We harness each other's strengths in the developmental use of the law and critical engagement of the legal system.


  • Strengthening WEDefenders towards a Resilient and Inclusive Natural Resources Governance

    In 2021, the Philippines was identified as the deadliest country in Asia and third in the world for environmental defenders, with women facing unique vulnerabilities and even graver threats. In the face of continued extractive human activities that have devastating environmental impacts, along with the persistent feminization of the burden of managing natural resources for a household's survival, the WEDefend (Women Environmental Defenders) Project will advance women's leadership through innovative and direct support that empowers and capacitates the women environmental defenders (WEDs). The complete project name is “Strengthening WEDefenders towards a Resilient and Inclusive Natural Resources Governance” (or “SWING”) project and is being supported by The Asia Foundation (TAF).The project will be implemented by the island-wide clusters:      Luzon = SALIGAN Bicol, Tanggol Kalikasan, and Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC)      Visayas = Philippine Earth Justice Center (PEJC), PROCESS Panay, and KAISAHAN Negros      Mindanao = BALAOD Mindanaw and LRC (Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center) The Objectives of the project include:     Equip WEDs and civil society organizations (CSOs) with the necessary skills to conduct their work safely and effectively and influence policies without threats of violence.       Improve access to justice of WEDs who face violence, abuse, or harassment.       Advance women's leadership and advocacy on local and national priorities related to natural resources and the environment.       Strengthen public and institutional knowledge of technical environmental information.The project components include:      Building a multi-sectoral coalition of WEDs      Embarking on capacity-building program for WEDs      Provision of Psycho-Social Support (PSS) for WEDs      Legal Defense Fund for WEDs      Launch campaigns for WEDs  

  • Stories from the Field: Overcoming Access to Justice Barriers through Grassroots Communities’ Participation and Collective Action

    The project, “Stories from the Field: Overcoming Access to Justice Barriers through Grassroots Communities’ Participation and Collective Action” is a 3-year project supported by the IDRC (International Development Research Centre).It consists of multi-thematic research studies to generate knowledge and evidence on key legal empowerment approaches and their contribution to empowering and strengthening grassroots communities’ participation and collective action to bridge access to justice gaps.The project has several specific objectives:      To understand the effective and innovative legal empowerment approaches that help and strengthen grassroots communities in addressing policy and enforcement gaps in access to justice      To generate evidence on the impact of key legal empowerment approaches in empowering grassroots communities for justice system reforms and their ability to access and use legal mechanisms and remedies for addressing their issues and concerns, and for protecting and enforcing their rights.      To develop a common framework and learning agenda for legal empowerment organizations to strengthen legal empowerment strategies in the Philippines and the Southeast Asia region.The project focuses on 3 key legal empowerment approaches that the ALG network has been using: Strategic Litigation, Paralegal Development, and Policy Reform Advocacy. Aside from this, there will also be parallel research to be conducted by our partners in Malaysia (DHRRA Malaysia), Thailand (Community Resource Centre Foundation), and Indonesia (Indonesia Judicial Research Society).  

