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Maia Sophia Campbell '01 Wins Inspirational Young Alumni Award

Maia Campbell '01, winner of the 2010 Inspirational Young Alumni Award

From the helicopter, Maia Sophia Campbell ’01 could see a pristine river forge its path through the Panamanian jungle. Occasionally, a small, isolated village dotted the river’s edge. Only 200 meters away from the villages, heavy machinery worked, constructing a dam. Today, the villages are likely under water.

Campbell won’t forget what she saw. It was over a year ago when she visited Panama to investigate local indigenous communities that were being flooded out by the construction of hydroelectric dams. The image of “idyllic village life and the contrast with the development was really powerful,” says Campbell. “That will stick in my mind for sure.”

The case in Panama is just one of many tackled by Campbell, winner of the 2010 Inspirational Young Alumni Award. She is the senior legal advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people. As the legal advisor, she receives letters alleging human rights violations in indigenous communities, travels to countries to investigate the situations of indigenous peoples and offers recommendations to governments.

One summer while she was a student at Pomona, Campbell worked at a human rights organization in Chile. The experience sparked her interest in the issues of indigenous rights.

“It’s a group of people that throughout history and since colonization has been at the lowest rung of all indicators,” says Campbell. “They’re among the most impoverished and discriminated against and marginalized groups in the world. The fact that they’re in such a vulnerable state, I find it compelling to promote their rights and better their situation as much as I can in my work.”

After graduation, Campbell worked in Guatemala for three years at a program to reform the justice system, then went to law school at the University of Arizona, which has a program focused on indigenous peoples. Throughout law school, she worked on cases defending indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and Belize, where she continued to work on after graduation. Campbell helped the Awastingi community in Nicaragua secure land rights and was part of a legal team that took a case regarding indigenous land rights to the Supreme Court of Belize and won.

“As a lawyer, it was the first case I worked on that was victorious,” says Campbell about the Belize Supreme Court case. “In my United Nations work now, there are a lot of situations where I feel like the work I’ve contributed to has had a significant impact.”

Campbell loves traveling to off-the-map areas and meeting with indigenous peoples. While she was doing fieldwork in Australia last August, she got to see a group of elder Aboriginal women perform a traditional dance of the honey ants. But the influx of letters she receives from indigenous communities and organizations can be frustrating.

“It is hard seeing the amount of problems that are out there and having limited capacity to deal with those problems,” says Campbell. “You know you can’t solve every problem, so it’s always a little hard to come in and hope you’re not raising expectations. We do our best to offer a voice to their concerns.”