BIC’s Policy Director testifies on the role of IFIs in Indigenous rights

In testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, BIC’s Policy Director urged the U.S. government to use its leadership role in the IFIs to support reform that protects the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

On November 20, 2020, BIC’s Policy Director Jolie Schwarz testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in a hearing on the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas. Led by Representatives James McGovern, Christopher Smith, and Deb Haaland, the hearing focused on the unique health, socioeconomic, and environmental challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples. The panelists underscored the essential role of Indigenous Peoples in environmental and cultural preservation, despite threats from governments, development projects, and private companies. The discussion highlighted ways the U.S. government can adopt both bilateral and multilateral policy solutions to protect Indigenous rights. 

The U.S. government has long been a champion for strong environmental and social standards at the IFIs, but protections for Indigenous Peoples continue to fall short. Congress should continue to assert a prominent leadership role in urging action from the Treasury Department as well as the IFIs themselves to demand the adoption of key institutional reforms to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas and around the world. Schwarz's testimony focused on the role of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in enforcing policies that protect the right to self-determination and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) in development projects. Schwarz provided four main recommendations for reform that the U.S. government and Congress should support. 

1. Rigorously implement protections for Indigenous Peoples. In response to pressure from the U.S. government, civil society, and Indigenous communities, the IFIs have significantly improved policies to avoid and mitigate risks to Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, these policies are not always implemented well and do not even apply to some lending instruments. Schwarz raised the issue of the IFIs applying lessons learned to future projects without providing remedy to communities that have already suffered harm. For example, BIC is supporting partners with complaints at the MICI regarding IDB Invest-supported hydroelectric dams in the Ixquisis region of Guatemala. Brian Keane from Land is Life also echoed the need for the U.S. to implement a development model that is based on human rights and strengthens implementation of the World Bank and regional development banks’ Indigenous Peoples policies. Additionally, Keane urged the U.S. to push the African Development Bank to develop a policy on Indigenous Peoples.

2. Apply protections to all financing mechanisms. Protections for Indigenous Peoples must apply to all of the IFI financing mechanisms, including development policy lending which will be integral to the COVID-19 response. Schwarz provided the example of a development policy loan in Colombia, which failed to consult with Indigenous Peoples, leading to violations of human rights and destruction of Indigenous land and culture. Moreover, they lacked institutional mechanisms to raise complaints. In response to questions from the committee, Schwarz addressed how focusing on MDBs can bring together legislative and diplomatic strategies. The U.S. should work alongside other governments in the multilateral space to come up with common standards and bring pressure to bear on other states to meet them. They  should also promote stronger enforcement of the standards themselves and enhance standards around supply chains. 

3. Provide clear guidance to address threats to communities. The IFIs must establish specific guidance and procedures for how to address reprisals against those who oppose development projects, especially Indigenous Peoples. Leonardo Crippa from the Indian Law Resource Center also emphasized the need for Indigenous Peoples to be development partners, not development victims. Thus, development projects should support, rather than undermine, land rights of Indigenous peoples. In questions about the unique impacts on children, Schwarz noted that when Indigenous communities are threatened by development projects, children’s education, health, and safety can be negatively affected. 

4. Establish a framework for remedial action at the IFC. BIC urges Congress to prompt the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to establish a framework for remedial action for communities harmed by projects. The issues surrounding the IFC-funded Fourth Transmission Line in Panama reinforce the need for the World Bank’s private-sector arm to consider the impact of it’s support on Indigenous communities. In addition, communities like those affected by the Chixoy Dam and other legacy projects supported by the IFIs that have inspired the adoption of protections for Indigenous Peoples, should have the opportunity to benefit from such a framework.

BIC appreciates the committee’s engagement to seek policy solutions that preserve the land and culture of Indigenous Peoples, as we emphasize the importance of development projects and policies that protect Indigenous rights. You can read Schwarz’s written testimony and watch the full hearing here