Protecting indigenous rights is NGOs’ shared passion

Amalia Souza lives in Brazil, Marcus Colchester is based in the United Kingdom and Cesar Gamboa works in Peru. Although they are geographically distant from one another, the trio share a passion — protecting the rights of indigenous people and their environments.

For Amalia Souza, co-founder and executive director of Centro de Apoio Socio-Ambiental (CASA), it is important that local communities gain positive results from large, publicly financed energy and infrastructure projects — highways, bridges, dams and fuel pipelines — that are planned in response to their country’s growth and development needs.

But having opportunities to participate throughout the process, from planning to completion and follow-up monitoring, is necessary, too, she says. This involves getting accurate information to those people who are the most directly affected by development. “Even though our constitution guarantees that local communities must be consulted on these projects, they aren’t,” Souza said. “There are all kinds of ways to get around it.”

CASA promotes democratic decisionmaking and social-justice initiatives by helping grassroots groups in Brazil from its office in São Paulo, Brazil. Its staff and volunteers also work in several neighboring countries in South America to address the impact that planned major projects could have on the region’s ecosystems and communities, especially those in which residents have the lowest incomes and the least education.

“We can’t stop at the Brazilian border, because ecosystems don’t stop at borders,” Souza said. “We have some of the world’s most threatened ecosystems and staggering inequalities.”

CASA provides technical support and small grants to community groups and non-governmental organizations so they can provide coordinated local input into project-related decisions, monitor large-scale projects, and work to make those projects more socially and environmentally sustainable.

For example, Souza said, CASA made a grant to a community group to buy a ham radio. It enables people separated by many miles to share concerns about a specific infrastructure project and to exchange information and coordinate activities.

“When an outside funder like us comes in to support a group that nobody else sees because they are invisible — the lowest-income people who would have to fight for survival all on their own — then the group immediately gets seen,” she said. “They become visible to their peers and to the government. Even small support can help them get recognized.”

Souza, along with Colchester and Gamboa, all lead Mott Foundation-funded NGOs. Recognized as specialists in their fields, each shared a case study as a panelist at the October 2010 fall conference of the Environmental Grantmakers Association in Pacific Grove, California. Their presentation was entitled, “Communities in the cross-hairs: Where international finance collides with environment and human rights.”

Their experiences have included monitoring mega-projects funded by the Brazilian National Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. The three individuals share a desire to help ensure that human rights are respected and environmental degradation is minimized throughout the development process.

Marcus Colchester, through his work with the Forest Peoples Programme , helps local NGOs and indigenous people hold governments and international financial institutions (IFIs) accountable for their investment decisions.

A lush green forest with a mountain in the background.
Land is being deforested in Indonesia and elsewhere to make way for palm oil plantations.

For many years, he says, FPP has focused its efforts on creating awareness and mobilizing Indonesians to reform the global palm oil industry, which markets its product for food, cosmetics and as bio-fuel. Since the 1980s, Colchester says, the palm oil industry has received more than $2 billion from the World Bank.

He and his FPP colleagues have many years of experience working with policymakers and IFIs directly, but they don’t start there. Instead, FPP uses the bottom-up approach like CASA, working first with people on the ground before sharing what it has learned with top-level policymakers, Colchester says.

“We take our lead from the local people,” he said. “What has been the secret to our success is our alliance with people on the ground, at the village level, who know exactly what is going on.”

FPP’s “both ends” approach has shown results. The biggest to date was in August 2009, when the World Bank Group suspended all its investments in the global palm oil sector, pending development of a comprehensive approach to guide its future funding in that sector.

The announcement was made after a letter — signed by FPP; its Indonesian partner, Sawit Watch; and many other Indonesian and international NGOs — was sent to World Bank President Robert Zoellick. It detailed how the bank had allowed commercial interests to overrule environmental and social standards in past funding for the palm oil sector, which are clear violations of its own policies and procedures.

The World Bank’s response document, issued in July 2010, was a disappointment to NGOs because it didn’t adequately address their concerns, Colchester says. As a result, FPP is continuing to work with its partners to push for substantive changes in the World Bank and its private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, which sets investment policies and practices in the palm oil sector.

Meanwhile, Cesar Gamboa oversees an initiative seeking similar changes for IFIs and also Peruvian energy and infrastructure policies and investments. He is an attorney and program coordinator of Derecho Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR), an NGO that works with indigenous communities in Peru to evaluate and monitor energy and infrastructure policies and projects.

After reviewing many public-investment projects — logging, land conversion for bio-fuels, mining, and oil and gas exploration — Gamboa was convinced that Peru’s legal framework works against the rights of indigenous people, especially those living in the Amazon region. These rights include participation in land-use decisions and fair compensation when land is taken.

With 192.7 million acres (78 million hectares), the Peruvian Amazon region covers more than half the country, Gamboa says. As of December 2009, almost 60% of the Amazon region had been leased to oil and gas companies for exploration and development, despite being labeled nationally protected areas. The percentage of these oil and gas leases, commonly called “concessions,” had been only 15% as recently as December 2004, he says.

“The overlapping of oil and gas concessions with natural areas and indigenous lands adds a risk of contamination, an alteration of sensitive ecosystems, and other direct and indirect impacts on the protected natural areas,” Gamboa said.

Both the World Bank and the IDB — public institutions that have a prominent presence in Latin America, making investments in 2009 for $17.9 billion and $15.5 billion, respectively — have organizational provisions guaranteeing Peruvian citizens a legal right to participate in a consultation process before local projects are undertaken, but these rights are routinely violated, Gamboa says.

In response, DAR informs people of their rights and helps ensure that those rights are upheld, he says, because when non-sustainable development projects move forward in the Amazon Basin, both Peru — and the planet — pay a high price.

“After our country’s extensive promotion of extractive industries in the Peruvian Amazon, which came with many environmental and social problems, we can see the multiple costs of these practices,” Gamboa said.

“We are contributing to the causes of global climate change by the deforestation and degradation of our Amazon land. It’s important that civil society organizations in the Andes-Amazon countries know how to make sure that public investment funders … fund only infrastructure and energy projects that are done in the correct way, applying social and environmental standards.”

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