“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.”
This chilling reality of injustice, highlighted by an organization called Namati as one of the central reasons for its existence, disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities around the world — those living in poverty, those discriminated against and marginalized within society.
Namati works with these communities to build a movement of people who know, shape, and use the law to instead help build a more equitable and democratic society, through its Legal Empowerment Network. Its main objective is to train grassroots legal advocates, or community paralegals, in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy.
Namati is the first and only international group dedicated to this approach. Their paralegals work directly with communities affected by large-scale investments to protect their rights and advocate for progressive policies on land rights and investment.
They provide concrete solutions to daily injustices while at the same time building grassroots momentum and an evidence base that can be used collectively to push for broader changes to laws and governance systems.
Maru is a pioneer in the field of legal empowerment
Vivek Maru is a social entrepreneur and human rights activist in the US who is a pioneer in the field of legal empowerment. He believes that we can advance social and environmental justice by deepening democracy. His TED Talk, “How to Put the Power of Law in People’s Hands” has been viewed over a million times.
Maru is the founder and chief executive of Namati, which launched in 2012. Namati is a Sanskrit word that means “to shape something into a curve," and the name was inspired by a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
We spoke with Maru to find out more about how he and the team at Namati go about their vital work, and his passion to achieve justice and change the world.
Can you tell us more about Namati’s work on justice and how you’re working with environmental activists around the world?
Maru: In Sierra Leone, in West Africa, we work with communities who woke up to find that the land they had depended on for generations — over 100,000 acres of forest — had been leased for 50 years to a palm oil plantation without their consent. Working with grassroots organizers trained in basic law — sometimes known as community paralegals — those communities successfully challenged the illegitimate lease and replaced it with one that covers less than 6,000 acres, triples the payments community members receive, and includes robust measures to prevent fires, avoid water pollution, and genuinely invest in local infrastructure.
In the Chesapeake region of the United States, we work with organizers and communities who are fighting toxic pollution arising from, for example, open, three-story piles of coal that are across the street from a children’s playground and a residential neighborhood in the city of Baltimore.
All over the world, environmental harm is concentrated in communities with less power and less wealth. We (Namati teams and partners in five countries, and many organizations in the Legal Empowerment Network) support these communities to build their own power, and to exercise their rights.
Vivek and his son Luka at the climate strike in Washington, DC, September 2019.
Why is that an issue you’re so dedicated to?
All my family comes from Kutch, a district in western India. In the last 30 years, the fact that Kutch is poor and remote was used to turn that place into a sacrifice zone. Today in southern Kutch two of the largest coal plants in the world, 4,500 megawatts each, are across the street from each other, surrounded by an industrial area with over 100 factories, many of which are flagrantly violating Indian environmental regulation. In parts of Kutch today there is almost no water left in the ground, and it hurts to breathe.
The coal combustion and other industrial emissions are contributing to changes in climate that will hit Kutch, which is already semi-arid and drought-prone, particularly hard.
Inequality makes environmental destruction possible, and environmental destruction exacerbates inequality. We need to recognize how these forces are intertwined, and fight both of them.
Is environmental injustice connected with racial injustice?
Absolutely. In the United States, for example, African Americans are 75% more likely to live next to an industrial facility that uses hazardous chemicals. Black people are exposed to 50% more particulate matter pollution than the general population.
Disparities like these are part of why Black, brown, and Indigenous people are dying disproportionately from COVID.
1 in 4 people globally lack adequate housing. While urban integration and housing programs are well intentioned, they're not enough to solve the #housingcrisis. For that, we need #legalempowerment. https://t.co/7zpH9dhpTo— Namati (@GlobalNamati) May 27, 2021
What do grassroots environmental justice efforts have to do with addressing climate change? Shouldn’t we be focusing on national and global commitments to invest in technology and reduce emissions?
Grassroots struggles and structural change are not mutually exclusive. They’re mutually necessary.
First, national and global commitments are not happening fast enough. In the meantime, communities who are fighting to protect themselves are protecting all of us: from the courageous young people in Memphis, Tennessee who are standing up to the proposed Byhalia crude oil pipeline, to the Indigenous communities resisting the expansion of coal mining in the forests of Odisha, India.
These people are the front line of the climate movement, and we should be supporting them with everything we’ve got.
Second, we can’t leave the design of reforms to experts alone. We need to harness the insight and leadership of ordinary people who are living with and combating environmental harm.
Everywhere we work, we have seen communities build from grassroots struggles to large-scale changes in laws and systems, including more effective sand-mining regulations in India, higher social and environmental standards for businesses investing in Sierra Leone, and Myanmar’s first legal commitment to respect the customary land rights of ethnic minorities.
Third, when we do win reforms, the changes don’t implement themselves. We the people are going to have to breathe life into those reforms at every step. It’s through empowered citizens that we get responsive and effective government action.
And last, no matter how fast our governments act now, climate change is a reality we’re all going to have to live with. Greater community power is part of how we make ourselves more resilient.
You wrote recently about the Escazú Agreement, which came into force in Latin America and the Caribbean in April. Why is that important and what happens now?
Escazú is a huge win! It’s the first international agreement to focus on environmental justice. Escazú requires governments to create legal protections for environmental defenders. It also requires governments to make environmental decision-making more transparent and more participatory.
We need that agreement, and others like it, urgently. A shameful fact about the 21st century is that standing up for the planet can get you killed. In the Peruvian Amazon, three Indigenous leaders were killed in February and March for resisting illegal deforestation. Worldwide, Global Witness documented over 200 publicly reported killings of environmental defenders in 2019, the largest number since it began tracking in 2012.
Twelve countries have ratified the Escazú Agreement so far. Latin American members of the Legal Empowerment Network, including DAR in Peru, FIMA in Chile, ECOLEX in Ecuador, and CEMDA in Mexico, are now doing the hard work of bringing the agreement to life, by ensuring that the people who need it most can use it themselves.
"Inequality makes environmental destruction possible, and environmental destruction exacerbates inequality."
What about people who aren’t yet involved in pursuing environmental justice? What can the rest of us do?
The crises of inequality and environmental destruction affect all of us. Everyone can and should take part in the movement for environmental justice.
Is the river that passes through your town being contaminated? Is there new fossil fuel infrastructure being proposed near you? Find out what the rules say, get to know the people most affected, and come together to fight for a solution.
Draw on that grassroots experience to take part in larger campaigns for systemic change. Connect with environmental justice organizations around the world, or with climate action groups like Sunrise Movement and 350.org.