The Fight for Justice of a Woman Environmental Defender

Marilou Verano, a woman environmental defender from Aroroy, Masbate, went for an interview in the radio program Failon Ngayon sa DZMM on September 6, 2017 to talk about the adverse effects of large-scale mining in their small town.“Meron po silang processing plant na nagbubuga din po ng mga fumes. May mga ginagamit sila na chemicals na carcinogenic, so nakakabahala po talaga ‘yon. Nalalanghap po ng mga tao kaya ang daming may tuberculosis sa amin,” Marilou Verano said against Filminera Resources Corporation, a mining company operating in Masbate.The Department of Health (DOH) recorded a total of 20,345 cases (2017) and 20,568 cases (2018) of tuberculosis in the Bicol region, where Verano’s hometown of Aroroy, Masbate is located. In 2019, the disease persisted in the region with 1,536 cases in Masbate alone – the third highest in the region after Camarines Sur and Albay.Verano, once again, participated in a live interview in March 2018 on the program “Isumbong Mo Kay Tulfo”, reiterating the struggles of their community.Due to her statements in both programs, Filminera filed criminal libel lawsuits against Verano in March and October 2019. Despite being charged with two cases of libel, Verano remained steadfast as a woman environmental defender and community leader.The birth of a woman environmental defenderVerano, 56, is a single mother with a degree in accountancy. From 1996 to 1999, she worked as an accountant in Brunei, where she would help overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are victims of abuse and recession seek asylum in the Philippine Embassy. This is her first exposure to human rights issues.After working overseas, Verano was hired by International Marinelife Alliance (IMA), an international non-profit organization working towards marine conservation. She served as an area coordinator for the Bicol Region.“Nagte-train kami ng mga teachers kasi naka-incorporate ang preservation and protection of marine resources sa school. Katulong kami sa pag-establish ng marine sanctuary,” Verano said. In Masbate, Verano was able to help establish two marine sanctuaries in coordination with the local government unit.Since then, Verano became a staunch advocate for human and environmental rights.Verano also organized a cooperative for women’s livelihood in Aroroy, Masbate – a personal project to help the local community. In 2003, she was granted 14-hectare public land they converted into an integrated farm with a nursery, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, livestock, mini fish ponds, and even housing for cooperative members.And then, Filminera came to Aroroy, Masbate.Effects of mining in MasbateMasbate is an island province rich in natural resources, from mineral deposits to fisheries, but it remains one of the poorest provinces in the country.According to their website, Filminera Resources Corporation (FRC) is currently the largest operating gold mine in the Philippines situated in Aroroy, Masbate. They started operating in the area in March 2007.When she started noticing the adverse effects of mining to the environment, Verano sent a Letter of Complaint to the Office of the President and a Petition for a Writ of Kalikasan to the Court of Appeals for violations of environmental and degradation of the environment.The Mines and Geosciences Bureau dismissed the Letter of Complaint, due to “lack of merit.” The Court of Appeals dismissed the Petition for a Writ of Kalikasan, as well.During her interview with the two broadcast programs, Verano shared her personal and actual experiences about the effects of mining operations in their community, as prompted by the interview questions.Two years after the first interview, the mining company filed libel charges against Verano. The first warrant of arrest was served in March 2019.“Noong sinabi sa akin na criminal case ito, nagulat ako. Ako ‘yung tumutulong sa community, bakit ako kinasuhan ng ganoon? Iniisip mo ‘Makukulong ba ako?’ o ‘Anong mangyayari sa aking sa kulungan?’ Paano ko na matutulungan ‘yung komunidad?” Verano said.The Alternative Law Groups (ALG), through its then-National Coordinator Atty. Generosa Mislang, assisted and supported Verano in settling bail. Then, Tanggol Kalikasan, Inc., a member organization of ALG, provided legal assistance and strategic litigation on both of Verano’s cases.Victory for environmental defendersAfter almost four years, Verano was acquitted of her two libel charges by the Regional Trial Court Branch 58 and Branch 134 in Makati City – a victory for human and environmental rights defenders. The court concluded that the prosecution’s claims did not satisfy the commission of libel under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code.After, and even during, this legal battle, Verano continues to help the local community of Aroroy, Masbate through the implementation of developmental and livelihood projects in different barangays of the town. The community, with Verano at the forefront, is also planning to conduct a medical mission to address the health concerns in the area.Today, Verano resides in the United Kingdom attending a one and half year fellowship in the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights bringing her advocacy in the international sphere.This long legal battle did not dissuade Verano from continuing fighting for human and environmental rights, especially now that we’re facing a global climate crisis. Verano calls for putting an end to mining operations in the country and repealing the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.“Dapat itigil na ang pagmimina dahil buong ecosystem ay masisira. Marami talagang human rights violations ang magaganap dahil [nakataya] ang kabuhayan, pagkain, at kalusugan,” Verano appeals to the government.

