In 2007, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Peru’s central coast, killing hundreds of people and injuring many more. In the port town of Pisco, about three hours south of the capital of Lima, the earthquake hit especially hard: Homes and buildings crumbled to the ground, the roof of the San Clemente cathedral collapsed upon churchgoers, and, as The New York Times described it, the city’s main plaza was transformed into a “makeshift morgue.” In the months that followed, humanitarian assistance was focused on finding survivors and ensuring that the basic needs of some 85,000 affected families were met. But as the dust settled and the crisis subsided, Pisco’s victims found themselves in limbo.

“You have humanitarian intervention in the moment itself and when the emergency is gone, people have to take on their new life,” says Patricia van Nispen tot Sevenaer — the founder of Microjustice4All, a legal empowerment organization. “That process takes time.”

When Microjustice4All began working in Pisco eight years after the earthquake, many of those affected had fled to the outskirts of town or the rural areas beyond because they lacked the property documents required to access reconstruction assistance from humanitarian aid organizations. Living in informal housing, often without access to water or sanitation and with no legal right to the land they depended upon, earthquake victims risked being displaced once again. For the Microjustice4All team, which focuses on ensuring that vulnerable communities have access to basic legal documents, this was especially concerning.

For two years, the Microjustice4All Peru team worked in Pisco and held almost 2,500 legal consultations with residents, seeking to obtain or correct their personal and property documents. In one case, facilitators met an elderly woman whose home was damaged in the earthquake but because of unresolved legal issues, she was unable to access loans or government programs to aid with repairs. A legal facilitator from Microjustice4all helped her resolve the issue in about a month.

Microjustice4All in Peru

The Microjustice4All team in Peru reviews a map of the village of Caucato before conducting a census as part of their work following the Pisco earthquake. Photo courtesy of Microjustice4All

“People need to be able to go on with their lives and get back to their pre-disaster situation, at the very least,” says Van Nispen tot Sevenaer. “To do that, legal documents are essential.”

Worldwide, some 5 billion people lack basic access to justice, according to a report by the Taskforce for Justice, an initiative of Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, an interdisciplinary group working on peace and justice issues. For these people, the law can appear to be either an abstract concept or a threat to their livelihood. Because of this, thousands of organizations, including Microjustice4All, have begun to advance the idea of legal empowerment: equipping people with the knowledge and skills necessary to use the law to exercise their basic rights. While the term itself emerged in the early 2000s, the practice dates back to the 1950s, when South African paralegals helped nonwhites defend themselves against apartheid.

More recently, as communities face a multitude of environmental problems, some exacerbated by climate change and others born from extractive industries, legal empowerment has become a powerful environmental justice tool. The idea and practice has even gained enough traction to be included among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.

Vivek Maru, the founder of Namati — an organization that trains and employs community paralegals across six countries — estimates that about 70% of their work is focused on land and the environment.

“We’re living in a time of historic concentration of power,” says Maru. “And the law, which is supposed to be one of the most important tools we have for challenging environmental destruction, has fallen victim to that concentration of power.”

In an ideal world, says Marco Simons, an attorney with EarthRights International (ERI) — a global environmental organization that describes itself as “combin[ing] the power of the law and the power of people” — any legal strategy would be formulated and spearheaded by those from the affected community. But most of the world is not yet at that point, Simons says.

“We’d like to move in that direction, because that’s when communities have the tools in their own hands to resist and demand accountability,” he says.

In the meantime, partnerships forged between those with resources and those without are beginning to close the gap between who is able to defend their rights and who is structurally or economically prohibited from doing so. From Peruvian farmers litigating against mining companies in the U.S. court system to community paralegals fighting the harmful impact of extractive industries in India, legal empowerment offers communities a way into the legal system and a means of reclaiming its power.

Working in the Community

In Pisco, Microjustice4All began by researching who, because of poverty or other circumstance, did not have access to personal or property documents and as a result was excluded from the legal system. Alongside displaced victims living in temporary housing, the team found that among the widows and single mothers who had received legal assistance from people such as tramitadores (people who process documents), many still, nearly a decade after the natural disaster, had incorrect papers and were living in unsafe homes across the city. Additionally, Van Nispen tot Sevenaer says, most people’s property issues had begun long before the earthquake itself, adding another layer of complexity to the recovery process. Through their work in Pisco, Microjustice4All’s local legal team addressed some 500 cases in the city, the majority of them tied to untangling complex property rights.

“Our clients always say, ‘finally we belong,’” Van Nispen tot Sevenaer says. “It’s not only the paperwork, it’s also a feeling that you become a citizen.”

