Enpowering the Rural Poor in the Legal Arena: An Experimental Design for the Argentinean Chaco Region

Researcher: Jorge Mangonnet, PhD Student in Political Science

The rural poor are exposed to systematic land property rights violations and land-related grievances. Peasants and indigenous communities suffer from illegal evictions, occupations, or environmental hazards by extractive industries. Numerous barriers hinder the rural poor from pursuing legal actions in courts and other law enforcement agencies when their land rights are being trampled. Some are material, such as the economic cost of litigation, absence of adequate information, or geographical distance. Others are motivational. Social and cultural differences between victims and judges cause mistrust of the formal justice sector. Inability to comprehend the legal jargon, lack of fluency in the national language, or discrimination by government officials may also prevent the rural poor from defending their lands in the legal system.

What can be done to improve access to courts and court-like institutions by poor rural subjects? In this project, a research team is currently designing a "legal empowerment" intervention to increase poor rural communities' capacities to fight for their lands in the legal arena. The project is being carried on in Argentinean Chaco region. An extensive natural region in South America, the Chaco is Argentina's poorest territory and it has been pinpointed by human rights organizations as a place where violations of land rights are endemic. It is being co-jointly developed with a network of human rights NGOs that operate in the Chaco. The intervention will randomly allocate: (i) a legal literacy workshop to increase awareness about entitlements, train participants in ordinary legal procedures, and give out public legal information about legal rights and how the Argentinean legal system works; and (ii) legal assistance by a group of prepared paralegals who will aid the treated community by shepherding their claims to court. 

It is predicted that the legal empowerment intervention will increase the amount of land-related legal disputes among those communities who have suffered violations. Moreover, the project studies a number of outcomes---such as judicial responsiveness to poor rural litigants' demands, participation in protest events, and attitudes and beliefs toward the formal justice system---which are relevant to the legal empowerment intervention. A pilot study is planned to be conducted by Spring 2017.