Environmental Justice, Human Rights, and Public Health on a Global Scale: The University of Malawi and The University of Maryland Exchange Program

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In August, a group of students and faculty from the University of Malawi visited Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. This trip was the culmination of the Environmental Justice, Human Rights, and Public Health course. This course is a collaboration between the two institutions which aims to address and examine the intersection of environmental justice, human rights, and public health from international and comparative legal perspectives.

In May, students from the University of Maryland travelled to Malawi, marking the first part of the student/faculty exchange program. The August visit to Maryland represented the second half of this exchange initiative. The group of 12 students were accompanied by Chikosa Banda, the former dean of the University of Malawi Law School and co-designer and co-instructor of the course, along with Alexious Kamangila, a fellow lecturer and Manager of the University of Malawi’s Legal Clinics.

The collaboration took shape during the classroom portion of the course, as students from both universities convened weekly over Zoom. On the U.S. side, the course was co-taught by the managing director of the Environmental Law Program, Bill Piermattei ‘99; Professor Peter Danchin, associate dean for Research and Faculty Development and co-director of the International and Comparative Law Program; Professor Robert Percival, director of the Environmental Law Program; and Diane Hoffmann, director of the Law and Health Care Program.

The core aim of this educational exchange is to train future lawyers with the knowledge and skills to advocate for justice in vulnerable communities in Malawi and the United States. Reflecting on his experience, Nebert Chirwa said, “Seeing different perspectives helps you gain an understanding of yourself, who you are, where you want to be and what you want to achieve…that is the value of contextual learning. Being able to grasp the intangibles so much so that you think beyond your immediate environment and horizons.” By focusing on environmental challenges and governance in Malawi, students also have the opportunity to help shape Malawi’s developing environmental governance and support Malawi’s small but growing NGO community. 

Teuka Tembo, a student who participated in the exchange expressed, “I deal with environmental and health issues within the energy sector. Within this context, I am often confronted with questions about concepts in environmental and health law and their implementation. For example, I have faced community resistance to usage of clean energy sources. When we design solutions, we ordinarily operate from the premise that people will want to promote their own health rights. Faced with such resistance, I often have to ask myself the question ‘how do you help someone that seemingly does not want to be helped?’ This was a topic of discussion that I had with our Maryland colleagues. I learned many unique ideas that will undeniably improve my work and how I serve the communities that I work with.”

During their stay, they toured the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland, gaining valuable insights into how environmental NGOs operate in the United States and how they address environmental justice issues through the work of Maryland Carey Law graduate Taylor Lilley, an Environmental Justice Staff Attorney at CBF. Their trip also included a visit to Washington D.C., where they had the opportunity to tour the White House, and spend time at the Environmental Integrity Project, where they engaged with an environmental non-profit organization focused on advocating for law and policy reforms to combat pollution in the United States.

In another key aspect of their visit, students presented their senior theses to University of Maryland students, faculty and guests from Widener University, professor James May, and the Center for Transnational Environmental Accountability’s director Jingjing Zhang, who represents environmental justice communities in Africa. A highlight of the cultural and intellectual exchange was the University of Malawi faculty presentations at the law school’s Anchor Event on August 28. During this event, they engaged in a thought-provoking discussion titled: "From the Chesapeake Bay to Lake Chilwa: Environmental Justice and Legal Strategies for Change." The event featured University of Malawi professors Chikosa Banda and Alexius Kamangila, along with visiting associate professor Jon Mueller and Taylor Lilley.

“I got the opportunity to meet professionals who are passionate about the environment which only made my passion for the environment grow fonder,” said student Luntha Mbvundula. This exchange of knowledge and experiences was a testament to the power of international collaboration. The University of Malawi and the University of Maryland have not stopped here, as they are continuing to teach this joint course this Fall. Future projects on the horizon include, faculty cooperation and exchange, joint organization and sponsorship of conferences, and collaborative publications. Together, they aim to make lasting contributions to the fields of environmental justice, human rights, and public health on a global scale.