Politics of Poverty

New research highlights more human rights commitments from oil and mining companies

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Advances in rhetoric must be matched by practice

Indigenous people hold their own consultation in Guatemala. Photo by Oxfam.










Watch a panel discussion on Oxfam’s Community Consent Index Report featuring the authors here.

This year, Oxfam has written about protests and conflicts near oil and mining projects operated by companies both large (like US-based Newmont and Switzerland-based Xstrata) and small (like the Ghanaian company Solar Mining). New examples are cropping up frequently. Just this month, indigenous communities stopped production of nine Maple Gas oil wells in the northern Peruvian Amazon over alleged pollution. The leader of the affected Canaan de Cachiyacu communities stated that they were not consulted prior to oil development. Also this month in Peru, the Canadian oil company Talisman Energy—which has drawn criticism from some environmental NGOs for failing to secure indigenous peoples’ consent—withdrew from its concession in the northern Amazon.

Given this context, it may not be surprising that some oil and mining companies are beginning—at least on paper—to recognize that they benefit from strong human rights and community engagement policies. My colleague Marianne Voss and I recently completed research that surveyed the human rights policies of 28 oil, gas, and mining companies with a particular focus on the issue of community consent—looking closely at whether company policies required local community approval prior to implementing projects. This research followed and expanded on a similar report that Oxfam America produced in 2009.

The research, titled the Community Consent Index, found that five companies with a total market cap of $180.58 billion (Inmet, Newmont, Rio Tinto, Talisman, and Xstrata) have made explicit public commitments to attaining Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC), a number which has doubled since the 2009 report. Another eight companies (including Anglo American, BP, Repsol, and others) have made somewhat qualified or indirect commitments to FPIC. Overall, two-thirds of the companies reviewed have incorporated in their policies concepts related to community consent, community support, or social license. Increasingly companies are recognizing and embracing the business case for community consent.

The research also looked more broadly at oil and mining company adoption of public human rights commitments and policies, and findings suggest that it is now standard practice for companies to commit to protecting human rights. All but two of the 28 companies reviewed have made explicit commitments to human rights, and all but five have made explicit commitments to indigenous peoples’ rights. Just over half of the companies surveyed have reported developing a human rights policy, with eleven companies making their human rights policy publicly available and six of those companies also publishing implementation guidelines.

As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples this month, it is encouraging to see increasing company commitments to FPIC – a right for indigenous peoples that is enshrined in the declaration. However, there’s much more work to be done, not only in terms of strengthening company policies, but also towards the goal of improving implementation of consultations with communities. (Our report doesn’t attempt to measure implementation against policy). We hope that communities impacted by mining or oil projects will use the report to monitor implementation and report cases where policies have not been followed.

Consultations should aim to achieve community consent and empower communities to make decisions about the use of their lands and natural resources. In a separate piece of research, Oxfam has looked at three consultation experiences in Peru and Bolivia that resulted in agreements between indigenous peoples and company or government representatives, and has identified some interesting lessons learned. Of course, effective implementation of consultations remains a critical challenge.

Though the trends we are seeing on paper are positive, there remains much to be done both on the policy and on the implementation front. Let’s hope that with the next iteration of Oxfam’s Community Consent Index in two years we see many more oil and mining company commitments to community consent, as well as more public human rights policies and implementing guidelines.

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