"There is really a great misconception and misunderstanding that enforcing indigenous peoples' rights is usually an obstacle to national development"
By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, Aug 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments too often sidestep indigenous people when approving new infrastructure projects on their land, ignoring the potential for sustainable economic growth and environmentally-friendly development, a U.N. expert said on Tuesday.
A landmark United Nations declaration adopted 10 years ago declared authorities should seek consent from indigenous people before starting new infrastructure projects like mines and dams.
But even governments that adopted the declaration sometimes seek shortcuts to work around it, said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People.
"There is really a great misconception and misunderstanding that enforcing indigenous peoples' rights is usually an obstacle to national development," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Indigenous people and rural communities have customary claims to two thirds of the world's land but are legally recognised as holding only 10 percent, according to the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI).
U.N. standards stipulate companies should adhere to the principle of free, prior and informed consent, meaning a community has the right to give or withhold its consent to proposed projects that may affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or otherwise use.
A 2016 study of 50 companies showed only 10 percent referred to the principle when negotiating with communities over land.
Without title deeds proving ownership, communities may find their land is taken over for major development projects, which Tauli-Corpuz said governments often wrongly assume locals would oppose even before speaking to them.
"In many cases indigenous people...just want to be consulted, they want to be participating in the decisions that are made," she said by phone on the eve of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Wednesday.
Involving indigenous people in the management of natural resources also ensures these are exploited in a sustainable way, said Tauli-Corpuz.
Research showed indigenous communities played an important role in the preservation of forests in the Philippines and Brazil, she said.
"If indigenous peoples' rights are respected then there are better chances of really sustainably conserving and using these natural resources," she said.
Failing to engage with indigenous communities generally leads to discontent and conflict, which also hampers economic growth, said Tauli-Corpuz.
At least 200 land rights activists were killed in 24 countries in 2016, making it the deadliest year on record, according to human rights watchdog Global Witness. Almost 40 percent of those murdered were indigenous.
An estimated 370 million indigenous people live spread across 70 countries, according to U.N. data.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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