While the work Microjustice4All engages in is one method of tackling basic legal issues, another is the practice of “barefoot lawyers” or community paralegals. Since 2011, Namati has been building a global movement of community paralegals focused on environmental justice in India, Sierra Leone, Myanmar, Kenya and, most recently, the United States. While community paralegals don’t need to have a legal background, Maru says they’re often looking for locals with a proven commitment to the common good and a strong rapport with the community in which they live. In India, where more than 31 million cases filed in court are classified as pending,” Namati has had success in tackling polluting companies, multi-billion-dollar coal conglomerates and municipalities failing to protect residents from dangerous waste dumping. But much like the dangers faced by global environmental defenders, there’s also an element of personal risk for community paralegals confronting corporations.

“We have found that you cannot train paralegals and then leave them alone,” says Maru. “That’s a way of doing more harm than good.”

In part because of this, Namati formed the Global Legal Empowerment Network, an online and in-person forum that helps lawyers and grassroots organizations share knowledge and resources. This “vertical network,” as Maru describes it, also supports those taking on powerful interests and companies. Natural Justice, an environmental and human rights law organization based in sub-Saharan Africa, is a member of this network and works with a similar paralegal model. For example, in northern and coastal Kenya, community environmental legal officers train and assist community members on how to submit complaints that arise from legal violations caused by extractive and infrastructure projects.

For Maru, part of the appeal of legal empowerment is the ability to make meaningful progress without the need to necessarily go to court. While taking a case to court can be effective, it has traditionally been viewed as an expensive, prohibitive and disempowering experience. But sometimes, cases are best litigated in court and as a result, organizations have begun to apply the principles of legal empowerment to a that more traditional process.

Taking It to Court 

In communities across California’s Central Valley, where sprawling agricultural fields abut oil wells, the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE) — a U.S. environmental justice organization — takes a community-first approach to litigation. When cases go to court, staff attorneys collaborate with local community groups to build an organizing plan alongside the case. This could include protests, petition drives or even organizing a court translator so that those most affected — often low-income immigrants — can participate in the proceedings, according to Ingrid Brostrom, the organization’s assistant director. While CRPE has several ongoing cases related to resource extraction, climate change and the management of utilities, Brostrom says that the goal is to help communities become the solution.

“Rather than attacking every single polluter, we can reduce pollution by building power,” she says.

ERI has used other innovative strategies in the pursuit of justice.

Juan Flores ‘Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice’ march

As part of its strategy of legal empowerment, the California-based Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment collaborates with local community groups to build an organizing plan alongside legal cases. Here, Juan Flores, a community organizer for the organization, is seen taking part in the Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice march in 2018. Photo courtesy of, from Flickr, Taken by Brooke Anderson with Survival Media Agency, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For the past two years, the organization’s attorneys have been working with Máxima Acuña Atalaya de Chaupe, a subsistence farmer from Peru’s rural highlands and Goldman Environmental Prize winner, to fight a case against Newmont Mining. According to ERI, Chaupe and her family have been pressured and physically harassed to vacate their land in order to accommodate a gold mining project. Family members say they have been attacked and threatened by representatives from the mining giant and their property and possessions, including livestock, have been damaged or attacked. Given that Newmont is a U.S. corporation, Chaupe’s case for damages is being tried in Delaware, where the company is incorporated.

“The U.S. has a very strong court system and a strong tradition of upholding powerful actors accountable for the injuries they inflict on others,” says Simons. “Unfortunately, that’s not true in many countries around the world.”

ERI has pioneered the use of another legal tool — the Foreign Legal Assistance (FLA) statute — to help public interest lawyers working abroad. Through the FLA, local lawyers can access relevant documents and testimony from people or corporations based in the U.S. In 2012, ERI filed an FLA action on behalf of five Nigerian villagers who were suing Chevron Nigeria, claiming the corporation caused environmental and health harm to their community. Historically, this type of request has been used by multinational corporations including Chevron. While the statute itself dates back to the 1940s, filing an action has been difficult for those outside of the U.S. with few resources. As such, ERI believes the action filed on behalf of the Nigerian villagers may have been the first time a public interest group used FLA for a community seeking to gather information about a U.S. multinational.

“For us, all strategies are potentially on the table,” Simons says. “What’s really important is putting the community first and making sure their voice is being heard and their priorities are front and center.”

The Next Generation 

As legal empowerment gains more momentum, organizations have recognized the need to train local people in the legal methods they have adopted and pioneered. Each year, Namati holds a Legal Empowerment Leadership Course in Budapest whereby selected leaders, policymakers, donors and researchers working on the issue of legal empowerment come together to learn from one another’s experiences. Microjustice4All has recently begun to scale up and is developing a program to help young lawyers in Bolivia, Serbia and Kenya establish their own law firms and work on issues around basic legal documentation. In Southeast Asia and Latin America, ERI coordinates recurring trainings for local or indigenous paralegals, lawyers and legal advocates working across the regions. Through training and knowledge sharing, the hope is that people affected by environmental injustices will not only be able to confront those accountable but represent their own communities while doing so.

“You see a shift when communities that are most affected by these kinds of abuses have the tools in their own hands,” says Simons. “And if you talk to people, you’ll find that they share the goal of having a greater voice in their own path forward.”