabay.com/2018/12/forest-rights-act-a-decade-old-but-implementation-remains-incomplete/.


See Environmental Justice Law, N.J. Stat. Ann. P. L. 2020, c.92; Cumulative Impacts Bill, N.Y. Sess. Laws, S8830, 2022. These laws do what Farber calls for in his article in this issue: they strengthen regulatory protections in places where the harms are most severe. Farber, supra note 14.


See, e.g., Crystal “Red Bear” Cavalier-Keck, A Landmark Environmental Precedent Was Just Set in Virginia, Nation (Feb. 2, 2022), https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/mvp-pipeline-virginian-precedent/.


Elinor Ostrom, A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems, 325 Science 419 (2009).


See Customary Land Rights Act, supra note 41, pt. III, ¶ 5(1); National Land Commission Act, pt. VII, ¶ 50(1)(c) (2022).


In October 2022, the military issued a restrictive order regarding the registration of NGOs. Since then, Namati has been pursuing ways of continuing to support the work of paralegals in the country within the boundaries of current law.


See, for example, Does the Squeaky Wheel Get More Grease?, supra note 59, which found that citizen appeals to curtail unlawful pollution, sent to regulators via social media, led to substantial reductions in violations and emissions. There are limits on what the Chinese government will tolerate, however. For example, the government censored the documentary Under the Dome, which focused on air pollution, after it was viewed by hundreds of millions of people within days of launching. See Edward Wong, China Blocks Web Access to “Under the Dome” Documentary on Pollution, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2015), https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/07/world/asia/china-blocks-web-access-to-documentary-on-nations-air-pollution.html.


Brazil: Bolsonaro Seeks to Increase Extraction in Amazon, DW (Mar. 2, 2022), https://www.dw.com/en/brazil-bolsonaro-uses-ukraine-war-to-support-extraction-on-indigenous-land/a-60990812.


Jake Spring, Analysis: Brazil’s Green New Deal: Lula Promises Environmental Policy Overhaul, Reuters (Oct. 27, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/brazils-green-new-deal-lula-promises-environmental-policy-overhaul-2022-10-27/.


See, e.g., Nadja Popovich et al., The Trump Administration Rolled Back More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List., N.Y. Times (Jan. 20, 2021), nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks-list.html; Emily Holden & Daniel Strauss, Biden Calls Trump a “Climate Arsonist” as President Denies Science, Guardian (Sep. 14, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/14/biden-trump-wildfires-messages-campaign-trail-california.


See, e.g., Dan Lashof, Tracking Progress: Climate Action Under the Biden Administration, World Res. Inst. (Jan. 23, 2023), https://www.wri.org/insights/biden-administration-tracking-climate-action-progress.


I am drawing here from an op-ed I published. Vivek Maru, Why Planetary Survival Will Depend on Environmental Justice, L.A. Times (Apr. 22, 2021), https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-04-22/environmental-justice-peru-escazu-agreement.


According to Frontline Defenders, in 2021, the proportion of murdered human rights defenders who were working to protect land and environmental rights was fifty-nine percent. Front Line Defenders, Front Line Defenders Global Analysis 2021 (2021), https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/2021_global_analysis_-_final_-_update_3_feb_2023.pdf.) In 2020, the proportion was sixty-nine percent. Front Line Defenders, Front Line Defenders Global Analysis 2020 (2020), https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/fld_global_analysis_2020.pdf.


Escazú Agreement, ch. XXVII, 18, U.N. Treaty Collection (adopted Mar. 4, 2018); see also Joshua Collins and Daniela Diaz Rangel, Colombia’s Signing of Escazu Accord Brings Hope to Land Defenders, Aljazeera (Nov. 11, 2022), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/11/11/colombias-signing-of-escazu-accord-brings-hope-to-land-defenders.


See Yeng Virak, Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, https://www.centrepeaceconflictstudies.org/yeng-virak/ (last visited June 19, 2023).

Author notes


Founder and CEO, Namati. To the paralegals and communities with whom I’ve walked, including those whose stories I’ve shared here, to teammates at Namati, to members of the Grassroots Justice Network: salute. You teach me every day. You have given my life purpose. Much love to friends who offered invaluable feedback on this draft: Sonkita Conteh, Daniel Sesay, Baindu Koroma, Vijaya Nidadavolu, Ross Clarke, Matt Brown, Terra Lawson-Remer, David Sasaki, Indira Sarma, Tim Millar, Shannon O’Neill, Sharon Johnson, Caitlin Sislin, and two others whom I cannot name for security reasons. Thank you Martha Minow for encouraging me to write this, and shout out to your teammates Ellie Benagh and Caroline Fitzgerald. Thank you Liz Seif for astute copy edits. Thank you, Jana Deardorff, for partnering with me on every footnote and helping in a million ways; thank you to Iva Petkova and Dominique Calañas for additional research assistance. Tania James, thank you for guiding me through multiple drafts, and for everything.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, which permits you to copy and redistribute in any medium or format, for non-commercial use only, provided that the original work is not remixed, transformed, or built upon, and that appropriate credit to the original source is given. For a full description of the license, please visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode.