Bringing The Power Of Law To The People

The Founders Of Namati Want To Use The Law As An Instrument Of Change

Welcome to Solutions September, a series where we talk to real people working for real change to help our environment. In a world with so much going on, it’s hard to know how to help. We’re asking people in many different sectors what inspired them to get involved in the fight to save our planet and how we can all take our anger and turn it into action.

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Imagine if you discovered a water or environmental contamination in your area and that you had access to someone trained in legal matters to advise you on next steps.

I want you to meet two amazing people working to help people have just that—and transform the relationship between people and law. The law is supposed to be one of our most powerful tools for advancing justice, but for billions of people around the world, the law is broken. It’s an abstraction—or worse, a threat.

Meet Vivek Maru and Sonkita Conteh, co-founders of Namati, a movement for legal empowerment around the world powered by cadres of grassroots legal advocates. Instead of relying solely on lawyers, they started a global network of community paralegals, also called barefoot lawyers, who serve in their own communities and explain the law in simple terms to help people find solutions.

Q: What motivated you to start this work and start your organization, Namati?

Vivek and Sonkita: We worked together for several years in Sierra Leone to scale up the work of “community paralegals,” who are citizen advocates who can be a bridge between the promises of law and real life. We saw in those years that, despite grave problems with Sierra Leone’s governance, it was possible to advance justice when you combined the power of law with the collective power of people. We also encountered kindred spirits in many other places. We started Namati in 2011 to build a global movement for justice, one driven not by experts but by the people themselves.

Namati convenes the Legal Empowerment Network, which today includes more than 2,700 justice groups from more than 170 countries. Our community is open to anyone. [Learn more, and join, at this link.] 

Namati also works deeply with partners on the ground in six countries: Myanmar, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and the United States.

Sonkita Conteh, director of Namati’s Sierra Leone Program, is a legal practitioner of the High Court of Sierra Leone and holds a master’s degree in human rights and democratization from the University of Pretoria.

Q: People don’t usually associate the law with social or environmental justice. Tell us more about how more people can use the law to create change?  

Sonkita: We often don’t appreciate that the law affects every facet of our lives. From agriculture to space research is how someone once described the scope of the law. However, people seem to recognize and fear the coercive aspects of the law—arrests, police, courts, and jails. This is what they have been socialized into believing that the law is about: an instrument to oppress or compel. That there are provisions and processes in law books that they could use to protect their rights and interests in their daily living is not in their contemplation.

A forest is cut down to make way for a large plantation; a river is blocked or diverted by an oil palm company; swampland is polluted by ore sludge from a poorly-kept tailings dam. These wrongdoings affect the lives of ordinary farmers, fishers, and traders. Rural folks whose lives are upended by a callous act of irresponsible exploitation. Because of their conditioning and the severe power imbalance that exists in these situations, they are not expected to raise their voice, it is expected that they should simply accept the hand that fate has dealt them. That expectation is both unjust and unhelpful for our world. 

At Namati, we strive to bend that negative expectation into a positive one to benefit the people who are most directly affected and our planet. That struggle is called legal empowerment. We want knowing, using, and shaping the law to become an everyday occurrence for everyone. As long as we eat, sleep, and breathe on this earth, everyone should be equipped and ready to defend the patch of the earth that is under our stewardship using the law, organizing indeed any tool that we can use to do the job.

Anyone can start by first taking an interest in their surrounding or community and identifying a pressing problem. They can team up with other like-minded individuals. It takes a village to solve a village’s problem. It would be beneficial to learn more about the problem including what law applies to it. The law could well be the instrument of change for that community. Anyone can take these simple steps. We don’t need to wait for a lawyer to show up.                  

Q: What issues feel most pressing right now for you and how are those issues impacting and/or expanding your network of barefoot lawyers?

Sonkita: In Sierra Leone right now, it is the rainy season. Every time it rains, areas get flooded. We have stripped the peninsula forests surrounding the capital city of trees in the name of development. It is a battle between people and the elements, and we are losing badly. In rural areas unrestrained mining, large-scale mono-cropping, and massive deforestation are extinguishing the last remaining 5 percent of our primary forests, our rivers, and majestic mountains. We and our paralegals sometimes feel overwhelmed by the frenzied pace of destruction of our ecosystem by corporations in cahoots with our government. It is clear that a thousand barefoot lawyers will not make a difference if the people who are directly affected and who possess so much power acting together, are not galvanized. This is their fight, our fight to save the future of our country and the world.

Q: What inspires you when you feel discouraged about the state of the world?

Vivek: I take inspiration from the journeys people walk toward justice. This month, for example, Sonkita and I spent time with Mita Moinya Jalloh in her home in Zimmi Chiefdom, a rainforest region in Southeastern Sierra Leone. Mrs. Jalloh had gone to live in the capital city Freetown with her husband when she heard that her entire chiefdom—more than 75,000 acres—had been leased to an oil palm company for 50 years, for $2 per acre per year. An interim chief signed the agreement without the consent of Mrs. Jalloh or that of any of the hundreds of other families whose land it was. 

Despite not being able to read, and never having attended school, Mrs. Jalloh moved home to fight back. Working with a pair of Namati paralegals, she organized a community association that successfully contested the validity of the lease agreement and stopped her native land from being grabbed. 

Mrs. Jalloh and her community are pursuing pathways of development that don’t involve destroying their rainforest. Among other things, they have a partnership with the Gola Rainforest National Park, under which they assist with stewarding the reserve and receive support for education and mixed-crop farming in the buffer zone around the park. 

People like Mrs. Jalloh fire us up! We want to do everything we can to stand with her and others like her.

Q: What do you wish more people knew about the law?

Sonkita: I wish more people would know that the law is not a stranger to them because it comes from them. It should not be feared and kept in abeyance. It should be understood and used and changed if it does not prove useful. Like the way people use their hoes in their farms or their nets when they go to fish, the law could be another tool in their hands. They can use it to make their world, our world, a better place. I have seen courageous communities doing that in Sierra Leone—from Kono in the east, to Tonkolili in the north to Pujehun in the south. People have stood up for their rights and for their environment. If more of us could do that, we might just stand a chance to keep our world intact. 

Q: What’s the biggest environmental story still not getting enough coverage from your perspective?

Vivek: Many people think of our climate and environmental crisis as an economic problem or a technological problem. We need to understand that it’s also fundamentally a justice problem. Everywhere, from Sierra Leone to Kutch, India, where my family comes from, to Washington D.C., where I live now, I see the destruction that’s fueling climate change and ruining our planet flowing from inequality. Environmental harm is concentrated in communities with less wealth and less power. To find a pathway out of this crisis, we need to grapple with the underlying injustice that has made it possible.

That means protecting environmental defenders rather than allowing them to be killed. It means shifting power away from corporations and elites and giving communities greater power to steward the land, water, and air they depend on. At the international level, a promising step in this direction is the Escazú Agreement, the first international agreement focused on environmental justice, which came into force in Latin America and the Caribbean on Earth Day, earlier this year.

In Sierra Leone, communities across the country are now organizing for the passage of two new pieces of land legislation that would positively transform land and environmental governance. Read more about those bills, and our work in Sierra Leone, here.

Are you inspired by this work? Let us know in the comments below!