Postgraduate Fellow Spotlight: Jason Gardiner ’22

Jason Gardiner standing on a packed clay road through a wooded area

Jason Gardiner ’22 discusses his time so far as a Bernstein International Human Rights Fellow at Forest Peoples Programme in Georgetown, Guyana.

How long have you been working as a Bernstein Fellow and at Forest Peoples Programme (FPP)?
I’ve been with FPP and in Guyana for almost 6 months.

What does your work entail?
FPP has two partner organizations in Guyana. One is the Amerindian Peoples Association, which is a local NGO based in Georgetown that works across most of Guyana’s regions. The other is the South Rupununi District Council, which is an Indigenous governance body representing 21 mostly Wapichan villages in the southwest part of the country. I provide legal support for the APA and the SRDC. That could include anything from conducting capacity-building workshops requested by communities to working with villages to petition international human rights bodies for redress of violations of their rights. Sometimes I work from an office in Georgetown, but quite often I’m invited to travel into the interior and visit villages.

“Part of legal empowerment is having the facts … and that’s one reason it’s so important for the communities to be able to access independent technical and legal advice, if they want it.” — Jason Gardiner ’22

Describe a project you’ve worked on.
One project that I’ve really enjoyed involves working with some of the SRDC communities to create village FPIC protocols. FPIC, which stands for free, prior, and informed consent, is a right of Indigenous peoples that’s grounded in the right to self-determination and the right of Indigenous peoples to control their lands and resources. FPIC protocols are documents created by communities or groups of communities that tell external actors what is required of them in order to respect the community’s right to FPIC. (“FPIC protocol” is the term of art, but most people here just call them FPIC books, and the villages give them titles that are more meaningful to them.) 

My role has been to train a group of local facilitators who conduct meetings in the villages to help the village members develop their protocols. What I think is really radical about these FPIC protocols is that they empower rights holders to be creators of international human rights law, because the communities define FPIC for themselves by filling this scaffolding with principles and processes that are drawn from their own customary law. It inverts the traditional top-down nature of international law in an exciting way.

What have been some of the challenges of your community legal empowerment work with Indigenous communities in Guyana?
It turns out that the Indigenous people here are bombarded with a lot of information from different sources trying to influence them. A village might hear one thing from a government employee, something else from a representative of a conservation organization, and something else again from a representative of a mining company. Part of legal empowerment is having the facts, and that’s challenging in an environment where there are a lot of clashing political and economic interests. A village needs to be able to sift through all this information, and that’s one reason it’s so important for the communities to be able to access independent technical and legal advice, if they want it.

What experiences motivated you to pursue this opportunity?
I got to interact with a lot of inspiring, dedicated human rights advocates in law school, both among my professors and among my classmates. Their examples had a big part in motivating me to do something challenging and good that has been unlike anything I’ve done before. As for this specific opportunity, some of my coursework opened my eyes to critical approaches to the history of human rights and the way the human rights regime can sustain colonial power structures. I felt that I wanted to find work that was genuinely bottom-up, so the people defending their rights are the ones setting the agenda and priorities. And I think I’ve found that in FPP. I’ve been pleased with the ways that the organization and the people I work with are careful to play a supportive role and take their cues from our partners.

A group of 12 people, one row standing, one row kneeling on the grass, outdoors in front of a thatched-roof building
Jason Gardiner ’22 (second from right) with a team from the South Rupununi District Council and a village leader from Shulinab Village.

What do you hope to gain from this fellowship experience?
I remember having a conversation with one of FPP’s anthropologists just a week or two after I arrived in Guyana. We were bouncing along through the savannah in the back of a pickup, and he shared some really thoughtful advice about using my time here to come to understand what the Indigenous peoples’ movement is all about — why the land is so important, what it means to them. He suggested that one of the most meaningful things I can gain from being here is a practice of stepping away from my own experiences and trying to inhabit someone else’s. I suppose that’s a particular kind of empathy. If I can learn to do that during my fellowship, I will consider it a success.