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June 10, 2004
The Emergence Story Behind Indigenous Peoples Rights Screens
    by William Baue

Socially responsible investment firms also engage in shareowner action on indigenous peoples rights issues.


Corporate exploitation of natural resources and the flouting of indigenous peoples (IPs) rights are often inextricably connected. To address this link, the socially responsible investment (SRI) industry created indigenous peoples rights screens that assess corporate impacts on indigenous people's sovereignty, cultural heritage, and natural resource rights, among other issues. The "emergence story" behind the screens is rooted in the clash between corporate and indigenous people's interests, and the resulting collateral damage.

In the winter of 1999, US humanitarian workers traveled to Colombia to help set up a tribal school for the U'wa people, who were embattled with oil companies drilling on their sacred ancestral lands. The oil companies paid the Colombian government for security forces, whose presence heightened tensions with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a leftist guerilla organization known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

"On February 25, 1999, two of my colleagues, Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'eane Gay, who were both Native women, along with Terence Frietas, were kidnapped by FARC rebel forces," said Rebecca Adamson, founding president of First Nations Development Institute, an organization that helps IPs control and develop their assets. "They were assassinated on March 4th."

"This was the backdrop against which we introduced the IP screen at the 1999 SRI in the Rockies Conference," Ms. Adamson told SocialFunds.com.

Ms. Adamson, who is a trustee of the Calvert Social Investment Fund (CSIF), worked with the Calvert Group, as well as other CSIF trustees and the CSIF Advisory Council, to develop the screen.

"We researched all of the international treaties that had any section pertaining to IPs, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, and distilled all of the rights identified through these international instruments into the ten basic criteria for the investment screen," Ms. Adamson said.

Later that year, Calvert introduced its IPs rights screen, which assesses three broad areas: impacts on such issues as self-determination, land, and intellectual property; offensive portrayal of IPs; and development of management policies guiding interaction with IPs.

In 2000, KLD Research & Analytics, an SRI research firm that similarly assessed indigenous people's rights under other screens, launched its own IPs rights screen, which is very similar to Calvert's, according to Liz Umlas, a senior research analyst at KLD. Toronto-based Michael Jantzi Research Associates (MJRA) also shared information on its aboriginal rights screen as a model for KLD.

Accessibility to information is the biggest challenge in applying IP rights screens. The areas are remote and getting accurate information is expensive and difficult. Even where information is available, there may be questions on the credibility or reliability of such information.

Besides screening, Calvert also engages in shareowner action on IP rights, initiating dialogue with companies in its portfolio when research identifies problems. If dialogue proves fruitless, Calvert files shareowner resolutions. For example, this proxy season Calvert filed a resolution with Calpine (ticker: CPN) asking the company to halt development of geothermal power plants on IP's sacred ancestral lands, and to develop a formal policy on IP rights.

"While Calvert would in most cases view such [environmentally preferable] development favorably, the area is critically important for the spiritual healing and religious practices of some American Indians, such as the Pit River Tribe," states Calvert's Spring 2004 Impact newsletter. "Establishing a geothermal energy project in Medicine Lake Highlands is much like extracting resources on the grounds of a cathedral, mosque, or temple."

The resolution garnered 4.34 percent support from voting shareowners, successfully surpassing the 3 percent threshold required to refile the resolution next proxy season.

Unfortunately, Calvert's stringent environmental screens often exclude extractive industry companies. Because it does not become a shareowner, Calvert is prevented from directly engaging with these companies.

Trillium Asset Management, which also screens for IP rights, can circumvent this limitation.

"Unlike most SRI mutual funds, since we manage individual accounts, we are often in a position to engage in activism at companies that wouldn't pass our screens--companies owned by clients before we begin to manage their portfolios," said Shelley Alpern, Trillium's director of social research and advocacy. "For various reasons--sometimes even for the very purpose of doing activism--some of our clients will hold on to such companies."

 

 
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