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close this bookPeasants' Pursuit of Outside Alliances in the Process of Land Reform: A Discussion of Legal Assistance Programmes in Bangladesh and the Philippines (UNRISD, 1999, 40 p.)
close this folderI. INTRODUCTION*
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPeasants' Need for External Support
View the documentPeasants' Legal Needs
View the documentAre Lawyers Reliable Allies?
View the documentLawyers' Ability to Assist Peasants

Are Lawyers Reliable Allies?

Various social groups and individuals may support peasant actions if perceived that they have been victims of social injustice. For example, local students may participate in peasants' protest rallies or land invasion activities. There may be some solidarity from urban and rural trade unions, although the former tend to be distant and the latter tend to be active where there is favourable political space and agricultural modernization has resulted in a class of agricultural labourers. Farmers' associations and co-operatives may also support peasant movements when their own interests are directly affected, but many of them may be controlled by rich farmers and local elites. Political parties may also support peasants' movements on a long-term basis, but in some cases peasants may simply be considered as "vote banks", or local authorities and landowners may repress peasant movements when the latter seek alliances with underground political parties. Rich or middle class farmers may form alliances with peasants when they perceive a common interest, such as reduced land taxes or higher crop prices. Their interests are likely to diverge, however, over peasant demands for greater access to land or tenurial security. Professional groups or individuals, such as development NGOs, teachers, human rights activists, lawyers and extension specialists, may have few interests in common with peasant groups, although some may be truly concerned about social inequality and improving peasants' welfare.

Lawyers, as an occupational or economic category, are not usually a socially oriented voluntary group (as community development workers, priests or teachers, might be, for example.) Most lawyers have few contacts with ordinary peasants and agricultural labourers, who are unlikely to be considered promising clients. It is usually peasants who need lawyers; lawyers seldom need peasants!

Most lawyers provide their advice and assistance on the basis of a negotiated fee, seeking maximum remuneration that peasants would frequently be unable to provide. Peasants may avoid seeking legal advice for this reason. Peasants may also be victims of deceitful lawyers who claim money, labour or produce from peasants but provide little in return. Some lawyers, allies of rich and powerful groups opposed to peasant issues, can be one of the worst enemies of peasants when they defend the interests of landlords, moneylenders, merchants and agri-business. The majority of lawyers in developing countries provide their services and assistance to those groups which are able to compensate them generously. This may not be surprising, as the majority of lawyers tend to come from the elite classes.

But lawyers can be fine allies when they are supportive of peasants' interests and aspirations, or when their own interests coincide with those of peasants. Certain lawyers and legal associations may build rural constituencies to acquire national or foreign recognition of their work or to attract outside funding. Recent graduates from law colleges and universities may find it difficult to get jobs in urban areas and may therefore begin their careers in rural areas. For lawyers who have political ambitions, peasants may be reliable supporters. And lawyers harassed by repressive regimes because of their origins or beliefs may find that alliances with peasants and rural workers aid their own self-protection. Of course, under repressive regimes, lawyers may distance themselves from rebellious peasants and workers for fear of persecution. Unfortunately, this means that legal assistance may not be available for peasants and rural workers when they need it the most.

Whether or not peasants and rural workers can count lawyers among their allies depends upon specific socio-economic and political contexts. It is difficult to establish a typology of situations or outcomes. Rural conflicts and the mechanisms for their resolution vary depending on place and time. Likewise, the type and quantity of legal aid required also varies. Generalizations about legal needs across countries and poor rural social groups is scarcely helpful if specific policy measures are to be formulated.