Respecting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as Renewable Energy Grows
March 29, 2021

Addressing climate change requires that we transition quickly to renewable energy while grounding our efforts in human rights.

By Radhika Shah & Phil Bloomer

Indigenous peoples—groups such as the Saami in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and the Guarani in Brazil—are among the first and worst affected by climate change due to their close relationship with the environment and reliance on natural resources. Warming weather and sea ice loss across the Arctic, for example, are changing the availability of traditional food sources and increasing the risk of travel for the indigenous peoples that rely on the Arctic land and waters. In the Amazon, deforestation, decreases in rainfall, and increases in droughts are negatively impacting indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and access to water.

Along with advocating for ending climate change, indigenous peoples often advocate for the just transition to low-carbon economies. The Right Energy Partnership, a new multi-stakeholder partnership led by indigenous peoples focused on a rights-based approach to sustainable energy development, and Divest, Invest, Protect, a campaign led by indigenous women that encourages divestment in fossil fuel-related institutions, as well as investment in sustainable renewable energy and a just transition, are two examples.

Yet, paradoxically, there is a growing resistance to large renewable energy projects among many indigenous communities. Since 1492, colonization has resulted in the displacement of indigenous peoples in the Americas from valuable fertile plains to steep, broken lands (now good for hydropower), infertile uplands (now good for wind), and arid areas (now good for solar). Many of these groups do not have official land titles where they live, but the government does, and it too often grants titles to renewable energy companies without consultation, consent, or compensation.

Data from our work on corporate accountability at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) reflects this troubling trend. Since 2010, we have witnessed growing allegations of displacement, harm to livelihoods, and violence against communities, and we have approached companies 94 times to respond to allegations from local and international NGOs regarding renewable energy projects. More than 50 percent of these allegations relate to operations in Central and South America, followed by 28 percent in Asia.

In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, for example, indigenous communities have reported violations of their rights due to wind power projects. Communities have denounced government approval of these projects, saying that the government authorized them without the community’s free, prior, and informed consent, and that they did not have access to information in indigenous languages. Some community members opposing these projects have faced death threats, violence, and detention. And unfortunately, a statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples following her visit to Mexico in November 2017 makes it clear that this is not an isolated case: “During my visit, I heard consistent complaints about economic development projects that were not adequately consulted and have led to land dispossession, environmental impacts, social conflicts and [criminalization] of indigenous community members opposing them. These include mining, oil and gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar, infrastructure, tourism and agro-industrial projects.”

Tackling this rising abuse is vital to guaranteeing a rapid and just transition to the low-carbon economy we all desire. Our efforts to address climate change must include transitioning to renewable energy quickly—as well as paying attention to how we do it. The renewables sector currently enjoys general goodwill as an industry that promises to both slow climate change and provide energy access to the millions without. But the sector will squander this trust quickly if it continues to ride roughshod over the human rights of those their investments negatively affect. Renewable energy companies and their investors must put human rights due diligence in place now.

Some renewable energy companies are starting to recognize the importance of a rights-based approach, but many still lag behind. Our outreach to 50 wind and hydropower companies around the world revealed that most renewable energy firms do not yet have adequate due diligence practices—including identifying whether a project will impact indigenous peoples and reaching consent prior to the start of a project—to prevent human rights abuse. And even while five of these 50 companies have made public commitments to respect free, prior, and informed consent for indigenous peoples, three of those five are facing allegations that call into question their respect for these commitments.

The good news is that it is both feasible and attractive for renewable energy companies to deliver robust human rights due diligence. By adopting human rights policies in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—including the right of indigenous peoples’ to not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories, and for relocation to be contingent on free, prior, and informed consent and just and fair compensation—renewable energy companies can increase the sustainability of their projects, reduce their own and their investors’ risk, and ensure respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. In fact, responsible renewable energy companies have an opportunity to lead the way to cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy—leapfrogging other sectors—by putting human rights at the core of their operations and supply chains.

Meanwhile, governments must put national-level policies in place to ensure that indigenous peoples can both participate in decisions about policies that affect them and share in the benefits of renewable energy projects. This includes guaranteeing respect for their collective rights to land, territories, and resources; self-determination; and the right to practice cultural traditions.

Investors also have an important role to play. Under the UNGPs, they are expected to undertake human rights due diligence. Respecting human rights at each stage of investment helps ensure that all stakeholders benefit. It can also reduce the likelihood of conflict that heightens abuse and leads to escalating costs through suspensions of operations. As expressed by Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras and daughter of murdered human rights defender Berta Cáceres, “From the moment [investors] choose to enter a territory or finance a project or company that has a history of human rights violations, they are responsible.”

Our recommendations for investors, created in partnership with Transform Finance and Sonen Capital, include:

  • Prior to investment: Require that investees undertake human rights due diligence as per the UNGPs as a condition for investing.
  • During investment: Monitor human rights performance of investments. Encourage companies you invest in to respect communities’ rights and ensure that they meet the requirement for free, prior, and informed consent. If the company is not receptive, increase pressure through collaboration with peers or divestment.
  • Both prior to and during investment: Ask companies or asset managers specific questions about human rights, and take steps to verify information. Engage with governments, civil society, trade unions, indigenous peoples, and local communities to encourage community-led best practices.

As we mentioned at the beginning, one positive trend is renewable energy development driven by indigenous communities. A recent briefing paper by the Indigenous Peoples Major Group highlights several examples, including micro-hydro power developments in the Philippines and Malaysia that are increasing energy access, reducing emissions, helping to reduce the work burden of women, and providing other community benefits. In addition, groups such as Grupo Yansa support indigenous communities interested in developing the renewable energy potential of their land. Communities play an active role in social and environmental impact assessment, and in planning and implementing measures to reduce harm and maximize benefits.

Our planet needs us to transition quickly to a low-carbon economy. Renewables companies and their investors now face a stark choice: either gain the cooperation of communities affected, or indulge in human rights abuse, and accept the accompanying repression of legitimate protest and resistance it generates.

Forward-thinking renewable energy investors can help lead the way via win-win approaches that optimize for all and support the solutions of indigenous peoples. In email correspondence with the BHRRC, Joan Carling of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development highlighted the Right Energy Partnership as one important opportunity for collaboration:

As the international community calls for leaving no one behind in achieving the [Sustainable Development Goals], renewable energy companies and investors have the opportunity to partner with indigenous peoples under a rights-based framework through the Right Energy Partnership initiative led by indigenous peoples. This initiative can lead to transformational contributions, not only in combatting climate change but also in reducing poverty, hunger and achieving rural development wherein indigenous peoples are regarded as key development actors and equal partners.

This is a moment for governments, renewable energy companies and their investors, and civil society organizations to bend the arc of society’s evolution toward climate justice—leaving no one behind—in the true spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals. In this call-to-action for collective problem-solving and dialog, it’s critical to include the voices of indigenous communities at the table, from day one.

Source: SSIR

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