ALG champions developmental legal aid at national legal aid summit

The Alternative Law Groups (ALG) shared developmental legal aid best practices and challenges in the three-day national legal aid summit organized by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in Bacolod City.For more than 30 years, the ALG has been engaging and empowering grassroots communities through legal education, the development of paralegals, strategic litigation, and policy reforms, among others.“Public interest lawyers and their groups, like the ALG, as well as their partners have memorable and colorful stories to share. These narratives put into concrete reality what development legal aid is all about, alternative lawyering entails working with the poor and marginalized sectors, not for the communities.” Attorney Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), said. ELAC is one of the member organizations of ALG working with environmental defenders and indigenous peoples in their fight for environmental rights.“[Through developmental legal aid] lumalawak ang paningin mo sa mundo at nagkakaroon ka na pagkakaintindi sa batas at sa mga problema ng Pilipinas … at kung paano ito sosolusyunan,” Attorney Gian Miko Arabejo of the ALG Secretariat said in a video presentation. (“Through developmental legal aid, your views of the world and your understanding of the law and the problems of the Philippines widen. It also helps you have a deeper understanding of how to solve them,” Attorney Gian Miko Arabejo of the ALG Secretariat said in a video presentation.)The video presentation featured the struggles of the sectors of indigenous peoples, persons deprived of liberty (PDLs), and women, and how developmental legal aid empowered their communities to fight for their rights and access legal remedies for their problems.“Sa tatlo naming areas, mga 1000 na kaming mga kababaihan na naturuan ng kanilang mga karapatan,” Mylen, a community leader said in the video. “Simula noong ma-empower ako, nakakapag-argumento na ako mula sa barangay hanggang sa LGU. May lakas ng loob na kaming i-argumento ‘yung mga gusto namin. Nakikipag-dialogue na kami para doon sa aming mga demanda.”On the spectrum of legal assistanceMember organizations of ALG also shared their legal empowerment work with the sectors they are working with. Research and publications, paralegal development, strategic litigation, and policy reforms are the common strategies undertaken by the network’s members.Attorney Mary Claire Demaisip of the Kaisahan Tungo sa Kaunlaran ng Kanayunan at Repormang Pansakahan (KAISAHAN) discussed their work with farmers and rural communities in resolving their land rights issues. “Farmers do not have access to many services and resources that can enable them to avail of remedies and actions to defend their rights,” Demaisip said. “It is also a challenge for them to sustain their land claims and support their legal cases due to high costs of litigation.”To bridge these gaps and challenges, KAISAHAN intervenes through paralegal formation and community organizing, case handling, and policy advocacy. The organization capacitates farmers by teaching them about the laws, rules and regulations relevant to their cases. Then, KAISAHAN guides them in formulating strategies, plans, and action points for the resolution of their cases.Rainbow Rights Philippines’ (R-Rights) Executive Director, Attorney Jazz Tamayo, highlighted the importance of having a national law that solely addresses the needs of persons of diverse SOGIESC. Without such law, they will continue to be discriminated against, stigmatized, and treated unequally.For the past 22 years, Anti-Discrimination and SOGIE Equality bills have been filed in Congress, but they have never successfully passed into law. R-Rights empower persons of diverse SOGIESC through legislative and policy work, capacity-building, research and publication, and community paralegal programs.On the other hand, Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panlegal (SALIGAN) focused on their work with the urban poor and informal settlers. “The urban poor and informal settlers are often seen as a nuisance, a hindrance to ‘development,’ and encroaches on other’s property rights, resulting in the adoption of certain policies such as ejectment, land titling, and the repealed law criminalizing squatting,” SALIGAN’s Executive Director Attorney Hazel Lavitoria said.SALIGAN organizes and trains members of these communities to participate in local governance, allowing them to have a voice in formulating local development plans and local shelter plans, among others.Lastly, Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center-Friends of the Earth Philippines (LRC) presented their work with indigenous peoples: direct legal services, research and policy development, and advocacy.“Indigenous peoples’ vulnerability is characterized by their lack of resources, protection, and recourse in the law. This vulnerability erodes the ability of communities to look to the justice system to address rights violations,” LRC Executive Director Attorney Efenita “Mai” Taqueban said. “By providing legal services and using the law as a tool to enhance access to justice of indigenous and poor communities, LRC intends to contribute to the work towards a transformative legal praxis,” she said.On challenges and opportunitiesOn the last day of the summit, ALG led a breakout session to share the challenges and opportunities in developmental legal aid with the other delegates. The coalition identified three pressing concerns which include weak implementation of laws and policies, harassment suits and killings of human rights defenders, and vulnerable communities often getting divided on issues affecting them due to abject poverty.Sustainability is also a big challenge for ALG. “I think that for all NGOs [non-government organizations] – the alternative lawyers have a problem with sustainability, especially for maintaining their lawyers. How can you sustain them in our small organizations when there are many big opportunities around? [such as working for the government or in private corporations],” Attorney Joan Dymphna Saniel of the Children's Legal Bureau (CLB) said.“When you talk about alternative lawyering, what makes it alternative is we work with communities. So, when we talk about sustainability, it’s important to sustain our organizing and community base, as well. Not only to sustain us but how do we also partner with these communities for their continuous movement for community empowerment,” Attorney Anna Liza Mones of ALG Secretariat said.On the other hand, there are opportunities for developmental legal aid, such as, the special writs and rule-making power of the Supreme Court, creating precedents through strategic litigation, and maximizing existing networks.The 2022 National Legal Aid SummitThe three-day legal aid summit entitled Reimagining the Art of Legal Empowerment: A National Summit on Access to Justice through Cultivating approaches on Legal Aid aims to “develop a roadmap that will amplify, provide, and sustain avenues of access” to legal assistance of underserved communities.“Lawyering does not exploit a person’s ignorance. On the contrary, it looks after the disadvantaged and the marginalized, in order to give them a voice, to give them the chance to be equal with others, if not in life, at least in law,” Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo said in his keynote address.The summit was convened by the Supreme Court in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, from November 28-30, 2022. ALG is one of the organizational partners, together with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the Philippine Association of Law Schools (PALS), and the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

