Legal Empowerment

Legal Empowerment

Participatory legal empowerment will further enable communities to gain recognition of and support for the plurality of approaches to conservation law, policy, and practice. Legal empowerment is defined as “the use of legal tools to tackle power asymmetries and help disadvantaged groups have greater control over decisions and processes that affect their lives.” Evidence suggests that non-lawyers are equally equipped to use the law (and sometimes more adept at doing so) to solve local challenges when they are empowered in a legal context. Legal empowerment of the poor is based on the twin principles that law should not remain a monopoly of trained professionals and that in many instances, forms of alternative dispute resolution are more attuned to local realities than formal legal processes. Ideally, the act of using the law becomes as empowering as the outcome of the process itself. By organizing themselves around rights and duties, communities initiate adaptive dialogue processes both internally and vis-à-vis outsiders. Building internal resilience to external influences and responding proactively and according to local values and priorities are both critical to a community’s well-being. A court victory handed to a community, for example, can be supremely useful, but a process that is driven by the community is tangibly more powerful. As such, effective legal empowerment is a combination of social mobilization and legal action that acts as a positive feedback loop towards both aims.

The law is sometimes described as ‘a sword and a shield’. Negotiating in the shadow of the law is an important strategy for communities who might otherwise not have the opportunity to engage with conservation policy and practice. However, law is about more than just establishing due process. When used imaginatively, laws can be the platform for creating an enabling legal and political environment by negotiating “space to place new steps of change” and opening avenues of discussion between disparate groups towards previously unimagined relationships. In this sense, legal empowerment can enable communities to break free from the typical patronizing dichotomy of either being ‘spoken at’ or ‘spoken for’.

A recent compilation of case studies highlights the diversity of rights-based approaches that communities and their NGOs are experimenting with. A dominant theme that emerges is the multifaceted attempts by a variety of communities to use the law to conserve their biocultural diversity. It highlights the critical need for the further development and sharing of communities’ methods and approaches to using rights and engaging with the law on their terms, according to their values, and in ways commensurate with their customary laws – in other words, endogenously.



Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide (Maru, 2006)
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Biocultural Community Protocols and Conservation Pluralism (Jonas et al., 2010)
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Legal Empowerment in Practice: Using Legal Tools to Secure Land Rights in Africa (Cotula and Mathieu (Eds.), 2008)
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Learning from the Practitioners: Benefit Sharing Perspectives form Enterprising Communities (Subramanian and Pisupati, 2009)
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Biocultural Community Protocols: Articulating Stewardship, Asserting Rights, Affirming Responsibilities
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Biodiversity and Culture: Exploring community protocols, rights and consent (IIED Participatory Learning and Action 65, 2012)
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Biocultural Community Protocols: Articulating and Asserting Stewardship (Moving Images & Natural Justice, 2012)
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Rooibos Robbery: A Story of Bioprospecting in South Africa (Steps Southern Africa, 2012)
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Maldhari Biocultural Community Protocol Photo Story (Sahjeevan & Natural Justice, 2012)
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Biocultural Community Protocols: A Toolkit for Community Facilitators
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