Society Watch: Indigenous peoples fear being overshadowed after COP26 moment in the sun

COP26 in Glasgow
Members of Brazil's Indigenous APIB association, attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

November 8 - At COP26 the voice of indigenous people was heard at the top table for the first time. Community leaders from the Arctic to the Amazon spoke of the crucial role that indigenous peoples could play in tackling the climate emergency and protecting biodiversity, but how they were being killed for protecting land that was rightfully theirs, and traditions – along with whole landscapes – were being bulldozed.

Leaders seemed to listen, as governments of the UK, U.S., Germany, Norway and the Netherlands – joined by a clutch of foundations including the Bezos Earth Fund and the Rainforest Trust – pledged $1.7 billion to reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030, while at the same time championing indigenous rights.

Yet today, as politicians and policymakers meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27, the fear is that the all-consuming rush towards an energy transition has put new pressures on the rights of indigenous people.

“The (Glasgow deforestation) pledge has been very important for keeping governments from back-tracking,” says David Kaimowitz, chief programme officer at the Tenure Facility, a financial mechanism focused on securing land and forest rights for indigenous peoples and local communities.

He is seeing plenty of evidence of the $1.7 billion reaching communities and delivering change, citing Colombia, where money is helping the new government move much more quickly to help indigenous people secure land rights, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is helping to establish community forestry concessions.

But he fears that keeping indigenous rights in the spotlight at this year’s COP will be difficult, with governments preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, energy prices and a crisis in the world’s food systems. “There’s a danger that last year’s issue will get completely over-shadowed,” he says.

In October, the Business & Human Rights Resources Centre (BHRRC), along with Indigenous People’s Rights International (IPRI), wrote an open letter to the United Nations, signed by over 200 organisations. It began: “Human rights and climate action are increasingly indivisible and the need to transition to cleaner energies has never been more urgent. Yet this transition will be set up to fail if it focuses solely on being fast, and not on also being fair.”

Members of the Wixarika indigenous community line up to receive food as they arrive to the National Palace in Mexico City during a march to demand restitution of lands. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Investments worth an estimated $5 trillion are needed to scale up renewable energy production in a bid to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius, says Caroline Avan, a natural resources researcher at BHRRC, which tracks the human rights impacts of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. Yet renewables are also land-intensive, from the space needed for solar arrays, to the extraction of minerals such as lithium and cobalt that green technologies demand.

“What we are seeing is increased risks to the rights of indigenous peoples as a result of the energy transition,” says Avan. (See How Elizabeth Mrema is striving to affect a ‘Paris moment’ for nature)

Without rights-respecting renewable investment, she says, companies and investors face potential opposition from local communities, which can lead to project delays, ballooning costs and cancellations, as well as reputational damage.

“Investors hold an important balance of power,” she says, a role that is outlined in a new investment guide, which details how to ensure human rights are at the core of the energy transition. “Companies need to move away from the profit-driven extractive industry model to a model that ensures shared prosperity with communities through co-ownership,” she says.

A key recommendation is that energy companies and project developers consider local communities as rights holders, not just stakeholders. With equity in the project, says Avan: “they become shareholders and have access to project governance and… (can) influence, from the outset, the way in which the project is going to be developed and also prevent impacts on their community.”

It’s about making “them an integral part of the project in the long-run,” she says, so that they too can derive financial benefits from the project.

The guide also provides evidence of how failure to do this can prove costly, and how badly thought-out projects, which ride roughshod over local communities, can fall foul of the law.

A wind farm in Union Hidalgo, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata

It details the drawn out-proceedings around Gunaa Sicaru, which would have been one of the largest wind projects in Latin America. The wind farm was planned for a site in Oaxaca, Mexico, on land belonging to a Binniza-Zapotec indigenous community. But the community claimed that EDF Renewables Mexico hadn’t conducted sufficient community consultation, a right guaranteed under Mexican law. This was a violation of their right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), one of the most common human rights infringements in the renewable sector.

The courts became involved, and injunctions were served against EDF. Although the case was dismissed on procedural grounds, EDF is still facing claims for compensation. The delays mounted, and after six years Mexico’s state power company cancelled the contract, effectively shutting down the project for good and depriving the national grid of the green energy from 115 wind turbines.

Such developments are frustrating for everyone, says Kaimowitz. Rather than the governments being proactive and trying to work with the communities to find solutions, “a lot of this unfortunately ends up in the courts, which is not the best way it should happen.” He adds: “Then the courts rule against the government and that brings the government to the table. That's happening in a lot of countries.” There are no winners.

But things can be done differently. The Imagine Light project in eastern Costa Rica is a partnership between the German government’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (GATC) and the state electricity board. It is bringing solar power to some of the most vulnerable and remote indigenous Cabecar communities, explains GATC co-chair Levi Sucre Romero.

Teams of trained technicians, many of them women, move from village to village installing the panels, while one member of the local community is trained to oversee the long-term functioning of the system. It’s about providing a solution but also showing communities that they can do it themselves, adds Romero.

Power to the Protectors is another small-scale solar project, this time run by Amazon Watch, which is bringing roof-top solar to small villages across the Amazon basin, as well as helping communities replace diesel engines on their canoes with solar panels.

But it’s a different picture when it comes to big renewables developments, and mining for transition minerals such as lithium, explains Amazon Watch’s executive director Leila Salazar-López. “Indigenous peoples and frontline communities are very wary.”

Many of the same fossil fuel companies that brought destruction to the forest are now coming back under a different, greener guise, with plans for solar arrays and new mines, she says. But resistance is growing, and there is a much wider acknowledgement of the concept of FPIC. Salazar-López has seen dozens of companies waste billions of dollars trying to get into the territories of indigenous communities who don't want them, so investors need to be wary of the risks, she advises.

“If the communities don't give them their consent... then it’s a violation of human rights,” she says. “Invest in the just transition rather than continuing the Amazon’s destruction.”

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for The Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles.