This month marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This landmark international document, though imperfect, contains important provisions for countries to protect the right of Indigenous Peoples to freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. Today, a decade later, the international community should evaluate the progress made, and challenges that remain, in protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights. One area where UNDRIP can offer a guide for the protection of Indigenous rights is in projects financed by multilateral development banks. Banks like the World Bank Group and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have much work remaining to ensure that Indigenous Peoples’ rights are respected; this anniversary is an opportunity to examine what these institutions lack.
Globally, there are approximately 5,000 distinct groups and communities of Indigenous Peoples, around 370 million people in 90 countries. For many Indigenous Peoples ownership of—and access to—traditionally held lands and natural resources plays an integral role in the maintenance of culture, livelihoods, identities, and well-being. Indeed, 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity exists within the lands inhabited by Indigenous Peoples.
Despite the richness of their resources, Indigenous Peoples comprise 15 percent of the extreme poor and are frequently excluded from decisions related to the use of the resources they have traditionally accessed and maintained. Weak domestic legal protections for traditionally held land and resources, makes them targets for harmful extractive projects and other exploitation in the name of development. Rather than benefiting from so-called “development” projects on their lands, Indigenous Peoples are discriminated against and routinely have their rights violated by developers and local authorities. UNDRIP was developed precisely to address discrimination against Indigenous Peoples and protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights to set development priorities. While not always aligned with UNDRIP, which is a guide for national governments, multilateral development banks also have protections for Indigenous Peoples affected by the projects they finance. Unfortunately, these protections are not always followed.
A 2016 report of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, the bank’s independent watchdog, found that the rights of Indigenous Peoples have been violated throughout the life cycle of World Bank projects, but especially during the project preparation stage. Problems during the preparation stage include the failure to even identify the presence of Indigenous Peoples, resulting in applicable policies not being triggered, as well as ineffective and inappropriate consultation.
Failures like these extend beyond the World Bank and are clear in both our Assam, India and South Gobi, Mongolia cases. In Assam, India, tea plantations funded by the private sector side of the World Bank the International Finance Corporation (IFC), deny Adivasi or Indigenous tea workers sanitary living conditions, fair wages, access to health care, and protection from harmful chemicals like pesticides. The majority of workers are descendants of laborers forcibly brought from central India by the British to work on tea plantations. Even though these Adivasi groups are recognized as Indigenous in their home states in India, the IFC refuses to provide extra protections they are entitled to as Indigenous Peoples under its own policy.
In Mongolia, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development joined the private sector arms of the World Bank Group in disregarding the rights of Indigenous Peoples affected by the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine. The mine threatens water resources and the pastureland of nomadic herders – a livelihood that Mongolians have been practicing for more than 500 years. Ignoring the herders’ strong ties to their land, the financial institutions did not deem the herders “Indigenous,” and thus did not trigger proper consultation and consent practices for the affected community.
But even when communities are appropriately recognized as Indigenous, policies, and practices at multilateral development banks often fall short of meaningful protections for Indigenous People. In Nepal, the World Bank and project authorities failed to comply with basic requirements like consultation, let alone the higher standard of free, prior and informed consent for a project, a key concept highlighted in UNDRIP. Indigenous, Dalit, and other vulnerable communities in Nepal resisted the implementation of a World Bank-funded high voltage transmission project, which was forced ahead under the presence of armed paramilitary officers. In 2015, the World Bank’s Inspection Panel had found that the bank did not ensure adequate, timely, and meaningful consultations during project preparation and implementation. Even after the release of the Panel’s report, bank management did little to prevent further human rights violations – such as repeated instances of police violence, and intimidation and coercion by local authorities –against these communities.
The 10th anniversary of UNDRIP provides time for reflection on what remains to ensure that Indigenous Peoples’ rights are fully respected, including by multilateral development banks. Multilateral development banks must learn important lessons from past cases and act now to ensure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples and marginalized, vulnerable groups are fully respected in the course of its projects. This includes banks respecting communities’ rights to identify as Indigenous and ensuring communities are treated in line with international legal norms in the spirit of UNDRIP.