Indigenous Peoples' Rights

Issue Brief: Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

In Brazil, cattle ranchers and loggers have destroyed nearly one-third of the forest in the territory of the Awá people, called “the most threatened tribe in the world.”1 While their plight may be extreme, they are hardly alone. From the First Nations in Canada, to the Quechua in the Andes, to the Karen in Burma, Indigenous Peoples face challenges to their lives, livelihoods, and cultures as a result of the world’s ever-increasing demand for the abundant natural resources found in their often rural lands.

Before the advent of colonialization, indigenous populations inhabited regions of every continent. According to the United Nations, more than 370 million Indigenous Peoples in 70 countries worldwide continue to maintain distinct social, spiritual, and political traditions today.2

Yet, despite recent advances in both international and national law, Indigenous Peoples often face challenges in asserting and exercising their rights—especially when they conflict with the economic interests of companies involved in natural resource development and the governments in power. And, as the world’s energy and resource demands accelerate, companies are moving further afield and into the lands and waters claimed by indigenous populations. Rarely are they invited to participate in making the far-reaching decisions that affect every aspect of their lives. And while they have made progress in asserting their rights and gaining representation, legacies of economic, social, and political discrimination still necessitate their special status and political rights, as recognized by the United Nations, the International Labor Organization, and others.

To protect the rights and unique heritages of Indigenous Peoples, Calvert believes governments and companies must adhere to the provisions of international law designed to ensure their right to self-determination and to control the resources on their native lands.

International Law and Order

The label “indigenous” is self-determined—a community can declare itself an indigenous culture and pursue protection via international law—or enforce the rights of Indigenous Peoples granted in a specific location. Calvert does not determine the status of groups that identify themselves as indigenous.

In September 2007, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which affirms universal minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of all Indigenous Peoples. More specifically, it recognizes their collective right to self-determination, the preservation and flourishing of their cultures, and the protection of their rights to their lands, while also safeguarding their individual human rights. It also requires that their free, prior, and informed consent (known as FPIC) be obtained before development projects that will affect them receive approval.

In evaluating a company’s policies and practices toward Indigenous Peoples, Calvert looks for policies that acknowledge UNDRIP and FPIC and detail how these commitments are implemented, especially among companies in high-impact industries, such as logging and mining. Calvert was an early and consistently strong advocate for UNDRIP, which the U.S. finally signed on to in December 2010.

Evaluating Corporate Policies Toward Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Calvert believes companies must respect and navigate the cultural, social, economic, and political complexities associated with operating on indigenous lands in return for the financial rewards they receive. This includes compensating Indigenous Peoples fairly, managing and mitigating any negative impacts to the local flora and fauna, and providing a means to deal with grievances.

Indigenous Peoples’ issues come into play most commonly in the mining; oil and gas (including exploration, production, and transport); forest products and paper (including logging); and construction (including large-scale infrastructure projects, such as dam building) industries. High-risk populations are scattered throughout the world, although nearly 70% of indigenous populations reside in Asia.

Two areas we focus on are:

  • Land and Livelihood (also known as “Right to Know” or “Right to Decide” Issues)
    Indigenous Peoples have always derived their livelihoods, identity, and spiritual connection from their ancestral lands. Yet, too often, Indigenous Peoples are not afforded the proper decision-making role on agricultural, mining, or infrastructure projects that affect their lands or otherwise impact their environment or way of life.
    We expect companies to show broad support of indigenous communities and their rights by following the UNDRIP and FPIC guidelines when developing projects in indigenous territories.
  • Culturally Offensive Images
    Since the impact of the media is so pervasive—and perception can easily influence reality—Calvert pays close attention to the use of commercial images that promote racial, cultural, or religious stereotypes of Indigenous Peoples. Although a worldwide issue, certain U.S.-based companies continue to use American Indian imagery or names in their product marketing and advertising, often without their permission. The worst offenders are the retail (apparel, toys, video games), media, and sports industries, where American Indian imagery can be found in the names of sports teams, and on their logos. Today, virtually every major Indian association opposes the use of Indian mascots because they perpetuate negative stereotypes and adversely impact native populations.
    As with the term “indigenous,” the designation of “offensive” is either self-defined or defined by an outside group. Calvert does not make its own determination of what is offensive.

A Longstanding Commitment to Indigenous Peoples

Calvert has long been an advocate for corporate commitments and public policy that enable Indigenous Peoples to exercise their rights to self-determination and protect their cultures and livelihoods. In fact, we were the first SRI asset manager in the U.S. to develop a standalone policy and investment criteria on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in 1999, in part as a way to signify the importance of the issue and in part to provide a voice for Indigenous Peoples’ concerns in corporate America.

Calvert’s discussions with several energy and natural resources companies led them to create and disclose human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ policies that acknowledge the UNDRIP principles. We continue to work with these firms to monitor their progress in these matters. Calvert also participates in the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Working Group and an international coalition to support a community’s right to decide whether they want local development to take place, as well as their right to know about a project’s impacts and benefits, focused on the oil, gas, and mining industries. Calvert also serves on the Steering Committee of the U.S. SIF’s Indigenous Peoples’ Working Group, which seeks to promote Indigenous leadership through programs and initiatives which link the sustainable and responsible investment (SRI) industry and native communities.

The Intersection of Indigenous Peoples and Commerce

As companies and governments worldwide seek greater access to the resource-rich lands of many Indigenous Peoples, the balance of power is shifting. Smart companies are recognizing the value of a more collaborative relationship, such as tapping into indigenous populations’ in-depth knowledge of ecosystems and native lands, animals, and plants—especially in the pharmaceutical, logging, mining, and resource development industries. In medicine, numerous pharmaceutical companies are funding projects to study indigenous flora and learn about the use of native plants, including those used by local healers.

In the final analysis, Calvert believes it is vital for companies, governments, and investors to uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Doing so will help protect fragile global resources and ensure the survival of peoples with diverse, irreplaceable cultural heritages and allow them to manage their own names and symbols. From a business perspective, sound indigenous policies will help companies avoid costly resistance to projects and delays, negative publicity, and a loss of community trust—all of which can curb potential profitability and return on shareholder investment.



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