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Beyond petroleum

The People Who Already Live at the Mercy of Fossil Fuels

We might look towards a low-carbon future, but in the meantime, indigenous peoples continue to suffer some of the highest costs of the industries driving climate change.


For indigenous peoples, climate change is not only a matter of environmental challenges, but also threatens their human rights and cultural survival

These peoples bear the brunt of climate change for two reasons: they depend on natural resources for their livelihoods and, at the same time, they are among the world’s most marginalised, impoverished peoples.

When it comes to making decisions about the use of land, indigenous peoples sovereignty over their ancestral lands can often be ignored in favour of big business or governmental greed. From the Arctic to the Pacific, indigenous peoples are suffering the health effects of environmental contamination, and a lack of representation on the global level. With thousands of years of precise ecosystem knowledge, they have plenty to offer the climate change discourse, but tend to go unheard.


As the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the end of September, indigenous leaders called for world leaders to ensure their peoples won’t be left behind.


The 2030 goals, which build on the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 as a 15-year agenda to tackle inequality, poverty and climate change, carry very few direct references to indigenous peoples. And yet the framework will determine the course of indigenous peoples’ living conditions over the next 15 years and beyond.


The impact of climate change, as well as the effect of extractive industries, poses a direct threat to indigenous peoples all over the world, from the Arctic Circle to the Pacific Ocean. They are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of both these forces, and yet they lack the political power to overcome it without significant support.


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Indigenous representative Joan Carling, who addressed the UN the same weekend the new agenda was adopted, explicitly stated: “The Millennium Development Goals [from 2000] did not overcome the discrimination of indigenous peoples. If we should not again be left behind, we need concrete actions.”


Carling asked that the new goals respect indigenous peoples self-governing institutions, sustainable resource management systems and their right to free, prior and informed consent.


“We nourish the forests, deserts, rivers and fields that form part of our culture,” she said. “Our traditional knowledge is built through centuries of symbiotic interaction and co-­dependence with our natural environment. We are governed by our customary institutions that provide for social cohesion, cooperation and collective resilience; access to justice; sustainable resource management systems for the common good, and; solidarity relations with other peoples. We are self-­governing peoples and rights holders, and our institutions uphold sustainable development as part of our wellbeing.”

“Why then are we being evicted to give way to hydro‐power dams, to mono-plantations and extractive industries? These destroy our lands, villages, livelihoods, sacred sites and our customary institutions and our wellbeing. This is the question of thousands of indigenous peoples who continue to be discriminated and marginalized as an effect of the economic growth in many states.”

Carling said that, in order for the new development goals to adequately care for the rights and interests of indigenous peoples, they would need to recognise and respect their customary institutions and already established sustainable resource management systems.

The goals would need to ensure that effected indigenous peoples could give their free prior and informed consent to development projects and programmes before they go ahead, instead of leaving them as an afterthought.

Further, she argued, “universal access to justice means ensuring the effective protection of our collective rights against land grabbing, displacements and destruction of our cultural heritage by states, corporations, investors and business enterprises. It means going beyond social or environmental safeguards to fully ensure respect for human rights, equitable benefit sharing and accountability.”

So how well are governments doing at ensuring these rights are upheld? So far, not so good.


Just how difficult it is to hold extractive industries accountable for their impact on indigenous peoples has become evident in Peru.


Indigenous communities in Loreto, an Amazon region, have had their land heavily contaminated by the oil industry for the last 40 years. When James Anaya, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, visited the site in 2013, he reported that the communities had suffered “devastating consequences” at the hands of the industry.


"I have been able to personally confirm the serious environmental problems that exist in this zone due to the oil industry," Anaya said. "This includes the contamination of the body of waters and the soil used by the indigenous people in this region, which has affected their food sources and their health." 


Anaya’s job is to report back to the UN on issues affecting indigenous peoples. Just before Anaya’s visit to Peru, the Peruvian environmental regulator OEFA fined oil and gas company Pluspetrol $7.2 million for contaminating a lake to the extent that it effectively disappeared.


The company tried to blame the previous operators, Occidental Petroleum, for causing the contamination. But they already owed millions of dollars in unpaid fines for similar incidents, and even caused an environmental emergency further up the Amazon, polluting the area where Achuar and Kichwa indigenous people live.


“The indigenous leaders repeatedly made clear to me that they do not oppose development, but that the development must be in keeping with their rights, including their rights over their lands, natural resources and their own aspirations and priorities for development,” said Anaya at the time.


Although the Peruvian government approved a law enshrining the prior consultation of indigenous peoples on development projects in 2011, implementation remains slow and uncertain. For example, the proposed extension of part of the Camisea gas fields, which the UN has asked to be “immediately suspended”, is going ahead, despite its intention to further intrude on the Nahua-Nanti Reserve. These indigenous peoples comprise several uncontacted groups who would be put at serious risk of disease or death if not approached safely – they do not have any resistance to diseases tolerated in modern society.




“The challenge now,” says Anaya, “is to ensure that prior consultation is implemented according to the relevant international standards.”


Organisations like First Peoples Worldwide conduct research in an attempt to hold companies to account. Their Indigenous Rights Risk Report analyses 370 US-based oil, gas and mining sites operating on or near indigenous land. The results show 92 percent of these sites posing a medium to high risk to stakeholders (including indigenous peoples). “Yet only five of the companies have indigenous peoples policies to guide the company for how to positively engage and work with indigenous peoples,” according to the report.


While initiatives like this help spread the word about the impact of extractive industries on indigenous peoples, it is international policy enshrining the rights of indigenous peoples in law, and actions to ensure these laws are abided by, that will make all the difference.