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Slow down the process of growth; stop over-exploitation. There is more to just development.

23 Oct, 2015
Posted in Blog

By Anu Nettar*

‘In a fight between the elephants, a lot of leaves are lost’, said A. K. Barum, an independent expert, rightly pointing out the status of indigenous peoples in today’s state of affairs, between companies and the states. The eight session of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) was held between 20th and 24th July, 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland.

EMRIP was one of my first few conferences at the UN. It was a first-hand practical experience, which was different from reading in text books and hearing from professors. I noticed that Indigenous Peoples stood up to advocate for themselves, unlike in ordinary courts of law. With the indigenous world community coming together to discuss possible solutions to balance development and conservation of natural resources and heritage to future generations in the plenary, to going into details of specific countries or organisations to understand their approach of dealing with non-cooperative governments, it gave an opportunity to observers to grasp the common problems at the plenary and reflect on them during the side events. I have tried to reflect some of the important discussions and suggestions that were made, especially at the panel discussion on Indigenous Peoples’ human rights in relation to business enterprises.

The phenomenon of ‘Investment Booms’ under the guise of development is on the rise in Africa, where new investors are heading to more and more countries, as Africa has a lot of potential in terms of natural resources. Not surprisingly, the African leaders are supporting these developments, thus opening Africa up for new projects by way of bilateral and multilateral trade and investment liberalisation treaties. This is alarming as development is rapid, non-sustainable and naturally irreversible, apart from being pollutive. Many of these investments will have a direct, mostly adverse impact on the lands and environment of the indigenous peoples.

Although the example is of Africa, the scenario in other countries is no different. Many participants chorused during the plenary and side events that bureaucrats care less about sustainability than about attracting foreign investors, which leads to haphazard development and the sufferers are, yes, the indigenous communities. Agnes Leina, a representative of the IPACC pointed out that the gains from the extractive industry and infrastructure development tends to benefit a small group of investors while the losses such as environmental damage, depletion of natural resources and displacement of communities are borne by the community as a whole. When such investment projects are in their proposal phase, it is always (noticeably) only the states that are approached for consent. The indigenous peoples, whose lives and livelihood will be affected the most, are not even consulted.

The right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples regarding activities that affect them, which was enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is violated in many other ways as well. Whether it concerns the WIPO assisting member states to protect traditional knowledge and heritage from Indigenous Peoples, the Chinese government banning cultural heritage, the construction of a dam in Manipur (India) submerging 6 indigenous villages, or the construction of oil pipes that led to leakage in North America, all these cases point in one direction: the existence of the singular decision making powers of States. As a result, a lot of voices were raised at EMRIP to condemn the denial of the right to free, prior and informed consent by the states.

Now the question arises, who needs to act? The United Nations, the national governments, the indigenous communities; all have a role to play and have a contribution to make to ensure TNCs are held accountable for their actions.

There is a provision that exists that each one of us could make use of: the services of the special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Depending on the gravity of the case, she heeds to the requests. By providing important information like the details of the communities affected, perpetrators, etc. and compiling this information in a special report for the United Nations, attention to atrocities can be drawn. (More details can be found at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IPeoples/SRIndigenousPeoples/Pages/SubmitInformation.aspx )

States are bound to respect human rights; companies have to follow them too. Ruthless and over-exploitation of indigenous lands and territories degrade cultural and economic rights, contaminate food and undermine access to water apart from polluting the environment. Governments should take guarantee of compliance with the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent and other Indigenous Peoples’ rights before they grant permission to companies to exploit mother earth. Social, cultural and spiritual effects on women and youth should be placed in high priority.

With a lot of active organisations in favour of indigenous communities and people from indigenous communities themselves taking part in EMRIP, there sure has been a change in the minds of people, states and international organisations. With communities bringing the issues of atrocities and state of affairs in their regions to the table during EMRIP, it draws attention towards the rights of indigenous peoples than ever before. It pushes the states to accept and allow the participation of indigenous peoples in decision making.

By meeting people who are in real sense, the guards of their forests, I heard about the impact that EMRIP has on their states. Since the suggestions and recommendations come from the UN, they are obligated to implement many of them in the fear of being judged by the world community. What motivates me to go back to the ninth session of EMRIP next year is my curiosity to see how many of these recommendations by the expert mechanism have been respected and implemented by the states. Hopefully, I will meet the same people and hear positive changes that came by to them and their communities.

*Anu Nettar works as legal assistant In GFC