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  • Writer's pictureInternational Lawyers Project

“The law is both a shield and a sword”

by Maria Cristina Mundin and Rachel Mwendwa 


Community Leaders, Maria Cristina Mundin (ILP), trainers Irena Sabic KC (Garden Court Chambers) and Thalia Maragh (Garden Court Chambers) and Getrude Kibare (Johnsons and Partners Advocate)


The law is both a shield and a sword,” Joseph declared; his key learning during the last day of the paralegal training. Joseph is just one of the 15 paralegals from Narasha Community Development Group (NCDG) who attended the training conducted by International Lawyers Project (ILP) and its volunteer lawyers in early 2024.


40 members of the Narasha Maasai community participated in legal empowerment training led by pro bono lawyers Irena Sabic KC and Thalia Maragh from Garden Court Chambers, and Advocate Getrude Kibare, from Johnsons & Partners Advocates LLP (Nairobi). The purpose of the training was to empower the Maasai indigenous community with knowledge, skills, resources and confidence to better defend their land against encroachment by the government or developers and advocate for their land rights. The aim was for the communities to be better informed and more confident when negotiating with investors and local officials on the development of their natural resources.


Historical Context


The Maasai indigenous people living in Narasha village in Olkaria region, Nakuru County, have historically used their ancestrally owned land for pastoral purposes, keeping livestock such as cows and goats and moving from one area to another to allow the livestock to graze. However, this pastoralist lifestyle has been subjected to increasing encroachment by farmers and developers. Three parcels of land in this area, collectively known as Maiella Land, have been subject to legal disputes for decades.


The Maasai people were denied their right to vote during the colonial era, and their leaders were forced to sign contracts to temporarily lease their territory to the British administration. This marked the start of the community's problems. Following Kenya's independence, several local companies and individuals created farms and businesses in the area, capitalising on the Maasai community's marginalisation and fragility and depriving them of their land.


The Maasai now face an additional challenge. The Olkaria region has high resource potential, leading to the development of geothermal power plants by the state and internationally owned companies. However, geothermal exploration in the area is incompatible with the existing land use patterns of the pastoralist Maasai communities, as they do not have sufficient land to enable their livestock to graze or find water. As a result, they face forced evictions, attacks and arrests, loss of their means of livelihood, environmental pollution and economic vulnerability. 


Training for the Community Leaders: The Guardians of the Maasai


At the start of the training, the community leaders outlined the challenges facing the community in the various villages. Some of the challenges include registration of community land in the name of private individuals, corruption within government institutions, exploitation of natural resources by third parties and private corporations, government interest in making Kenya the African leader in green investments, human rights violations, infringement of community land rights and a frustrating court system.


To help address some of these challenges, the training included instruction about international human rights advocacy, indigenous rights, the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), diversity, equality and inclusion, negotiation and messaging tools, and an update on land laws and how to use them to secure Maasai land rights.


One of the key learnings was the critical role that women have to play in negotiations with government officials and multinational corporations. Another key learning was how domestic and international legal protections can protect indigenous peoples from unjustified land invasion by outside parties. The training therefore included the application and enforcement of these legally guaranteed rights. This is a complex area of law but our trainers were able to explain the legal concepts in a way that helped the community leaders understand their legal rights.


With the influx of energy projects being developed in Olkaria and surrounding areas, it is critical that the community understands its legal rights and the obligations of the government and companies towards them. As the community's stewards and guardians, the community leaders learned how to use their voice to persuade influential figures to support the protection of their land and engage in human rights advocacy on behalf their community. They also learned that they should speak with one voice, to avoid negotiating outside of the community’s interests.


Training for the Paralegals: The Shield of the Community


The paralegals enthusiastically participated in multiple group sessions to understand how they can advocate for their community’s interests and negotiate for their legal rights. The 15 paralegals, who were diverse in gender and age, are expected to use their newfound knowledge to empower other members of the community by sharing the principles they learned during the training.


The paralegals also shared their stories about their community’s challenges, human rights violations they have experienced, and the civil rights litigation they have been involved in. In order to address some of these challenges, the training included discussion around indigenous rights and human rights law, negotiation skills, the principle of FPIC, an overview of carbon markets and green financing and their impact on community land, and an update on land laws and their use in defending Maasai land rights. One of their key learnings from the training was that a clear understanding of relevant laws can give the community the necessary leverage and tools to negotiate with government officials and company representatives about the use and development of their natural resources.


Closing with a song!


The ongoing scale of the challenges faced by the Maasai requires continuous support and advocacy for protection of their land and their civil rights. By providing the capacity building training for community leaders and paralegals with the help of our pro bono lawyers from Kenya and the UK, we were able to develop their legal knowledge and skills, enabling them to amplify their voices, develop social capital, legal knowledge and awareness. The community leaders are now able to provide targeted and timely support to members of their communities to defend themselves against encroaching activities to their homes, livelihoods and safety, claim their land rights, safeguard their ancestral territories, promote sustainable development and advocate for peace, justice and functioning institutions.

 

At the end of the training, the paralegals sang a traditional Maasai song to show appreciation for the trainers and all the participants for their dedication and hard work. It was an incredible reflection of the Maasai’s cultural identity that is indeed worth preserving and fighting for.


This empowerment initiative was made possible by funding provided by A4ID - Advocates for International Development.

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