U.S. Lawyers Contribute to Systemic Change

  • May 19, 2017

“Great things can happen through what seem like crazy ideas,” said Perrin Rynders, a Michigan lawyer and partner at Varnum law.

For the past four years, Rynders, along with James Oppenhuizen, founder of Oppenhuizen Law; Eric Van Vugt, partner at Quarles & Brady; Jennifer Tello, attorney at Legal Aid of West Michigan; and Richard Bandstra, former Michigan state representative and judge for the Michigan Court of Appeals, have been part of the “International Oversight” commission for the Honduran Property Institute.

Members of the group, called “VIIP” by its Spanish initials, have visited Honduras six times to support AJS’s advocacy, in trips coordinated by Partners Worldwide.

Over the course of their trips, they say, the change they have seen in the Property Institute has been remarkable. Not only have the number of titles issued increased, but the number of significant errors in these titles has decreased.

While they contribute part of this major change in the Property Institute to new leadership who have demonstrated a willingness and commitment to reform, they say none of this would have been possible without AJS’s constant presence.

“I see AJS doggedly, day after day, working with the government, involved in advocacy, not giving in,” said Rynders.

“We see this in the relationship between AJS staff and folks in the Property Institute,” added James Oppenhuizen, “AJS is in such an interesting position where they are able to both criticize and support. They critique, but then turn around and say ‘our intention is to lift you up and help you to better.’”

As foreigners in Honduras, the VIIP’s presence reinforces and legitimizes AJS advocacy, and brings extra attention to press conferences and calls for improvement in the Property Institute.

However, the lawyers recognize that ultimately, the people carrying out change are the staff on the ground in Honduras.

“None of us has made the mistake of thinking that we had the answers,” said Oppenhuizen, “Our role is something that’s constantly evolving. At first it was to get the lay of the land and make it clear that somebody’s paying attention. The main strategy has been to show interest, to try to be constructive, but honest – really just reflecting the approach that AJS was already taking”

“The most difficult part is being both sensitive to cultural differences and understanding that whatever the solution is it has to be a Honduran solution,” Oppenhuizen continued.

For all the members of the VIIP, consistency has been key to their advocacy. “It’s important to build trust in the institutions you’ll be overseeing,” said Oppenhuizen, “You can’t just be some foreigner. By coming back regularly, we’ve been able to build those relationships with people at the Property Institute. Now we have the credibility that we can talk about specific issues and raise specific concerns.”

On their most recent trip in May, the VIIP spoke at a press conference for the Property Institute’s new baseline report, met with the executive secretary of the Property Institute, and even appeared on a morning talk show to discuss suggested reforms. But their takeaways from the visit encompassed more than just property reform.

“This is quintessential justice work,” said Oppenhuizen.

“There are no rights more fundamental than to own the property that you’ve purchased, or the right to live free from violence – you can’t come up with more fundamental rights than the areas where AJS is working,” he said.

“AJS’s work is building this foundation, and it’s doing it the right way because they are looking at the systems that are most impacting the poor,” he said, “All other work that’s happening in Honduras, everything else is possible because of this work.”

Reflecting on their trip as well as their years of partnership, Rynders was struck by something else: “I’m astonished sometimes at how God’s plan works.”

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