April 04, 2020

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Indigenous Self-Determination Grants: Infrastructure for Deep Listening

Grants for indigenous communities can strengthen governance and community infrastructure.


By Rebecca Busse, Senior Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Future 500

Teach a Person to Fish

“Know your stakeholders” is a ubiquitous mantra in corporate social responsibility and it’s not unusual for companies operating abroad to map in detail the indigenous communities affected by their operations. What is groundbreaking, however, is having a comprehensive Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC) strategy in place and being able to showcase community benefits that leave a positive legacy long after operations have ceased.

In development, the expression, “Give someone a fish, they eat for a day; teach them how to fish, they eat forever,” is very common – and most community development practitioners would recite it hastily. However, it is rare to find this tenet well applied in public-private community development projects or corporate philanthropic projects. There are some notable exceptions, but, by and large, many of the projects that are implemented fail, do not reach their full utility, or just don’t have lasting positive effects.

Solutions on the Ground

For Indigenous People’s Day this year, Future 500 reconnected with Rebecca Adamson, founder of First Peoples Worldwide and one of the nation’s foremost thought leaders on indigenous issues, to chat about trends in indigenous activism, palm oil and other related issues.

Being a solutions-oriented team, we didn’t just want to discuss the problems, but rather to discuss solutions that have worked on the ground. With over 20 years of working in the field alongside a diverse set of change-makers from on-the-ground indigenous and tribal communities to extractives executives, Adamsonindigenous-grants had some insight for us: self-determination grants.

Basically, self-determination grants are what they sound like: grants to indigenous communities that are designed to bolster governance and communications in the community, by the community, for the community. Since much of the natural resource extraction happening globally is on indigenous land, these grants have big implications for community empowerment, which can lead to smooth implementation of FPIC, conflict avoidance and/or quick resolution, and, ultimately, lower risk to companies.

A Win-Win

The grants are a win-win: they are good for communities because they strengthen existing governance and communications infrastructure, which has myriad benefits even outside of natural resource development.

Not all indigenous people want development – this is true.

But, according to Adamson and other indigenous advocates, most do – who doesn’t want economic development and jobs? However, indigenous people want it on their own terms, with minimal environmental and social impacts. Most parents want to see more opportunities created for their children, just not if it means losing clean air, water, habitat or their ancestral culture.

Repsol and the Guaraní

A good example of how self-determination grants play out on the ground is the case of Repsol and the Guaraní in the Amazon: in 1997, Repsol (and two other oil companies) wanted to engage in exploration and drilling in Guaraní territory, and Repsol began the process without community consent.


Instead of fighting a protracted legal battle, the community reached out to non-profits for help. First Peoples gave the Guaraní a self-determination grant, and then got out of the way of the decision-making process. The community was then able to purchase boats and gasoline for community members to reach remote parts of the community and they were able to make an informed decision about the development that helped to preserve their right to the land, and thereby their way of life. They had also improved their communications and governance systems, making the community stronger as a result.

And the grant? Just over $11,000.

Those tasked with justifying financial and social return on development projects would celebrate that hefty ROI, not only for the companies involved, but also for the community.

Not All Grants Are Created Equally

Not all grants are created equally. Not all of them solve the problem they aim to – some even cause unintended negative consequences.

As philanthropist Peter Buffett recently pointed out in his controversial New York Times piece the “Charitable Industrial Complex,” sometimes the most important thing we can do to help is listen. Listen to the communities and let them decide for themselves what change they want and at what pace.

Self-determination grants are a concrete way of providing resources to build what is essentially a deep listening infrastructure, encouraging alignment within the community and, ultimately, helping the benefits of development to last.

About the Author
As a stakeholder engagement manager, Rebecca Busse primarily focuses on the stakeholder landscape in the extractives sector: oil and mining. Prior to joining the Future 500 team, Busse earned an MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. She also holds a B.A. in International Relations from San Francisco State University.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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