Phones for Justice: Empowering Myanmar Communities in Land Rights

Written by Linda Pappagallo

Linda is a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist. Linda developed monitoring and evaluation metrics that turned Ulula's data into insights. Before joining the team, she worked on key environmental and social policy issues like land grabbing and resettlements in the extractive and agricultural sector in Eastern Africa and Mozambique.

September 9, 2015

Linda Papagallo (Ulula) and Caitlin Pierce (Namati)

In recent years, conflicts over land rights have attracted much attention, as large-scale land deals in Africa and elsewhere have become increasingly controversial. In Myanmar, land has become an even more valuable commodity since 2011, when the Government initiated an unprecedented political and economic reform process, including actively seeking major foreign investment to grow the country’s economy and reduce poverty. According to a recent study, one third of all concessions in emerging markets are marked by friction between local communities and companies, and if conflicts become violent, the resulting costs are significant not only for communities, but also for investors, companies, and governments.

What tools can help reduce risk and conflict around land, while balancing legitimate interests of all stakeholders?

For the 2015 Innovating Justice Challenge, a project developed by Ulula, and Namati offers an answer. Our Myanmar project is built around a mobile-based land rights engagement platform that helps empower rural communities to claim their rights in land disputes with companies.

We now need your help to advance to the next round: please follow this link and cast your vote for our project. It takes less than 30 seconds!


Land-related Conflicts: What is at Stake?

Evidence suggests an increasing frequency of land related conflict globally. Natural resource mismanagement and concessional exploitation that features large-scale land acquisitions often violate human rights of the local population and become land grabs. Case studies from Liberia, Cameroon, and the Mekong region to Peru and Ghana show that the impact of land related conflicts is considerable, and in many cases avoidable. But how much land is actually subject to these risks?

The Rights and Resources Initiative recently released a report titled, “Global Capital, Local Concessions: A Data-Driven Examination of Land Tenure Risk and Industrial Concessions in Emerging Market Economies”, in which the authors quantify land tenure risk defined as the percentage of company land concessions that overlap with indigenous claims. By analyzing public data for over 153 million hectares of concessions in 12 emerging market economies, the study finds that 31 percent of all land-use concessions overlapped with community land claims. In some countries – like Peru and Cameroon – the figure is above 80 percent.

Land tenure risk poses costs to communities, investment, governments, businesses and society at large. For example, the same study shows that conflicts linked to overlapping land claims can halt development projects, or increase operating costs by up to 30 times. In the Philippines, a land conflict linked to the Tampakan mining project – which is predicted to add 1 percent to the national GDP – puts $5.9 billion investment at risk. In Cameroon, the study also showed that 83 percent of Cameroon’s timber concessions overlapped with community forests, creating a potential for lost profits in the timber sector equal to 0.4 percent of the national GDP.

For companies and investors, addressing land-related grievances and resolving conflict is fundamental to managing operational and financial risk, and to creating sustainable business models that rest on shared value. For communities, land is often the most significant asset for rural families and source of livelihood for local populations. Beyond economic value, land is also closely linked to community identity, history and culture.


Mobile Technology to Improve Access to Land Rights in Myanmar

The need for innovative solutions that help address shortcomings of current approaches to resolving land conflicts at the community level is clear. The most pressing needs are: better tools that help companies measure and manage land related grievances and perceptions, more effective dispute resolution mechanism that do not involve legal means (non-judicial grievance mechanisms or NJGM), and better tools that help human rights organizations support communities with access to land rights.

All three challenges can be addressed by leveraging simple mobile technology. Ulula and Namati have joined forces to develop Phones for Justice, a land rights engagement platform that conforms to standards set for NJGM by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that is powered by simple mobile phones. With our partners, we are now preparing to pilot the platform as a mobile data and engagement solution to help address crucial land rights issues in Myanmar.

Land related issues are a major source of contention and injustice in Myanmar, where 70 percent of the population is engaged in agricultural activities. Throughout the decades of dictatorship, land dispossession and land grabbing was commonplace. Today, the government is discussing a new Land Law, but those that seek restitution fear that the new policy will create legal disputes, dispossess women, and leave thousands of farmers with insecure rights. In the meantime, land allocated to large-scale agriculture concessions and extractive industries increased by 170 percent between 2010 and 2013.

By leveraging the emerging mobile industry in Myanmar, our mobile-based non-judicial grievance mechanism would be one of the very first attempts to use ICT for community engagement and social justice.

Traditional ad-hoc consultation processes like focus group discussions or sampled surveys reach out only to selected groups and risk reinforcing existing power structures or missing the voices of hidden groups. Phones for Justice is different and leverages the landscape of mobile technology in Myanmar to offer a more inclusive and scalable NJGM.

The mobile-based NJGM consists of two parts: an SMS and voice engagement platform that works on any kind of mobile phone, and a centralized information management interface to manage incoming grievances and measure trends over time. Ulula’s mobile platform offers two-way communication feedback flows between community members and Namati’s community paralegal network, which will engage with companies to create direct response to grievances and document cases for judicial proceedings as necessary. The centralized information management interface facilitates data analysis and management of feedback. Among other functionalities, the dashboard collates and organizes interactions, provides data visualization/analysis tools, and sets automatic tasks or alerts for better data management.

The project follows suggestions of the UN Guidance Note for Land and Conflict, and provides a trove of detailed land tenure and conflict data that is publicly available to help the broader ecosystem of civil society, media, policy makers, and business professionals reduce land related conflict.The data we collect with the mobile platform can be combined with spatial data and empower local government officials to better enforce applicable rules and legislation in an environment where administrative and financial capacities are weak. For example, the NJGM can ensure early and inclusive implementation of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) principles to mitigate negative impacts and improve governance of extractive resource development.

Our project has been shortlisted for the second round of the 2015 Innovating Justice Challenge, but now we need your help to gather votes. Please consider following this link to vote for the project before September 17, 2015. 30 seconds is all it takes to make a difference!


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