Indigenous Lands Plundered in Oil and Gas Rush


By Haider Rizvi, IPS

Date of publication: 
20 May 2009

UNITED NATIONS – Leaders of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples who are attending an international meeting here this week say they want governments to stop oil and gas corporations from further extraction on their lands.

“Much of the world’s untapped oil, gas and mineral wealth lies beneath indigenous lands,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpus, chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a 16-member body established by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 2000.

Tauli-Corpus and other leaders have consistently argued that private corporations have no right to operate on territories that belong to aboriginal communities, many of whom consider their ancient lands as sacred and which thus cannot be used for private gain.

The forum, which is currently holding its eighth annual meeting, will last through May 29. Organisers say they have planned a series of discussions on the need for action against corporate abuse and exploitation of natural resources in indigenous areas.

A report submitted to the forum notes that extractive industries, such as minerals, oil and gas, disproportionately impact indigenous peoples. Other issues on the forum’s agenda include climate change, the Arctic region and land tenure.

According to Tauli-Corpus, at a recent workshop, about 90 percent of indigenous delegates said the mining companies operating in their territories had never asked for their permission.

While demanding an end to commercial activities on their lands, the indigenous leaders refer to international legal norms, including those set out in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a landmark document adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007.

The declaration calls for governments and corporations to obtain the “free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous communities” for use of their lands and resources. It also requires that negotiations be based on the principle of equality.

Many corporations accused of engaging in abusive practices on native lands belong to powerful Western nations in general and the United States and Canada in particular. Neither country acknowledges the declaration and voted against it.

However, U.S. diplomats at the U.N. are reconsidering the previous George W. Bush administration’s stance on indigenous issues at the international level and have given some indications that the new administration under Barack Obama might choose to endorse the declaration.

Activists note that several countries around the world have begun to shape their policies towards native issues in line with the content of the declaration. Australia, for example, is taking several measures to ensure the collective property rights of native people.

In Latin America, Bolivia held a referendum to amend the constitution, which grants autonomy to indigenous peoples that will allow them to practice community justice according to their own customs and will enable them to protect their resources.

In addition to Bolivia, Ecuador has also taken similar step. It has embedded the declaration into its new constitution.

There are also signs of progress in some other countries regarding the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. In this context, activists identify Russia, Namibia, Honduras, Suriname, Belize and Japan as U.N. member countries which have taken positive steps.

But they say they still have to go a long way to convince governments and corporations to take a more responsible role in the implementation of the declaration.

“The declaration is now the shining star for navigation of all indigenous issues,” said Carsten Smith of Norway, a legal expert who represents the Arctic Saami people. “Unfortunately, there is a very huge implementation gap in the world.”

At the forum, Smith and other representatives from the Arctic are trying hard to draw the world’s attention to the issue of climate change and its devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of the native communities of the region, amid calls for solutions.

Both climate change scientists and experts on biodiversity say indigenous communities around the world are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. In their view, traditional indigenous knowledge about nature and ecosystems is an indispensable part of the fight against climate change and loss biodiversity.

At a news conference Monday, Lars Anders Baers of the Saami Council told reporters that rapid implementation of the declaration was a must because many governments and corporations are now eyeing the Arctic region, which holds an estimated 40 percent of the world oil and gas resources.

“It is becoming more accessible to exploitation owing to the melting of ice sheets induced by climate change,” Baer said, raising concerns that conflict of economic interests among the countries of the Arctic region could cause further harm to the indigenous communities.

“As in the cold war, indigenous peoples have become cards in a political game,” Baer added.

The forum is being attended by more than 2,000 indigenous leaders from all parts of the world, in addition to government officials, civil society activists and U.N. staff working with various agencies.