Global Grassroots Legal Empowerment: Interview with Vivek Maru

Global Grassroots Legal Empowerment: Interview with Vivek Maru

. 11 min read

Vivek Maru is the CEO and founder of Namati, which advances social and environmental justice by building a movement of people who know, use, and shape the law. Namati works on the ground in six countries and convenes the Legal Empowerment Network, a community of over 2800 justice groups from 170+ countries. Vivek graduated from Harvard College in 1997 and Yale Law School in 2001.

How did the idea for Namati come about? How did you grow Namati to such a scale? How did it acquire a legal focus?

We militate against social and environmental injustice by combining the power of law with the power of organizing. If you think of ordinary people, we don't have guns, we don't have much money. Two of the most powerful assets we have are the systems of rules and our own collective power. But those rules, even good laws, have often been dominated by elites and are difficult to understand and hard to access. What we're able to do is demystify the law and make it a valuable tool in the process of building grassroots People Power. We fuse the power of law with the power of organizing.

I started Namati after spending four years co-founding and co-leading a grassroots justice effort in Sierra Leone that was called Timap for Justice. And then I spent almost as much time working with the World Bank, trying to advance the rule of law in what was then called the justice reform group of the World Bank. Everywhere I went during those years, I saw opportunities for the kinds of work we had been up to in Sierra Leone, from India to Indonesia and Kenya. And so in 2011, I started Namati alongside really inspiring grassroots justice leaders from around the world including people like Maja Daruwala who recently led the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in India, Manolo Morales who leads EcoLex in Ecuador, and Marlon Manuel who at the time was leading the Alternative Law Groups in the Philippines. We came together to form the Legal Empowerment Network, which Namati convenes, and which is now the largest network of justice groups in the world. It's, at this point, over 2,500 organizations from 170 countries. Marlon, Manolo, and Maja are leaders of that global network.

The reason Namati and the movement we're a part of have grown is really a small side effect of something deeper which I see in the world: a hunger for a global justice movement. The times demand that. We're living in a moment of extreme concentration of wealth and power. We are in an existential environmental crisis that elites have totally failed to address, and democracy itself is under threat. The Economist has a democracy index which they started in 2006. The year 2020, which is the latest data they have out, has had the lowest rating overall globally since they began tracking.

In light of that, many governments have turned inward and become hyper-nationalist. But we the people can't afford to do that. Many of us are hungry for a global justice movement, one that recognizes our common humanity and the common challenges we face and that strives in solidarity across borders.

In your TED talk, you mention that 4 billion people live without basic access to justice and face grave threats to their lives and dignity. These people are entitled to certain rights by law, but they have never heard of them, and the systems that are supposed to enforce those laws are corrupt or broken. As a lawyer, what do you see as the strengths of international law, and what still needs to be improved?

Our starting point is working with people who face grave threats to their lives and their dignity. For example, a community in Odisha, India, whose farmland is being poisoned because an iron ore mine is dumping effluent unlawfully. Or a community in Baltimore, Maryland, an hour from where I'm standing, that is extremely burdened by a cluster of industrial facilities, including an open two-story coal pile that is blowing dust on their neighborhood every day.

When we work on live threats like those, we are extremely pragmatic about what laws we invoke, and we tend to invoke local and national laws, more so than international laws, simply because they're more effective. Institutions that have authority tend to pay more respect to local and national laws. We have found that even where the legal system and the laws on the books are adverse, poorly written, or constraining of rights, there are almost always useful hooks that people can use in those local and national laws if they study them and pay attention to where the positive provisions are. For example, we have a team of partners that we work with in Myanmar, and until the coup happened in February, despite a very adverse legal system, we were able to find progressive and useful provisions which communities could use, and those local laws tend to be more effective.

I do feel that international law has a role as well, in that it can be an important source of norms and standards. An example of a new international law that I feel hopeful about is the Escazú Agreement. It came into force in April of this year on Earth Day, and it's specifically for the Latin American and Caribbean region. For the first time, it creates protections for grassroots environmental defenders, and it sets some norms around environmental transparency so that communities are able to know what the government is planning and what projects have been proposed or approved. It also mandates community participation in environmental decision-making so people have a say in whether an industrial project is going to happen, and on what terms is it going to happen.

