Indigenous Land Rights Are Under Threat (Again)

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Though born and raised in West Michigan, my career over the past six years has taken me to remote areas throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia and Myanmar I have seen firsthand how government corruption, especially related to deals to extract valuable natural resources, falls hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

For the past two years I have worked closely with a Bunong Indigenous community in northeastern Cambodia that has been threatened by illegal land grabs and a proposed bauxite mine. The Bunong villagers of Dak-Dam have sustainably maintained a community forest area for generations. The forest represents the site of their ancestral home and is at the core of their belief systems. But it is under threat, both from a Malaysian company clearing large sections of land for a rubber plantation and foreign mining corporations looking to exploit bauxite reserves. The community leaders, above all the other issues they are faced with, stressed to me that if they are forced to give up their ancestral territory, their culture and traditions will die. The vulnerable populations of Dak-Dam are being confronted with an existential threat they are ill-equipped to address.

While in Cambodia I bore witness to the corporate playbook on how to exploit government corruption and a lack of transparency to take advantage of vulnerable Indigenous communities in the name of profits. A politically connected tycoon acquires a mineral exploration license on behalf of a foreign corporation, which then pays bribes to the required intermediaries and local officials. The corporation then implements a marketing campaign promising that the project will result in happy communities and positive contributions to the local ecosystem. After the development of so-called “corporate social responsibility” projects that highlight the benevolence of the corporation, the mining rights are usually sold off to a Chinese or Indian mining corporation with a history of human rights abuse and environmental degradation. While decisions are being made in corporate boardrooms about the project, the communities are denied their legal right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) and remedies for the devastation inflicted upon their lands.

Measures to fight corruption and promote transparency in these deals are essential in the struggle to monitor the flow of natural resource revenues and to end the “resource curse”, which traps many people around the world in poverty despite living in countries rich in natural resources. Faith-based and other civil society groups have been instrumental in calling for the establishment of enforceable transparency regulations to combat the secrecy and corruption that undermines democracy, inhibits development, and too often fuels the continued persecution of vulnerable populations.

Important progress in this fight has been made over the last decade. The U.S. led the way for the rest of the world in 2010 by passing a bipartisan law, known as Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. This law requires oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose the payments they make to foreign governments and the U.S. government as part of their regular financial reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The law was widely viewed as a vital tool to expose and deter unethical backroom deals in a notoriously corrupt industry, to protect U.S. investors, and to provide communities with the ability to monitor the management of natural resource wealth.  

But the progress we have made is now increasingly threatened. American politicians doing the bidding of powerful oil and mining corporations are working to undermine Section 1504, to allow these companies to keep their dealings with foreign dictators and oppressive regimes secret, and backtracking from our commitment to the world’s poorest.

Section 1504 showed the power of American leadership by promoting meaningful global change that has been emulated by Canada and the E.U. For nearly a decade, the landmark law has been praised and supported on both sides of the political aisle, by anti-corruption watchdogs, by investors, and by faith-based groups. The only opposition to Section 1504 comes from the dictators that threaten American values and the few multinational companies that want to keep their dealings with those governments secret. These are not supposed to be the people our politicians work for.

But in January 2017, Rep. Bill Huizenga of West Michigan sponsored a bill to undermine implementation of the law. H.J. Res. 41 effectively undid all the work that the SEC had completed over many years.

Attacks on transparency have continued to escalate. New legislation, H.R. 4519, was introduced in December 2017 — again by Rep. Huizenga — which would permanently repeal Section 1504 altogether. Passage of this law would be a hand out to powerful corporations at the expense of vulnerable communities and an abdication of U.S. moral leadership.

If corporate interests succeed in their mission to destroy anti-corruption and transparency laws like Section 1504, there will be only two winners.

The fight for Indigenous land rights is not just about access to justice, but about securing a sustainable future for everyone. Indigenous peoples and local communities customarily own more than half the world’s land through traditional user rights that are usually unrecognized by formal legal and governance systems. Yet they only have legally recognized rights to ten percent of it. These communities are too often outmatched by the political influence and financial resources of powerful corporate actors because they lack access to information about the dealings between those companies and government actors that sign away rights to their lands. The legal voids combined with the lack of transparency, which Section 1504 seeks to address, fuel corruption, threaten community livelihoods, and leave Indigenous lands vulnerable to exploitation.

If corporate interests succeed in their mission to destroy anti-corruption and transparency laws like Section 1504, there will be only two winners: corrupt foreign regimes and the few companies that are willing to exploit that corruption to the detriment of vulnerable populations, their honest competitors — and American values.

Editor's note: Last week, major news broke for resource extraction accountability for Canadian mining companies. Read more from our partner, KAIROS, in their media release.

Image: Residents of Dak-Dam commune observe land clearing operations under the watchful eye of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

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