Despite efforts by the United Nations, little else has been done to create an effective bridge between Indigenous Peoples and the private sector.
By Rebecca Adamson and Rebecca Busse
The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) was established in 2002 in response to concerns that existing UN structures lacked Indigenous representation and were not well-suited to comprehensively address Indigenous needs and interests.
It has since become the UN’s central coordinating body for Indigenous Peoples and has made significant progress, including the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, which defines the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous Peoples, and is endorsed by most of the world’s governments.
By creating a space for Indigenous Peoples to bring international attention to issues that impede their sovereignty, the UNPFII has filled a crucial void in dialogue between Indigenous Peoples and governments. The resulting advocacy networks, discussion platforms and legal frameworks have further catalyzed the global movement for Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
A Communication Gap
But little has been done to create an effective bridge between Indigenous Peoples and the private sector, creating a massive communication gap and affecting a company’s social license to operate as well as the daily lives of many communities. Add to that a growing presence of corporate development on Indigenous lands and you have perpetual misunderstandings and conflicts that result in significant losses to both sides.
In fact, often, the root cause of these conflicts is often longstanding disputes between Indigenous Peoples and governments over treaty rights, land claims and other unresolved issues, with companies getting caught in the middle.
As it sounds, for many companies, navigating complex (and sometimes conflicting) national and international legal standards, incorporating Indigenous culture into the engagement process, and understanding and implementing Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is an almost insurmountable challenge. Even worse, a company may think it has it ‘all under control’, and become surprised when disruptive actions result in project delays that can cost millions of dollars per day.
Indigenous Engagement: Checking a Box
So is the answer a formal policy on Indigenous engagement, or FPIC?
Indigenous Peoples Policies are important, but just checking the box that you’ve gotten consent from a community is not going to be enough to ensure good relations in the long term – FPIC is an ongoing process of relationship-building with communities (rather than a pre-project compliance survey). The benefits of genuine relationship building can, of course, be financially quantified but supportive communities can also bring positive benefits such as valuable geographical, social and historical knowledge of the area, saving companies time and money on exploration and pre-project planning.
It is encouraging to note that there are a growing number of examples of positive engagement between business and Indigenous Peoples, where business action doesn’t merely avoid harm, but affirmatively supports Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Whether it is core business activity such as inclusive value chains, joint ventures, innovation in products and services or strategic social investment, public policy engagement or collective action, there is growing recognition within the business community of the opportunities to create shared value for Indigenous communities and business.
In late 2013, for example, after pressure from Oxfam and other organizations, Coca-Cola committed to cutting off suppliers that were not respecting land rights and human rights.
Building Stakeholder Trust—and Partnerships
Increasingly, Indigenous issues are important not only to extractives companies, but to retail brands as well. Campaigners have been targeting food and personal care brands on palm oil, which is steeped in land rights, FPIC and other related issues. The challenges facing agriculture and extractives signal the importance of early, genuine and ongoing engagement in order to mitigate risk as well as maximize shared value.
So, how do companies navigate these challenging waters?
The first step is effective, strategic engagement that leads to the development of lasting relationships. But anyone in the CSR or community engagement fields can tell you that that’s easier said than done, and each site and community has different needs and sensitivities. Knowing the most appropriate company representative is important as well as knowing the risks that could affect engagement or turn the relationship sour.
Join the Conversation
This May, corporate leaders will gather in New York to discuss these challenges, and the approaches and successes in operating effectively within the context of a growing global demand for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The workshop, titled Building Bridges: The Business Case for Indigenous Peoples' Rights, will be co-hosted by First Peoples Worldwide, Future 500 and the UN Global Compact, and will coincide with the Thirteenth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).
To further bridge the divide, First Peoples Worldwide and Future 500, in partnership with the International Indian Treaty Council, are organizing a panel discussion on private sector engagement for Indigenous Peoples attending the UNPFII. The discussion will provide an overview of the international standards for regulating corporate development on Indigenous lands, and discuss strategies for engaging corporations and investors to ensure those standards – specifically the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent – are implemented.
The workshop will take place on in New York on May 20th. Because space is limited, please request an invitation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Authors:
Rebecca Adamson is President and Founder of First Peoples Worldwide, the only Indigenous-led organization working on equal grounds with Indigenous communities and the private sector to promote business models that serve the interests of both. First Peoples’ recently-released Indigenous Rights Risk Report provides a quantitative assessment of 52 extractive companies’ operational risk exposure to Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
Rebecca Busse is a Senior Stakeholder Engagement Manager with Future 500, a non-profit specializing in stakeholder engagement, bringing together stakeholders – often activists and companies – toward systemic change on climate, human rights and other pressing issues.