Justine Sylvester Alumni Profile

April 13, 2018

The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) launched an Alumni Profile Series in which alumni of CCSI’s Executive Training on Sustainable Investments in Agriculture are interviewed about their career paths.

In this profile, Justine Sylvester, Advisor to the Land and Livelihoods Program and Private Sector Engagement at Village Focus International (VFI) and a 2017 Executive Training alumnus, highlights efforts to encourage collaboration between the private sector and civil society organizations and discusses tools for communicating with different stakeholder groups.

1. What do you do for work?

I work at Village Focus International (VFI), a local civil society organisation (CSO) in Laos. Despite the name, we only operate in Laos, working closely with communities on land rights, agriculture, forestry, anti-human trafficking and rural development. I’m an Advisor in VFI’s Land and Livelihoods program. VFI is unique in that it is an international organisation but operates at a grassroots level; most of my colleagues are Lao nationals, with a couple of international staff. VFI’s Director and founder, Rick Reece, has lived in Laos for nearly 20 years.

2. What does a typical day look like?

What I love most about my job is that there is no ‘typical day’! When I’m in Vientiane, I start my day by catching up with my colleagues. Every few weeks, our team travels to rural villages across the country, so we regularly meet to share our experiences and ideas. Workdays are really variable: for example, I might go to a government Ministry for a meeting about the National Land Law revision process, or to workshops with other civil society organisations working on land-related issues, or to meet with our private sector partners to discuss new tools for communicating with communities.

3. How has your career trajectory led you to where you are today?

At university, I studied Applied Anthropology with a focus on the environment and natural resources. After working for the Australian Federal Government, I realised that I wanted to work at a more grassroots level. Finding work with VFI in Laos has been a perfect match.

4. Your organization has supported villagers and a company to work together towards more sustainable agricultural investments. Can you tell us what that effort entailed and share lessons learned from that experience? 

Since 2015, VFI has been co-leading the Responsible Agricultural Investment (RAI) Working Group in Laos, supported by the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG).[i]This group is a multi-stakeholder initiative comprised of government agencies (Ministry of Planning and Investment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry), CSOs, researchers, development partners, and agribusinesses operating in Laos. After field visits to a Swedish-Finnish company, Stora Enso Laos’, eucalyptus plantations in southern Laos, VFI and Stora Enso Laos jointly designed and developed a project to align the company’s land acquisition practices with Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).[ii]VFI, along with RECOFTC Laos and the LIFE initiative, provided training on land rights, laws, social inclusion, facilitation skills and FPIC for the company. The team developed communications tools and delivered training for the company’s Land Team on consulting effectively with communities – especially with women and ethnic groups.

Although there can be some reluctance on the part of the private sector to collaborate with CSOs, there are effective ways of overcoming this. As I explained in a recent blog post, a critical lesson learned for CSOs and companies embarking on a collaboration is to make sure that both parties build mutual trust. CSOs can also play a critical role in establishing and maintaining inclusive community engagement processes, in negotiating agreements between companies and communities (if appropriate), and in mediating land-related conflicts.

5. What is one of your most memorable moments in your career and why?

I am continually inspired by my Lao colleagues who are working on land rights and anti-human trafficking. Their dedication, energy, and passion for their work inspires me every day. Space for CSOs across the world is shrinking, and this is true in Laos, where advocacy work can be tough. The courage and commitment of my colleagues working to secure the rights of communities in Laos will always be memorable.


6.  What major issue related to sustainable investments in land/agriculture are you particularly interested in at the moment?

The growing interest within the private sector to work with civil society, and vice versa. It seems that more and more companies are recognising the value of collaborating with grassroots organisations who deeply understand the country context and know how to work with communities.

7. What was your main lesson learned or take away from the CCSI Executive Training on Sustainable Investments in Agriculture? How do you apply that lesson in your work?

I learned so much about international human rights law that I’ve been able to apply in my work, particularly policy advocacy. I was also fortunate that the Land Information Working Group (LIWG) supported me to hold an ‘Echo Training,’ so I could pass on this knowledge to other colleagues from local organisations working on land-related topics.

8. What advice would you give to young professionals in your area of work?

The best way to approach this kind of work is to really listen to the people you are working with, or on behalf of. My second piece of advice for young professionals entering development is to not be boxed in by narrow ideas of how ‘development’ should be ‘done’ – we need fresh, new thinking in this space!

[i]The Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) is a regional project of the Government of Switzerland, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), with co-financing from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Government of Luxembourg.

[ii]The International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of The World Bank group, also provided advisory services.