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Report: indigenous people deserve right to refuse big companies

As large-scale mining, logging, and plantations threaten indigenous communities worldwide, a new report from the indigenous rights NGO Amazon Watch states that when extractive industries work in indigenous people’s territories, the peoples’ rights must be respected. The report argues that all indigenous groups have the right to ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ of any resource extraction occurring on their lands, and that this international standard should be upheld not only for obvious moral reasons, but for sound business.

According to the report, when a company does not acquire free, prior and informed consent from indigenous groups they risk their investment. Money can easily be lost due to delays from local unrest, damage to the company’s reputation, loss of operating licenses, fleeing investors, and up to billions of dollars in litigation. Such financial risks, according to the report, are simply too great.

“As resource extraction increasingly moves into socially and environmentally fragile areas of the world, like the Amazon rainforest, companies must take affirmative steps to avoid violating indigenous peoples’ rights,” Gregor MacLennan, Peru Program Coordinator of Amazon Watch, said in a press release.

Gas flare at an oil refinery in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Photo by Jeremy Hance.
Gas flare at an oil refinery in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo by Jeremy Hance.

Recent history bears this out as Chevron is currently embroiled in a decades-long legal fight with indigenous people of the Ecuadorian Amazon for alleged water contamination due to oil pollution, which has led to high rates of cancer and other disease. The legal battle represents no small cost to Chevron, which, if it loses, could be forced to pay over $100 billion.

“The oil industry, for one, is in its infancy when it comes to developing and implementing policies to respect indigenous rights,” said Mitch Anderson, Corporate Campaigns Director for Amazon Watch in a press release. “Although some companies, such as Talisman Energy, are taking cautious steps forward, other companies, such as Chevron, appear to be burying their heads in the sand.

Another example comes from India where last year the environment ministry cancelled a proposed bauxite mine expansion by Vedanta Resources after protracted protests from the indigenous community known as Dongria in the area. Vedanta is still challenging the decision. The controvesary, and allegations of human rights violations, led the Church of England to disinvest from the company and several investors to sell off their shares.

The report adds that indigenous groups deserve special attention, since the impact of industry can be both devastating and irrevocable given indigenous peoples’ physical and spiritual connection to their land.

“[Indigenous people’s] territory is their market, pharmacy, hardware store, church, temple, and an integral part of their identity. They are completely dependent on a clean and healthy territory for survival and for the maintenance of their cultural integrity and identity as indigenous peoples. Extractive and infrastructure projects on indigenous lands potentially affect not just their means of sustenance and health, but also their rights to cultural survival and to choose their own future as a distinct people and culture.”

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