I sometimes worry, however, that international law is just a piece of paper, so what difference is it going to make? But I spoke with members of our network, including Gabriela Burdiles Perucci from Chile who works with a group called Fiscalia del Medio Ambiente (FIMA). Even though Chile hasn't yet joined Escazú, Burdiles said it was Chile’s involvement in the Esazu negotiations that set the stage for the potential inclusion of environmental rights in the national constitution which is being debated right now.

Peru also hasn’t joined Escazú yet, but Ida Balboa from a Peruvian group called Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales said that years of negotiations on Escazú were a key reason why they were able to get a new court dedicated to environmental crimes in Peru. Escazú to me is an example of how international law can be useful in creating new norms and standards, even though, when we're dealing with a specific case or a specific struggle on the ground, international law tends not to be the first thing to go to.

What is Namati’s strategy for bringing about environmental and social justice? Does the organization focus on taking and arguing legal cases or rather on equipping others with the tools to do so?

Our ethos is legal empowerment. We want ordinary people to be able to know the law and shape the law themselves. That is our mantra: know law, use law, shape law.

We work with organizers who are deeply rooted in the communities that they are from—sometimes we call them community paralegals—who can become a bridge between the law and the process of organizing. Those community paralegals educate people who are facing injustice about what local and national rules say. We don't go to litigation as a first step. Instead, much of our work involves administrative institutions like an environmental protection agency, a district administration, or a land administration agency. These are institutions you don't need a lawyer to go before, but they do have substantial enforcement authority, and they're often sleeping on the authority that they've got.

What we have found is that when people themselves directly engage those institutions in an empowered way, invoking concrete evidence, invoking knowledge of the law, and also coming together, they can often get those institutions to move. That process of direct engagement by ordinary people of administrative solutions is a lot of where we have seen potential.

We do not usually resort to litigation ourselves. A typical lawyer’s message is, “I'll solve it for you. If you have a problem, I'll take care of it.” Meanwhile, a typical organizer’s message is “We're going to solve it together. The law is not that complicated. We're going to figure out what it says and we're going to use that information with our own people power to come to a solution.” Part of what we're trying to do is change the culture around the law so that it is something that is contributing to people power rather than perpetuating a kind of dependency.

What is the most rewarding part of grassroots organizing and legal empowerment? What is the most challenging? How do you overcome these challenges?

One of the most rewarding things is seeing the journey that people can go on. Oftentimes, a starting point for many people is disaffection. Many people just feel alienated and that systems haven't been working for them. They've been excluded, and they don't see the point in engaging. One of the beautiful things I've seen is ordinary people going from that starting point to learning a little bit about what the rules say, using those rules to attack a live problem that they face like a land grab or unlawful pollution, and then even continuing the journey from there, from a specific case towards taking part in a broader movement to change the system fundamentally to get better rules. Watching people go from knowing, to using, to shaping has been one of the most inspiring things in my life.

In terms of the challenges, the brutal retaliation is so daunting. One community paralegal who partners with Namati in Myanmar was recently arrested and another has been in prison for several months. The military coup in February was crushing. People were doing something as simple as coming together to defend themselves and exercise basic rights, but what they faced was retaliation. We see that all over: brutal retaliation against people who were standing up for themselves and the planet. Instead of protecting these people, which is what we should be doing, we are often allowing them to get killed. That keeps me up at night.

How do you anticipate the COVID-19 crisis impacting the work of grassroots justice organizers around the world? Has the process become more burdensome? Or, have the inadequacies of our legal systems and the need for reform been brought to light?

COVID has exacerbated existing injustices and created new ones. For example, migrant laborers who have been stranded are oftentimes in very dire circumstances, facing grave violations of their rights. In some cases, we have seen an uptick in land grabs where companies are taking advantage of the decrease in law and order and the decrease in government functioning by grabbing more land. At the same time, millions are sick and out of work.

It's been amazing to see how our community around the world has tried to rise to the challenge. They've been in a paradoxical position where, on the one hand, this is what we were made for. All these justice organizations in our network have been preparing for a moment like this because responding to injustice is what they do. On the other hand, the justice organizations themselves have to adapt in order to protect their people and protect themselves. That means limits on the basic ways that they work. Bringing people together is what an organizer does, and in COVID, it's dangerous for people to come together.

