Land rights is the human rights issue of the 21st century.
So insists Chris Jochnick, C.E.O. of Landesa and keynote speaker at PHRGE’s 12th Human Rights Institute to be held at Northeastern University School of Law on December 7 and 8. Jochnick will be joining a group of academics, activists and advocates to discuss the issue of land rights from a human rights perspective. Past PHRGE Institutes have focused on water rights, human rights cities, domestic violence, education reform and a host of other cutting-edge social issues.
This year’s Institute highlights the work of PHRGE Visiting Scholar, Alfred Brownell who came to Boston with his family almost exactly one year before this year’s Institute. The Brownell family’s arrival at Logan Airport on the coldest day of 2016 was not a long-overdue vacation visit to the Hub.
Brownell’s legal work to defend the land rights of Liberian communities threatened by land “grabs,” had earned him the enmity of government officials and palm oil operators alike. Bad feeling quickly escalated to ugly threats and with the help of ESCR-Net–a global network of organizations working on economic, social and cultural rights–and PHRGE, Mr. Brownell, his wife and two of their children were able to relocate to the Boston area. Alfred took up residence at Northeastern as a Visiting Scholar affiliated with PHRGE.
Mr. Brownell is re-defining what it means to be a Visiting Scholar at Northeastern. Over the past year, he has given numerous talks at local universities, involved a growing group of Northeastern students in his research work on land issues and–through his contacts and commitment, greatly deepened PHRGE’s work in the area of land rights. The idea for this year’s Institute emerged from that engagement.
Soon after setting up shop at Northeastern, Alfred expressed interest in the idea of a Land Tenure Security Index that would provide land activists with a powerful tool that would allow them to compare the efforts of various governments to secure the land rights of their people. Brownell’s organization in Liberia, Green Advocates, is an environmental law practice, and the green advocates bring this environmental perspective to their work on land. They see a strong connection between the dispossession of forest and other rural communities, environmental degradation and climate change. From this perspective, land grabbing, regardless of the objectives of the grabbers, has effects well beyond the directly-affected communities. Policy makers emphasize the need to increase community resilience in the face of climate change and the resulting surge in natural disasters. Securing community land rights would be a huge step in the direction of community resilience.
“I’ve seen what people have done with tools like the Corruption Perception Index, and I think we could use a Land Tenure Security Index in similar ways,” said Brownell in explaining his interest in the idea. He immediately began working with NUSL law students on a “scoping” study to find out what work was being done to create such a tool. He first realized the impressive obstacles to creating this sort of index, and he discovered to his mild surprise that there were several projects to gather land-related quantitative data and put that information at the service of land advocates. One day in the early summer he said that it would be great to bring some of these people together with others interested in land rights to exchange experiences, learn from each other and see if stronger collaboration might hold the key to moving the work forward. The 12th PHRGE Institute was born.
Mostly through Alfred’s powers of persuasion, PHRGE has been successful at gathering many of the key people involved in the research Alfred has been examining. One needs persuasion to get people based in Africa to Boston in December. Téodyl Nkuintchua of the Congo Basin Forest Monitoring Program, Liz Alden Wiley of Land Rights Now, Peter Veit of the World Resources Institute and Irit Tamir of Oxfam America are only a few of the outstanding researchers and advocates who will be joining us. Francis Colee of Alfred’s own, Green Advocates, Liberia will also be present. The full Institute program is available online.
As always, Day One of the Institute will be standard conference fare, with two provocative panels and Jochnick’s much-awaited keynote. Then, on Day Two, a smaller group of participants will roll up their sleeves and spend the day in a workshop format discussing ideas presented by PHRGE and others regarding the way forward toward a tenure security index. The Institute promises two days of connection, learning and, hopefully, some agreement on steps to be taken together to respond to the micro and the macro threats represented by large-scale land acquisition.
If you can make it Boston, there is still time to register for the Institute. Can’t make it, but would love to see the Day One talks? All Day One Activities will be broadcast live on PHRGE’s Facebook Page.