Bright spark and dimming hope? Renewable energy and indigenous rights

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre & Radhika Shah, Advisor, Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy Platform

Protest against Oaxaca wind farm; mexiconewsdaily.com 2015

Radhika Shah, Advisor, Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy Platform Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre 

Indigenous peoples are often the greatest advocates for renewable energy. Their communities need energy, and they are the first and worst affected by climate change. Along with the broader movement to end climate change, they advocate a fast and fair transition to low carbon economies.

Yet, paradoxically, there is a growing resistance among communities across Latin America as allegations increase regarding land and water grabs, as well as violence against leaders when they defend their communities from abuses associated with renewable projects. Since 1492, indigenous peoples in the Americas have been moved from valuable fertile plains and have often found their last redoubts in steep, broken lands (now good for hydro), infertile uplands (now good for wind), and arid areas (now good for solar). The fact that often land titles have never been confirmed means that in these cases the land formally belongs to the government and may be granted to renewable energy companies without consultation, consent or compensation to the communities who have eked out their livelihoods there for centuries.

This trend is reflected in the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre’s own work on corporate accountability. Since 2010, we have witnessed growing allegations of abuse: 94 allegations from local and international NGOs regarding renewable energy projects. Over 50% of the allegations we tracked related to operations in Central and South America, followed by 28% in Asia. In many cases, indigenous communities are faced with some of the most prominent impacts. Wind, hydropower, solar and biofuel projects from Guatemala to Cambodia have allegedly been linked to displacement, harm to livelihoods, and intimidation and violence against communities opposing these projects. Heather Grady, of Rockefeller Philanthropy and the Resource Centre, found the same abuse in her visit to remote communities in Mozambique in 2017.

One example is in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, where indigenous communities have reported violations of their rights due to wind power projects. Communities in Union Hidalgo have denounced concessions granted by the government for these projects, saying that they were authorized without free, prior and informed consent and that they did not have access to information in indigenous languages. Some community members that have demonstrated against these projects have faced death threats, violence, and detention. A statement by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples following her visit to Mexico in November 2017 makes clear that this is not an isolated case. “During my visit, I heard consistent complaints about economic development projects that were not adequately consulted and have led to land dispossession, environmental impacts, social conflicts and criminalisation of indigenous community members opposing them. These include mining, oil and gas, hydroelectric, wind, solar, infrastructure, tourism and agro-industrial projects.”

Tackling this rising abuse now is vital to guarantee the rapid and just transition to a low carbon economy we all desire. 

Tackling this rising abuse now is vital to guarantee the rapid and just transition to a low carbon economy we all desire. The renewables sector needs a strong social license to operate globally. It currently enjoys natural good will as the vital element to slow climate change. But the sector will squander this quickly if it continues to ride roughshod over the human rights of those affected by their investments. It is urgent that renewable energy companies and their investors put human rights due diligence in place now: upstream to the exponential growth we need to see in this sector over the coming decades.

Some renewable energy companies are starting to recognise the importance of a rights-based approach, however, many lag behind. Our outreach and report to 50 wind and hydropower companies around the world revealed that renewable energy firms do not yet have adequate due diligence to prevent human rights abuse.

Some renewable energy companies are starting to recognise the importance of a rights-based approach, however, many lag behind. Our outreach and report to 50 wind and hydropower companies around the world revealed that renewable energy firms do not yet have adequate due diligence to prevent human rights abuse. Five out of these 50 companies have public commitments to respect free, prior and informed consent for indigenous peoples. But three out of these five companies are facing allegations that call their respect for these commitments into question. Our Investor Briefing, co-authored with Transform Finance and Sonen Capital, also highlights investors’ roles in driving this change.

The good news is that, through a lens of enlightened self-interest, it is both feasible and attractive for renewable energy companies to deliver robust human rights due diligence, including community consultation and consent. This should also include long-term shared benefits for affected communities so they have a clear stake in the projects’ future success. This will also protect indigenous communities and their lands, as well as enhance the companies’ stability and long-term returns for their investors. Governments should also ensure there are national level policies in place that guarantee respect for the right to land and free, prior, and informed consent for indigenous peoples and that respect for human rights is a core condition to new renewable energy projects being approved. Efforts by civil society and multilateral actors can play an important role in shaping these policies, such as the efforts by the Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy Platform and UNDP in India to support the inclusion of land rights for indigenous women in the Forest Rights Act in Jharkhand, as one example.

Our planet needs a fast transition to a low carbon economy. Renewables companies and their investors now face a stark choice in achieving this: either they gain the cooperation of communities affected, or they indulge in human rights abuse and accept the accompanying repression of legitimate protest and resistance that it generates. Renewables companies and their investors now have the opportunity to get this right upstream, as the expansion of their sector accelerates.

We believe there is an opportunity for forward-thinking renewable energy organisations and investors in places such as Silicon Valley to lead the way in win-win thinking that optimises for all stakeholders, and to co-create solutions in deep collaboration with indigenous peoples. This may be a moment for such investors to bend the arc of our world towards climate justice - leaving no one behind - in the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals. Perhaps there is a role for technology innovation that provides transparency and agency to communities affected by these projects. Perhaps there is a role for creative new policy measures as welcome investment in renewables increases across the globe.

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Radhika Shah is an Angel & Impact investor from silicon valley and CoPresident at Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs a community of over 1100 entrepreneurial Stanford students, faculty and alumni. She is an advisor to the Sustainable Development Goals Philanthropy Platform, co-founded the former Ashoka SV chapter and sits on the SVLeadership Council for Action for India, and is an advisor to Impact Experiences and Illumen Capital a Fund of Impact Funds.

Radhika sits on the International Advisory Network for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) and is also a founding member of the Tech Advisory group for BHRRC. Radhika holds a M.S, Computer Science from Stanford and an M.B.A from Berkeley.