One of the things that we hustled as a community to create was the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund, which really grew out of listening to network members and how they were adapting and struggling to adapt. Global human rights partners have come together to invest in it. The purpose of the fund is to give flexible grants to grassroots justice groups so that they can adapt their methods to rise to this moment.

For example, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative created a simple video system in India so that prisoners could talk to their families because they were completely cut off during COVID. Another group in Central America is using satellite technology to monitor land grabs because their in-person monitoring was constrained. Groups are turning to virtual tools so that organizers can keep doing their vital work, even under the constrained circumstances of the pandemic.

Stepping back, I do think that the pandemic poses deep questions about how we govern ourselves. It has proven the weakness in our governing institutions and it calls on us to not give up on democracy, but to deepen our democracy. We are striving to shape the recovery in a way that builds in deeper equity, deeper respect for ordinary people, and more capacity for genuine collective action. Ultimately, the problems we face require collective action, whether it's pandemics or climate change.

You urge people that “not only do we need to protect the work of barefoot lawyers around the world, but we need to change the systems themselves.” Do you think that the legal system only needs minor reforms? Or, does the system need a complete gutting and reforming? If so, how would this change come about?

One of the most promising aspects of the work that we do is that grassroots struggles against live threats have real potential to build towards fundamental improvements in our laws and systems.

Two things, in particular, grow out of grassroots struggles that are extremely valuable. One is they yield learning about how our systems are working in practice. If one-hundred different communities attempt to use environmental laws to respond to land grabbing or unlawful pollution, then that experience of trying to get a solution by engaging the administrative institutions, invoking rules and evidence, and trying to get a remedy, when put together, shows you how a system is working in practice. People can use that information to both diagnose what's going wrong, where and how the system is failing, and also envision what a better, more functional, and more equitable system could look like.

The second thing is leadership. I mentioned that, oftentimes, people start from a place of disaffection or alienation. Then, the process of learning and using rules to take on an immediate problem can grow your sense of your own power and your willingness to engage in shaping institutions. We have seen all over the world that incredible leaders emerge from those grassroots struggles against live threats who are able to speak from their firsthand experience about problems that they've taken on. They also help lead and take part in broader movements to change the rules altogether.

In Sierra Leone, organizers have supported many grassroots struggles against, for example, palm oil plantations that have grabbed 40,000 hectares [98,842 acres] of people's land without their consent. Or an iron ore mine that has dumped tailings on people's farmland unlawfully. Out of those grassroots organizing efforts has emerged a movement to pass two new pieces of land legislation that would really be transformative and would radically reimagine the way land and environment are governed in Sierra Leone. Those new bills were drafted by the two leaders of Namati in Sierra Leone, and the contents of those bills grow directly out of the learning that has come from the many cases that we've handled for years. The people who are organizing for the passage of those bills are very much the ones who have been involved in their own struggles to get their land back from an oil palm plantation or to get a mining company to stop polluting. So, you can see both the learning and the leadership at play. Engaging in these struggles is a powerful pathway towards deep systemic change, and it's different from how we usually think about systemic changes. Thus far, it has been legislators and people in think tanks who write the rules. This grassroots justice work represents a different way of pursuing reform, which grows out of ordinary people trying to make the rules and systems work.

For all the readers of our magazine and for those who don’t have a legal background, what can we do?

To use the law, you do not need a legal background. That's the whole premise that we're trying to buck against. You don't have to be part of the legal profession. All of us can engage in this journey of knowing, using, and shaping the laws. I would invite folks to join the Legal Empowerment Network, which is open to people from all over the world. There, you will find peers who are taking on justice problems in their own places, and most of them are not lawyers at all. These are ordinary people, teachers, and farmers, for example, who have learned enough law that they can use that knowledge in the process of organizing for solutions.

The steps are relatively simple. Find an injustice, get to know the people most affected, and work with them to figure out what the rules say. See if you can use those rules to pursue a solution. You don't have to litigate to engage administrative institutions. Use that experience of trying to take on a problem to take part in larger movements for structural change, whether it's the movement right now for a Green New Deal or movements against discriminatory regimes. Draw on your local experience to feed into and take part in broader movements for change. Know law, use law, and shape law. All of us can follow that path.