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Using Scientific Tools to Counter Illegal Land Acquisition from Local and Indigenous Communities


Dr. Gabriel Velez, Marquette University



  • Panelists
    • Alfred Brownell, Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Northeastern University School of Law
    • Gerene Grant, Bay Islands Development Organization (BIDO) and Inclusion and Preservation of the Afro English Speaking People (IPABESP)
    • Laura Palmese Hernandez, Environmental Lawyer, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
    • Heidi Weiskel (Moderator), Staff Scientist, Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
  • Summary
    • This session highlighted the ways that scientists and their expertise could complement the expertise of local and indigenous communities, particularly in relation to struggles to push back on corporations and governments impinging on their land rights. 
    • The discussion emphasized that local communities have deep historical, cultural, and environmental interests in protecting land, and benefit from legal and scientific support to push back on the efforts of outside actors to impinge upon their relationships to the land.
    • ELAW, a network of public interest and environmental lawyers, provides support to communities through acting as technical reviewers, expert witnesses in court, trainers in country, and researchers. 
  • Case Study One: Cruise Ships
    • Laura Palmese presented a case study of a community fighting the expansion of cruise ship ports in their area.  This project was harmful to the reef, which was a protected area.  The work of scientists involved developing tools for the community - specifically workshops with members to identify gaps and topics the proponents fail to address - and community reviews of the EIA.  The process involved support not only in identifying issues with the EIA, but also in filing complaints and currently exploring options to file suit.
  • Case Study Two: Economic Development and Coral Reefs
    •  Gerene Grant spoke about a similar concern of economic development involving the destruction of coral reefs and the limitation of her community’s land and sea rights.  She spoke to how the community has a deep interest in environmental protection because their livelihood comes from these coral reefs, but also to the land rights in terms of accessing the water.  Therefore, the company coming in has worked with the government to impinge upon their human rights (access to the land) and environmental rights. 
    • Her talk ended with a plea for supporting the community in spreading the word about what is happening.  They have filed petitions to different levels of government, but have been turned away because of the economic power of tourism.
  • Case Study Three: Land Rights in India
    • The third case study referred to a lagoon in India, and the local interest, development, and engagement in science to defend local land rights.  In this case, the outside support from ELAW documented false statements in the EIA, but also required support from the local community. 
    • One local person learned GIS, interviewed people in the impacted communities, and then produced a paper in an academic journal along with outside academics to demonstrate the negative impact of the proposed project.  In this way, they used local connections and knowledge to make high level arguments that helped support the case for a new EIA that was more attentive to community concerns. 
  • Case Study Four: Indigenous Communities in Liberia
    • Alfred Brownell spoke to his experience in the impact, response, and role of science in supporting indigenous communities in Liberia in trying to push back on attempts to grab their land for economic and corporate interests. 
    • He noted how the original EIA falsely cited land as already degraded and how corporations manipulated community meetings to allege community support for their project (and what they were offering the community). 
    • He then highlighted the importance of land for ancestral rights, for survival and for sustainability.  Similar to previous speakers, he noted how the corporate actors began to restrict access to land and how agreements ignored the community’s knowledge of the land. 
    • Alfred ended by saying that this case demonstrates how science helps change power dynamics in these cases of corporate and economic interests overwhelming local community rights and claims to land.
  • Discussion
    • The beginning of the discussion focused on how to support long-term visions for the corporate sector and government focused on short-term profits.  There was mention of the role of scientists’ professional support in demonstrating the value in considering the implications of these actions. 
    • Panelists also discussed the scientists can help document the violation of laws and how these actions take away the means of life for locals.  To this end, there was a call for scientists who can work faster in the communities.


Key Points/Takeaways:

  • Three Key Themes of Presentation
    • Everyone’s expertise is needed
    • Missing data are the key to understanding the projects true impacts
    • Better systems are needed to protect communities.



  • Indigenous Communities
  • Legal
  • Development
  • Advocacy
  • Community Engagement


Additional Resources: