The private sector: an ally in securing indigenous land rights?

Monday, 14 March 2016 17:21 GMT

Brazilian Indians from various indigenous ethnic groups take part in a protest during a National Indigenous Mobilization in front of Planalto Palace in Brasilia April 15, 2015. Organizers of the mobilization aim to discuss issues of land demarcation and indigenous rights with authorities. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Conflict between companies and indigenous peoples over land is not inevitable

After years of struggle, the nations of the world finally adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous peoples in 2007, recognising the moral imperative to respect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples and to seek their consent for developments on their land. Since then, there has been increasing recognition that secure land rights are not just a moral imperative, but are also key to mitigating climate change and ensuring sustainable development, as well as reducing reputational and financial risks for companies.

When companies look to developing countries for their next plantation, mine, oil drill, or hydroelectric dam, they are often handed maps displaying seemingly vast, empty tracts of land. It is in their interests to demand that these maps tell the full story: most of the “empty” wilderness in developing countries is in fact inhabited, often by peoples who have lived on, nurtured, and cherished the land for generations and view it as an intrinsic part of their continuing survival as distinct peoples with distinct cultures and identities.

It should come as no surprise that when their homes are threatened, indigenous peoples are unlikely to simply pack up and leave. Since the age of colonisation up to the present, in many parts of the world they have resisted and fought attempts to grab their lands and displace them from their ancestral territories. Undocumented and unsecured land rights are a major driver of conflict, especially given that indigenous peoples and local communities still lack formal legal ownership of 80 percent of their customary lands.

These conflicts threaten more than company reputations: they are bad for business and bad for national development. Ignoring indigenous peoples’ land rights can cause conflicts, regulatory disputes, and project delays that increase operating costs as much as 29 times and even lead to outright abandonment of functional operations.

In Colombia, Ecopetrol dismantled a drilling site overnight after a year of conflict with the indigenous U’wa who claimed the drill site as their ancestral territory. A Harvard study found that delays caused by conflict with local populations can cost U.S. mining companies $20 to $30 million every week in lost productivity. Land tenure risk is statistically significant across all sectors in developing countries.

More than three quarters of these conflicts occur at the start of the project or when it expands, usually because companies fail to consult adequately with indigenous peoples and local communities or to seek consent for development projects on their lands. Another major source of conflict is environmental destruction. Deforestation of community forests and contamination of their drinking water, soil, and air are likely to provoke strong reactions, especially given that indigenous peoples and local communities typically rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods. New research shows that these conflicts are not about money, and companies cannot buy their way out of disputes when indigenous peoples feel that their way of life is threatened.  

These conflicts are likely to grow in the future as investment on indigenous territories increases. Over 50 percent of U.S. mining companies’ current worldwide production takes place on or near indigenous lands; over 80 percent of future mining is likely to overlap with their territory.


But conflict with indigenous peoples is not inevitable. Strong, secure land rights for indigenous peoples and local communities would ensure that governments can no longer take over or lease their lands to corporate and private interests with impunity - as well as pave the way for long-term sustainable development.

If companies make secure land rights for indigenous peoples and local populations a prerequisite for investment in any country, they can significantly reduce conflict, protect the bottom line, and respect human rights. Community mapping, strong environmental standards, and consultation with indigenous peoples and local communities are also effective ways for companies to avoid long and costly conflicts. Mapping costs only US $3.78 per hectare on average, but can significantly reduce risk.

Some companies have stated their commitment to respect local land claims. Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, is aiming for total traceability in its supply chains. With the New York Declaration on Forests, a host of major companies committed to ending their roles in deforestation. Paper giants Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL) and Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) have both pledged to reach net zero deforestation. Many companies – including McDonald’s and APRIL – have also promised to respect communities’ rights to give or withhold their free, prior, and informed consent for developments on their customary lands.

Meeting these commitments will not be easy. Long and complex supply chains shield human rights violators, and palm oil companies have even been pressured by governments to walk back their commitments to end deforestation.

An independent audit by the NGO Rainforest Alliance of APP reported some progress in halting deforestation but very minimal progress in resolving land conflicts. It is still early to judge whether corporate efforts will pay off, but in spite of the challenges, the private sector’s growing embrace for indigenous peoples and community rights should not be taken lightly.

Indigenous peoples like myself have long fought to defend our territories. I have been protesting the displacement of my people and indigenous peoples around the world since I was a teenager, and it sometimes feels that we have never had a chance to stop fighting. It is time for this fight to go global.

Recognising the land claims of indigenous peoples and local communities means respecting the human rights of roughly 2.5 billion people, certainly. But it also means reducing conflict, staving off climate change, and protecting investments. People around the world are banding together through the Global Call to Action, a movement aimed at ensuring that governments formally recognise indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land rights across the globe. Join us in the call to secure rights, protect investments, and save our planet.

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz is the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples