Last week, James Anaya, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, delivered a written report and statement to the UN General Assembly, summarizing the first three years of his mandate and outlining his plans for the next three years. His report and statements highlighted four themes: the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, nation states’ duty to consult indigenous peoples, corporate responsibility with respect to indigenous and human rights and, of particular interest to us here at ERI, the impacts of extractive industries operating in or near indigenous territories:

“I have observed the negative, even catastrophic, impact of extractive industries on the social, cultural and economic rights of indigenous peoples. I have seen examples of negligent projects implemented in indigenous territories without proper guarantees and without the involvement of the peoples concerned. I have also examined in my work several cases in which disputes related to extractive industries have escalated and erupted into violence. I have seen that, in many areas, there is an increasing polarization and radicalization of positions about extractive activities.”

Among other goals, our work at ERI seeks both to deter human rights abuses performed in the name of “security,” and to provide non-violent alternatives to activists and affected communities, and it’s encouraging to see the Special Rapporteur continuing to focus his attention not only on the extractive industries in general, but also more narrowly on the violent abuses that often accompany extractive projects.

An online forum for indigenous rights?

On a more personal note, I was also struck by Anaya’s plans to incorporate online forums into his work:

“I intend to launch an online consultation forum organized around specific questions or issues related to extractive industries. Through this forum, indigenous peoples and others will have the opportunity to submit information on their experiences with extractive industries, as well as to respond to specific questions.”

As a technologist, I can’t help but get excited by this statement – moving pieces of Anaya’s consultations online could, in a very meaningful way, amplify many previously unheard voices, voices of those most impacted by the extractive industries.

However, the idea also makes me a bit nervous, because online communications nearly always favor those with access to fast, affordable and reliable broadband connections, as well as a high degree of computer literacy. Cultural differences need to be considered as well: just this week, one of my colleagues and I were discussing indigenous groups in the Amazon, their traditions of oral histories, and the importance of using oral storytelling in advocacy campaigns in the Amazon region.

Any online forum for discussing indigenous rights needs to consider these questions of access and culture, or it risks further excluding those most vulnerable to abuses by the extractive industries: remote, indigenous villagers, who already are often excluded from development decisions. I hope the Special Rapporteur’s online consultation forum will work to overcome these challenges, but I also hope NGO’s, filmmakers, activists and community leaders will continue to step forward to help bridge the gaps, to ensure that all voices are heard.