LEN-SEA convenes to strengthen legal empowerment strategies and approaches

Delegates from the core group of LEN-SEA convened in Manila, Philippines The Legal Empowerment Network - Southeast Asia (LEN-SEA) convened in the Philippines to discuss legal empowerment strategies and approaches, propose solutions to the shrinking civic space, and identify the network’s activities for the next three to five years.Entitled, “Building Resilience for Legal Empowerment: Strengthening Grassroots Justice Defenders in SEA,” the four-day regional convening aims to strengthen the community, members’ engagement and internal structure of the regional legal empowerment network.Attorney Marlon Manuel, Namati’s Senior Advisor, led an activity where the delegates shared the current legal empowerment challenges they are facing. Some of the key issues include language barriers, lack of support from the government, lack of funding and resources, and the shrinking civic space.“It’s the government who freely allows injustices to happen. Instead of government regulators as primary workers in the development of communities, some become tools for abuse. They choose to turn a blind eye,” attorney Raffy Pajares of Environmental Legal Assistance Center, Inc. (Philippines) said.The shrinking civic space is a cross-cutting issue faced by Southeast Asian nations. Forum Asia’s Laura Law virtually shared their input on the regional situation of the shrinking civic space. She said it continued to worsen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.“There was a limit for gathering. They [governments] implemented many states of emergencies and implemented decrees and orders without considering the already existing laws at the domestic level.” Law said.In Cambodia, non-government organizations and civil society organizations (CSOs) can be charged with terrorism and their activities are being monitored online by the government. In Myanmar, the CSOs were targets of threats and harassment and pandemic was used to introduce new repressive laws.In Indonesia and Malaysia, protests are suppressed, and community-based organizations are surveilled. The government supports the arrest and detention of refugees and undocumented people. In Thailand, the law is being used against the people. The COVID-19 emergency law is being used to arrest activists and charge protesters with SLAPP suits. While defamation lawsuits are used to control CSOs. In Laos, no one dares speak about human rights issues because the government does not implement the treaties it has signed and everyone is heavily surveilled.In the Philippines, the recently signed Anti-Terrorism Law sends a chilling effect to journalists and the youth. Critical voices experience red-tagging or are charged with trumped up cases. Lastly, disinformation plagues social media – a modern weapon used by the ruling class.Law recommended building solidarity and movement within each country to fight against the shrinking civic space.“This kind of solidarity and collaboration cross-border is important in countering the shrinking civic space. We are organizing capacity building for the youth to understand the human rights situation. Providing training to local journalists and lawyers in the tactics on the shrinking civil space will be really good,” Law said.Despite these challenges in the legal empowerment practice, there are also best practices. Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla of Community Resource Centre (Thailand) said one of the best practices in legal empowerment is to work on advocacy and campaign. Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla of Community Resource Centre (Thailand): “You can do a very small thing, but it can also affect a big thing.”Attorney Ray Paolo Santiago of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (Philippines) discussed the roles of the ASEAN bodies and the opportunities for engagement.“If you are persistent, you can push your agenda little by little. You really have to develop relationships. It's really about how to create those openings [for collaboration and engagement], Santiago said. As part of the education advocacy of LEN-SEA, the delegates broke down into three groups and went to the grassroots communities of various sectors: labor, women, and LGBTQIA+. Rainbow Rights Philippines Executive Director Attorney Jazz Tamayo discussed how their organization works with the LGBTQIA+ sector and communities. During these visits, the participants learned new legal empowerment approaches and paralegal formation strategies. They also shared and compared the situation of these marginalized sectors in their respective countries. After the community visits, the delegates identified the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of the network. Here are some: StrengthsCapacity-building and empowerment of communitiesRegional and global network buildingGrassroots engagementWeaknessesResource mobilization and buildingWeak monitoring and evaluation, researchInstitutional memory fragilityOpportunitiesDigitalization (cross-border movement building online)Engaging with ASEAN bodiesPolicy advocacy ChallengesEmergence of authoritarian regimes in SEAShrinking civic spaceDwindling funds and limited funding for legal empowerment work The Building Resilience for Legal Empowerment: Strengthening Grassroots Justice Defenders in SEA culminated with the strategic planning of activities of the LEN-SEA for the next three to five years.  The strategic plan focused on learning, collective action, community building, and fundraising activities for the network. This includes improvement of digital communications, strengthening the members through capacity building, and popularizing legal empowerment work, among others. The regional convening was attended by delegates from Cambodia, Canada, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand.Alternative Law Groups (ALG) is the regional anchor of LEN-SEA.