During my first-year at law school, I opted to become a dual-degree student, focusing not only on my Juris Doctors, but also on a MELP degree. This, however, was not my original plan when I first came to VLS, as I already had a master’s degree in political science under my belt. What I really wanted to do was study abroad during the summer of 2018. Unfortunately, my financial situation did not allow for me to realize that plan, so I decided to get a second master’s degree that would let me take advantage of VLS’s unique summer programing. When signing up for summer classes, one class in particular, Environmental Governance in the Developing World, caught my eye. Not only did this class provide me an opportunity to learn about a part of the world I had never considered studying before, but it also offered an optional field study trip to Southeast Asia.
Environmental Governance in the Developing World was a real eye opener. Throughout the 8-week course, we discussed various issues facing both Southeast Asia and China, including the Belt and Road Initiative, Environmental Impact Assessments in Southeast Asia, regional cooperation within the Mekong River region, and environmental governance within China. Another large component of the class is a final paper on a topic of your own choosing. This class is a valuable experience, testing the skills you develop throughout your first year in law school. Writing my final paper helped me develop my research abilities outside of Westlaw and Lexis, test my outlining capabilities, and become comfortable with footnotes and Bluebook citations. In addition, writing this paper inspired my note topic for the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law.
When it comes to the optional two-week field study trip in Southeast Asia, I cannot stress how valuable the opportunity is. This year, the trip began in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and ended in Yangon, Myanmar. While in Cambodia, we first met with the Vishnu Law Group and attended presentations on their work on behalf of indigenous communities in the Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces who are being impacted by economic land concessions and land grabs. We learned that one of the biggest challenges local communities face is in obtaining community-based land title for their lands.
After meeting with Vishnu, we then departed for the Mondulkiri Province where we visited with Phnong ethnic villagers in the Dak Dam commune to hear from them about their struggle with Mega First Corporation. While in Mondulkiri, we had the opportunity to stay with local families for a night and participate in an Indigenous People’s Day celebration involving music, dancing, and a communal meal. Afterwards, we made the trip to the Ratanakiri province where Vishnu Law Group was representing about a local community that had also been the victim of land-grabbing by a local businessman. All in all, we spent a good portion of our time in rural areas of Cambodia learning about some of the various issues facing indigenous peoples.
After Cambodia, we traveled to Yangon, Myanmar where we had the opportunity to meet with the Rule of Law Centres in Myanmar, the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, and Earth Rights International — all of which talked about legal rights at the community level and environmental issues faced by rural communities. This trip was an invaluable opportunity to not only see environmental governance in action, but also to engage directly with local peoples about the issues they are facing. I would recommend this opportunity to anyone, and if I could I would go back in a heartbeat.