The power of mediation

Article Date

22 March 2011

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Land is a precious resource in Uganda, and agriculture is the main livelihood for most families, especially in rural areas like Luwero District in central Uganda. In recent years conflicts over land have become more prevalent due to a growing population, rising land values and confusion over the country’s land laws. This has resulted in land grabbing, fighting over boundaries and being evicted from their homes – disputes that can sometimes escalate quickly, even violently.

We were recently in Luwero District to continue work on a project – with our partner Uganda Land Alliance – that trains local volunteers on land, marriage and inheritance laws. These volunteer workers, called “grassroots paralegals,” then inform their communities on the laws and help solve primarily land-related disputes through mediation or referral to formal legal services. Most residents have limited access to the formal legal system due to lack of information, distance, and prohibitive costs. The grassroots paralegals were intended to bridge this gap. We had an opportunity on this trip to sit one-on-one with a few of them, their clients, and several local leaders to learn more about their experiences with our project.

We were surprised to see so many disputes resolved outside the usual route of local leaders and courts. In talking to clients, we realized that many community members may not be looking to use the grassroots paralegals as a link to the formal legal system. Clients preferred to keep their conflicts out of the courts. They seemed to want a trustworthy person from their community, someone who was informed about the laws, to mediate their land disputes. And that’s how grassroots paralegals described their main role: To bring people in conflict together to learn about the relevant laws, talk through their differences and figure out a solution. They are helping community members realize that they have options and rights. And it’s all free of cost.

It’s an approach that appears to be working, too. Monitoring data collected during the project found that 32 out of 93 land dispute cases brought to grassroots paralegals from August 2009 to April 2010 were solved through mediation. (Thirty-two of these cases were still ongoing; the other 29 were referred to the formal legal channels). Clients appeared to most appreciate having a quick, alternative way to settle disputes through respected members of their own community.

We think the success of grassroots paralegals speaks to the power of information and to the opportunity mediation creates for clients to speak up for their rights. Together, paralegals and their communities are working to create solutions – solutions that are both local and legal.

Women's property rights.