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Opinion Piece: The Role of Companies in Advancing Indigenous Rights
Opinion Piece: The Role of Companies in Advancing Indigenous Rights
News Aug 10, 2023

The Role of Companies in Advancing Indigenous Rights

An opinion piece by Robin Barr, Global Lead, Development and Community & Indigenous Rights at Earthworm Foundation

9 August, marks the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, commemorating the inception of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), passed in 2007.

Throughout my career, I've helped introduce UNDRIP, ILO 169, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and, most importantly, the principles of Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC), to corporate leaders, exploring together what these principles mean for their operations.

Most of this work has been with food and beverage companies, forestry companies and, more recently, mining companies, investors and even carbon credit projects. Too often, it has been in response to a conflict they are having with local (often Indigenous) people. However, as the work evolves, it becomes focused on how to prevent conflict. More recently (and this is the most exciting part), it has also been about how to build partnerships with Indigenous Peoples to advance shared goals of biodiversity protection and address the climate crisis.

Advancing Indigenous rights over land and resource stewardship has been proven through many studies to be one of the most effective ways to protect biodiversity and advance climate stability. Companies can play a pivotal role in advancing Indigenous rights, contributing to a multitude of benefits:

· Preventing conflict

· Fulfilling Human Rights policies

· Protecting biodiversity

· Reducing GHG emissions

· Protecting forests

· Innovating

This last one is worth explaining a bit more. Indigenous Peoples have inherited a profound understanding of the natural environments in which their cultures evolved, passed down through generations. Consider the myriad of regions and ecosystems impacted by company supply chains and investments. Excitingly, in each of those regions, there are likely Indigenous communities with important insights into the diversity of values and best practices for stewardship. Unfortunately, their knowledge and rights have often been overlooked. By recognising the intrinsic value of Indigenous ways of interacting with the natural world, companies can forge mutually beneficial partnerships that will likely include new and innovative ways of working.

For those companies that are wondering what they can do to get started, here are some actionable steps to begin advancing Indigenous Peoples' rights and fostering meaningful partnerships:

1. Establish a company policy to respect and advance Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Descendant Peoples, and local communities' human rights

- Especially their rights to self-determination, and to give or withhold their free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) to projects that impact them.

FPIC is a cornerstone of ethical engagement with Indigenous Peoples, enabling them to have a genuine say in decisions impacting their lands and livelihoods. Adopting FPIC demonstrates respect, builds trust, and fosters long-term partnerships with Indigenous communities. FPIC enables transparent communication and meaningful exploration of the potential impacts of company operations and can ensure that projects are aligned with local aspirations and values.

Most importantly, policies should extend to a company's suppliers and investment portfolio in addition to its own operations. Hearing from buyers and investors about the urgency of respecting Indigenous land and resource rights is extremely influential for any company leader operating in regions where Indigenous rights are not yet fully protected.

For inspiration, check out the human rights and responsible sourcing policies of these international corporations:

· Nestle Responsible Sourcing Standard

· 3M Forest Products Sourcing Policy

· Mars Guidance for Suppliers on Land Rights

· Olam Supplier Code

2. Engage directly with Indigenous Peoples in operational and sourcing regions

Let’s be honest – we still have a long way to go when it comes to companies respecting Indigenous rights, and when there are conflicts, it can be difficult to convince suppliers or local managers to change how they’ve been working. In such cases, I’ve found that building direct relationships with Indigenous Peoples allows buyers and investors to gain tangible insights on what needs to change to improve a relationship. These can then be discussed directly with local managers to facilitate change. One example I've had the honour to help cultivate is the partnership between Earthworm members 3M, Nestlé and Mars and a First Nation in their pulp and paper sourcing region in Canada. You can read more about how the partnership supports efforts to protect important forest areas here. Community monitoring (i.e. hearing directly from individuals in impacted communities) is also the best way to know how you and your suppliers' operations impact local people. The Principles of Community Monitoring published by the Interlaken Group are an excellent starting point.

3. Support trainings for company personnel, government and community leaders in the regions that you impact

When companies, governments, and community leaders prioritise staff training in Indigenous rights and key processes like FPIC, participatory mapping, community development planning, and conflict resolution, they can rapidly adopt new and effective approaches. The Centre of Social Excellence offers trainings on these topics across Africa, Indonesia, and Latin America. They also can provide multi-stakeholder trainings in focused operational landscapes - bringing together company, government and community members to enable direct dialogue and joint solution-finding. CSE’s current work in Boké, an important mining region in Guinea, is an excellent example. In Brazil, CSE trainings on FPIC and social management have now reached over 60 managers in Brazilian pulp and paper companies. They are helping to raise awareness about how to respect Indigenous and Afro-descendant traditional rights among palm oil companies in Para.

4. Directly invest in Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities' pursuits to secure their land rights and protect biodiversity

Companies ready to invest in the great work that Indigenous Peoples do to advance their land rights and protect biodiversity have many options. The Forest Conservation Fund links companies and consumers with high-impact conservation projects by empowering local communities to protect forests under their control. It is also designed to connect companies directly to conservation projects in their sourcing landscapes. Another great option is The Community Land Rights and Conservation Finance Initiative (CLARIFI), an initiative designed to help Indigenous and community rightsholders tap into funds to expand the mapping and formal recognition of their lands and to create and implement plans to support their conservation, livelihoods, gender justice and self-determined development. In North America, the recently launched Tribal Lands Conservation Fund directly supports Native-led climate justice and conservation efforts.

Webinar: Advancing Human Rights & Conserving Nature

Through engaging presentations and real-life examples, we will explore successful case studies highlighting how companies support and partner with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to respect their rights, combat deforestation, and safeguard biodiversity.

We also want to hear from you, so please join us!

Register here

About Robin Barr, Global Lead for Community & Indigenous Rights, Earthworm Foundation

With over 15 years of international experience, Robin leads Earthworm Foundation's Global Development and Community/Indigenous Rights. She collaborates with global brands, commodity processors, and producers across supply chains to establish responsible production practices. Robin focuses on human rights, forest protection, and ecosystem preservation. She also leads the Centre of Social Excellence (CSE), aiding human rights training and partnerships. She ensures land rights and community relations while operating in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Robin explores integrating Indigenous wisdom for environmental and social progress. She holds a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Master's in Environmental Management.

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