For nearly two decades, we’ve been training local villagers, lawyers, and civil society leaders in human rights, environmental justice, sustainable development, and international legal advocacy. We’re preparing the next generation of earth rights defenders to protect their communities against human rights abuses and environmental devastation. We also provide personal security training for human rights defenders, as many of our students and alumni face security threats for their work.
In addition to our two EarthRights Schools, which provide intensive training to emerging leaders from Myanmar and the Mekong region, and the Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute, we also conduct numerous special trainings every year for lawyers, activists, judges, and communities throughout Southeast Asia and the Amazon, and we work with partner schools to bring our unique approach to legal advocacy into their classrooms.
Our training programs are part of our three pronged approach to raise local voices and put the power of law back in the hands of the people who need it most, the people whose rights and livelihoods are threatened by reckless development projects.
Our work in the classroom complements our advocacy work in the field and our legal actions in the courtroom by equipping local communities, lawyers, and civil society leaders with the advocacy and legal skills they need to tackle their communities’ greatest challenges.
Since 1999, the EarthRights School Myanmar (ERSMy) has been equipping civil society leaders from Myanmar, and from refugee camps and villages along Myanmar’s borders, with the knowledge and skills to defend and promote earth rights in their communities, using a combination of theoretical and experiential learning, and to advocate for more equitable development.
In 2006, we added the EarthRights School Mekong (ERSMk), which adopted the same model but adapted it to focus on the transboundary issues that affect the entire region, particularly hydropower dams on the Mekong River.
Both schools begin their year in the classroom, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where our students learn from staff and other local and international experts working in the environmental and human rights fields. In courses ranging from fact-finding and report writing to international financial institutions and international law, they develop the knowledge and skills they need to organize within their communities and to advocate nationally or internationally on their communities’ behalf.
Through a series of field visits across Thailand, students hear from inspiring communities that have succeeded in influencing development projects threatening their livelihoods, and examine new threats to food security and local livelihoods by hydropower dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries.
Once they’ve established a theoretical foundation, our students return to their home communities to conduct two months of field work, documenting earth rights threats or abuses and preparing written reports and advocacy materials. They then return to Chiang Mai to present their findings and complete their coursework, and to explore how they can join together as alumni to advocate greater public participation and transparency in development planning in Myanmar and the Mekong region.
Through the rigorous classroom and real life training the schools truly foster the development of earth rights leaders. Many alumni go on to establish and lead their own organizations upon graduation.
A growing alumni network
Upon graduating, our EarthRights School students join our growing network of alumni, now numbering more than 300 members. Throughout their careers, we seek to maximize the impact of our alumni by providing ongoing structured opportunities for them to network, collaborate, exchange information and resources, and receive advanced training and technical assistance.
Our alumni go on to do amazing work throughout the region, often collaborating with each other. In Myanmar, for instance, our alumni have played vital roles in campaigns to keep the Salween River free-flowing, to assist villagers who have been displaced by new Special Economic Zones (SEZs), and to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River.
Many of these projects are made possible the the generous support of the Daniel Clark Memorial Fund, which supports the future ambitions of the EarthRights alumni, adding momentum to their work in human rights, environmental protection and community activism.
Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute
Lawyers in the Mekong region have limited opportunities to study or undertake public interest legal practice, so it is important for experienced practitioners in the region to share their successes with other lawyers. In 2009, we founded the Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute (MLAI) in order to increase regional understanding and collaboration in public interest law, and to expand access to justice.
MLAI is a two week, annual program which provides a forum for junior Mekong lawyers to share experiences, develop new legal and advocacy strategies, and initiate coordinated actions on environmental and social issues, with a specific focus on increasing public participation in development decisions. Participants are joined by expert lawyers from the region and around the world, who share skills and offer guidance in key areas of emerging law including sustainable development, transboundary legal mechanisms and corporate accountability.
Human rights and advocacy trainings
Every year, beyond our formal training programs, we conduct dozens of training events for activists, judges, lawyers and villagers, on a wide range of topics related to human rights, environmental justice, legal advocacy, and the rule of law. Whether it’s a “know your rights” course for indigenous peoples in the Amazon, a seminar on international law and environmental law with public interest lawyers in Nigeria, or a training for activists in the Mekong on the use of regional complaint mechanisms, all of these trainings share a common purpose: to equip local communities and leaders with the tools they need to advocate for their own human and environmental rights.
In addition to our own training programs, we have collaborated or supported several partner schools over the years.
- Escuela Amazónica de Derechos Humanos: In 2005, four alumni from our program in Ecuador (see below) came together in Pucallpa, Peru, to create the Escuela Amazónica de Derechos Humanos (EADH, or the Amazon School for Human Rights). The students, indigenous leaders whose ancestral lands are affected by mining projects, gain the tools and skills to advocate in defense of their collective and individual rights.
- Social Development Center (SDC): Founded in 2003 by two EarthRights School alumni, SDC trains civil society leaders in human rights, environmental justice, and the law. Based in Mae Hong Sorn, on the Thai side of the Myanmar border, SDC draws many students from local refugee camps.
- Amazon School for Human Rights and the Environment: From 2001 to 2005, in collaboration with the Centro de Derechos Economicos y Sociales (Quito), we ran the Amazon School for Human Rights and the Environment, located in Ecuador. The intensive course included workshops on economic, social and cultural rights, contemporary Amazon environmental and development issues, strategic campaigning and advocacy, and media messaging.
- Health and Earth Rights Training (HEART) program: From 2011 through 2014, in partnership with Dr. Cynthia Maung, the award winning Founder and Director of the Mae Tao Clinic, we ran the HEART program, which trained students from the Thai/Myanmar border to work for the protection of the environment, human rights and health within their communities.