ERI Bertha Fellows in Thailand

Michelle Harrison, EarthRights International
April 8, 2015[ultimatesocial networks="facebook,twitter,linkedin" count="false" align="left" skin="round" url="" ]

It has been an exciting month for the Bertha Fellows at EarthRights International (ERI)! Despite the distance between us, ERI’s Fellows have come together from the US, Peru, Myanmar and Thailand to join forces across offices on some of our most groundbreaking cases and projects. For nearly six weeks, US Bertha Fellow Katherine McDonnell has been working out of ERI’s Myanmar office and partnering with Myanmar Bertha Fellows Lum Ja and Than Than Aye to develop new mechanisms to protect land rights and strengthen communities as investment floods into Myanmar. At the same time, US Bertha Fellow Upasana Khatri traveled from Washington D.C. to Lima, Peru to work with Amazon Bertha Fellow Camila Mariño to prepare ERI’s Achuar clients to announce exciting news – after eight years, their pollution lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum had settled.

These collaborations across different offices are a direct outcome of the ERI Bertha Fellows Convening that we held in Thailand thanks to an Impact Opportunity Fund grant from the Bertha Foundation. In December, ERI’s Bertha Fellows from Peru, Thailand, Myanmar and the United States all came together in Chiang Mai, Thailand to meet each other for the first time, share our experiences, and combine our unique skills to develop stronger transnational collaborative legal strategies.

From left: Lum Ja (Myanmar), Katherine McDonnell (US), Than Than Aye (Myanmar), Upasana Khatri (US), Sean Powers (US), Thornthan Kanmangmee (“Neung”) (Thailand), Michelle Harrison (US), Camila Mariño (Peru)
From left: Lum Ja (Myanmar), Katherine McDonnell (US), Than Than Aye (Myanmar), Upasana Khatri (US), Sean Powers (US), Thornthan Kanmangmee (“Neung”) (Thailand), Michelle Harrison (US), Camila Mariño (Peru)

The experience couldn’t have been better. Although we work for the same organization on so many of the same issues, our experiences are unique and our perspectives are diverse. Getting to know each other and getting to learn more about what we do and what motivates each of us was deeply inspiring on both a personal and professional level. Those of us who have been fellows for longer were honored to get to speak to the newer fellows about the Bertha vision, the support of the Bertha Network, and how much they have to look forward to! We came up with new ideas for strengthening and supporting each other’s work and have been busier than ever thinking up creative new ways to pursue accountability and speak truth to power.

 Neung presenting to MLAI participants on the impacts of the Hatgyi dam and his work with local communities
Neung presenting to MLAI participants on the impacts of the Hatgyi dam and his work with local communities

Our convening was also timed to coincide with ERI’s annual Mekong Legal Advocacy Institute (MLAI) session, which brings together the next generation of radical lawyers and advocates in the Mekong region to learn from each other and from experts and practitioners in key areas of emerging law. The participants are introduced to subjects that aren’t traditionally a part of local law school curriculums, such as community rights, storytelling and media strategies, and regional and international legal frameworks and institutions. ERI’s Bertha Fellows had the opportunity to get involved in MLAI as participants and also as session leaders. We worked together to create presentations on cases and issues we’ve been working on and facilitated group exercises and strategy discussions with the other MLAI participants.

In many ways, our time together was similar to the convening last year in Cape Town – just on a smaller scale. All of us left inspired, with a greater sense of community within ERI and the Bertha Network and a deeper commitment to each other and the work we do. Maintaining the relationships we’ve built across oceans and different time zones will be challenging, but the experience has taught us all how much more we are capable of when we work together.

ERI Legal Director Marco Simons discussing legal writing technique with all of ERI's Bertha Fellows
ERI Legal Director Marco Simons discussing legal writing technique with all of ERI’s Bertha Fellows

ERI Fellows applied for a grant from the Bertha Foundation’s Impact Opportunity Fund to help make this convening happen, and we are so grateful to Bertha for helping us turn this idea into reality! We’re planning to share more stories with the Bertha Network about the experience and the impact it’s had on each of us and the work that we do at ERI, so please stay tuned!

In the meantime, here’s a quick rundown of some of the other exciting work our fellows are doing:

Lum Ja has been developing two potential new cases – one involving water pollution and the other aimed at protecting a human rights defender – both of which would be filed in Myanmar. Than Than Aye is working on a case aimed at protecting the land rights of farmers and drafting recommendations for a number of new laws that are being discussed in Myanmar. Both Lum Ja and Than Than Aye have also held legal trainings with communities and other civil society groups in the region.

In addition to assisting our Myanmar office with the potential water pollution case, Katherine has also been working on a project to develop a model for community-driven operational grievance mechanisms. She has held meetings with experts and initial consultations and workshops with the community on the pilot project in Myanmar.

Camila has been working with the U’wa who have been resisting oil development on their land in Colombia, including advising on national complaints filed in Colombia. She also recently traveled to meet with communities that will be affected by the Chadin II megadam in Peru.

Upasana recently traveled to a community in the southern Amazon faced with imminent oil exploration to discuss how ERI can support them through the consultation process. Upasana and Sean have both been supporting ERI’s major US litigation, particularly ERI’s case against Chiquita for financing paramilitary death squads in Colombia. Sean is also working to develop some of ERI’s potential new US cases, such as exploring innovative legal theories of accountability for climate change impacts.

Neung has been working on a number of legal strategies with communities affected by harmful dam projects in the Mekong region. He has also been providing trainings to communities on their legal rights, on Environmental Impact Assessments, and coordinating with other organizations to develop the capacity of local lawyers and community leaders.

I have been working with survivors of sexual violence by Barrick Gold security guards in Papua New Guinea on legal strategies for accountability and developing a new case to hold international financial institutions accountable for funding harmful projects. I have also been working on legislative projects in the US aimed at ensuring victims of human rights abuse have access to remedy in US courts.

We look forward to having our fellows share more about their work with you!


Michelle Harrison
Bertha Fellow at the EarthRights International

Follow ERI on Twitter @EarthRightsIntl

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