Global Law Brigades

Students make connections in Panama with service trip

Most law students spend spring break with their communities, which usually include family, friends, and neighbors. "Neighbor," however, has a broad meaning for current students who, as members of the millennial generation, understand their place as members of the global community. Thus, when spring break rolled around this year, six members of the Seattle University School of Law chapter of Global Law Brigades spent spring break living in a rural community in Panama.

Volunteers from the law school’s Global Law Brigades chapter pose with community members they spent spring break with at La Pacera, Panama. Photos courtesy of Janet Dickson.

While Panama has one of the fastest growing economies in Central America, its wealth is localized in Panama City. The benefits of the foreign investments are so localized that, while dozens of skyscrapers including a Trump Tower are being erected in Panama City, many people just outside the city suffer from malnutrition. One such community is La Pacera, in the Coclé Province, three hours outside of Panama City, where the Seattle University Law students volunteered their time. They worked to facilitate the legal empowerment the community members of the El Sombrerito farm project in La Pacera.

Global Law Brigades is the latest example of the commitment Seattle University School of Law and its students have toward working for a more just and humane world. Other students involved in the Student Disaster Relief Network have spent spring break in New Orleans working with residents rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina. Many volunteer with disenfranchised communities in the Puget Sound area, the state, and abroad throughout the school year and during the summer.

This group traveled with Professor of Lawyering Skills Janet Dickson as their adviser, and a Panamanian lawyer tasked to advise the community on the legal requirements for obtaining its own land for sustenance farming. Global Law Brigades partnered with a Panamanian nonprofit organization, Patronato de Nutrición, for this project. Patronato identified this community ten years ago, as one of many whose children were suffering from malnutrition. Since that time, Patronato has helped identify potential farming land, purchasing that land on behalf of the community, and providing soil science and farming assistance on an ongoing basis. The community farms a variety of foods, including citrus, plantains, pineapple, yucca, yams, rice, and beans. The farmers are proud that they have learned to compost; and they raise pigs, goats, chickens, and cattle. Additionally, they farm tilapia in a pond created for that purpose.

While Patronato personnel have been monitoring the farm regularly over the past ten years, the community is now ready to take complete control of the farm, and Patronato is ready to sell the community the land at a previously negotiated low price. While all parties agree that this farm is successful and that this community is prepared to farm the land to continue to provide its members sustenance, the process has come to a legal halt. It was at this point the Global Law Brigades students stepped in to provide legal advice and capital to fund the final steps of the project.

Students look at the tilapia farm that was built to help sustain the community.

During spring break, the students provided three different workshops for the community members, in which they explained the process that remained. This process included the community's ability to gain and maintain legal status as an agricultural association and to effect the land transfer and contract between Patronato and the El Sombrerito Association. Without such status, the community and its members are legally nonexistent, and therefore the farming project stalls. Once the Association is recognized as a legal entity, however, Patronato will sell the farm land back to its people. In addition to preparing and delivering the workshops, the students provided the funding for the legal costs of forming the Association, including lawyer's fees and filing fees. Because funds are limited, however, the actual land transfer will have to wait for another group to provide the necessary capital.

Although the students enthusiastically approached this adventure with the intent of doing good for their neighbors, they returned with much more than they gave. While forgoing the luxuries of indoor plumbing and warm showers, they lived with people who are wonderful cooks and who gladly share their food and homes. The students saw the children of Sombrerito, donned in their school uniforms, journey 45 minutes on foot to and from the school bus every day. Additionally, the people shared their customs of both song and dance and asked the students to do the same in return.

The group originally had 15 students hoped who wanted to spend go on the trip Panama, but only six were able to fulfill the financial obligations. Students plan to do fund-raising to enable more students to take part in a trip to Central America next year.

"It was so rewarding to realize the difference we can make as future lawyers," Brigades President Jeremy Lehman said. "We are so fortunate to have what we have and feel obligated and privileged to share with others."

By Janet K.G. Dickson, associate professor of Lawyering Skills and faculty advisor for the law school's chapter of Global Law Brigades.

Spring 2010