By Mark Betancourt
First People’s Worldwide
In an open letter sent from a pan-Amazon meeting on climate change and Indigenous Peoples, Brazilian Indigenous leader declared, “we are tired of anthropologists, environmentalists, church-related organizations, and other specialists speaking for us and using us for their self-interest. Please respect our self-determination to make our own decisions.” This statement echoes the sentiments of Indigenous Peoples around the world as they struggle to make self-determination a central tenet of the Indigenous rights movement.
Among the most insidious challenges Indigenous leaders face is from organizations that claim to advocate for Indigenous communities but end up doing more harm than good.
Many non-Indigenous grantmaking and advocacy organizations try to address Indigenous problems through their own agendas, and without ever consulting the communities they are meant to support. Often these organizations receive funding while Indigenous groups are left to fend for themselves. Without the freedom and resources to make their own decisions, Indigenous Peoples remain essentially enslaved to outside interests.
The recent history of the Itika Guasu Guaraní in Bolivia, who are represented by their own organization, the Assembly of the Guaraní People of Itika Guasu (APG IG), is a prime example of the dangers of outside interference in Indigenous affairs, and demonstrates the enormous benefits of Indigenous self-determination.
In 1997, the Spanish oil and gas company Repsol began the exploration and drilling of massive gas reserves located in Guaraní territory. This was done without the community’s consent, and caused environmental damage that directly threatened the Guaraní way of life. APG IG enlisted the help of outside non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to defend their land rights. Because conflict with these organizations is a source of ongoing hardship for APG IG and its community, we have been asked not to name them here.
Despite Repsol’s clear violations of Bolivian law, the intermediary organizations advised APG IG not to take legal action against the company, claiming that any such effort would inevitably fail. APG IG later learned that the major funder of these organizations was also a consultant to Repsol, and that it was being funded by the Bolivian government, as well as other governments that stood to profit from Repsol’s operations.
This kind of experience is typical for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Outside NGOs supposedly acting on behalf of Indigenous Peoples siphon millions of dollars away from communities while pursuing agendas that often work against the communities’ best interests. In the meantime, Indigenous organizations like APG IG are often overlooked by funders, and ignored by governments, corporations and international development institutions.
But rather than give in to Repsol, APG IG’s board of directors consulted with Spain-based human rights organization Equipo Nizkor, which helped the community develop a long-term legal strategy for the Guaraní to retain control of their land. Equipo Nizkor also offered to provide training and education that would help the community make informed decisions about how to protect its sovereignty over its territory.
The original intermediary NGOs, who were supposed to be advocates for APG IG, immediately criticized this new strategy, and began withdrawing their support. With no access to funding of its own, APG IG was paralyzed. It was critical that the organization involve its entire community in decision-making, but there was no money for travel between the many remote Guaraní villages.
At that time First Peoples Worldwide, an Indigenous-led grantmaking organization based in the United States, provided APG IG with a grant of US$11,124 through its Keepers of the Earth Fund. With this relatively modest grant, the organization traveled to each of the villages, the community came together to make an informed decision, and APG IG was able to reach an agreement with Repsol and two other oil companies, British Gas and E&P, a representative of British Petroleum. The agreement officially recognized the Guaraní’s rights to their land and created an Itika Guasu Investment Fund of US$14.8 million to benefit Guaraní communities in the region.
Clearly, relationships with outside advocacy organizations can be of vital importance to Indigenous groups. Without the expertise of Equipo Nizkor, APG IG could not have made an informed decision about its community’s future. Without First Peoples Worldwide, the community could not have raised the funding it needed on its own. But unlike the intermediaries that tried to sabotage APG IG’s efforts, Equipo Nizkor and First Peoples Worldwide did not attempt to make any decisions for the Guaraní. In the end, the community was able to use tools provided by its allies to choose its own course.
“The thing to retain here is that no NGO may replace the Indigenous authorities,” says Gregorio Dionis, president of Equipo Nizkor, speaking through an interpreter.
“We give a lot of importance to the legal strategy and to the training and education of community members,” he says. “As a consequence you get empowerment and consolidation of the structure of the community.”
As in the case of APG IG, corporations can become allies to Indigenous communities when both parties have equal footing. First Peoples Worldwide not only provides grants directly to Indigenous organizations, it also engages with corporations, educating companies about Indigenous communities and issues while giving them an opportunity to contribute positively to Indigenous development by funding our grants.
First Peoples Worldwide has had tremendous success with its Traditional and Contemporary Self Governance initiative, funded by Shell in 2011, which awarded grants to communities that are taking steps to enhance their internal decision-making processes. In funding this initiative, Shell had clear intentions to support Indigenous self-determination, forge closer relationships with Indigenous communities, and garner lessons that could inform interactions between Indigenous Peoples and outside entities in the future. Nearly $200,000 was granted to 18 communities, and the results of their projects will form a webinar that will be distributed to Shell, the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as to Indigenous groups worldwide.
APG IG has shown that successful community development depends not on where funding comes from, but on the framework of values and strategies with which it is given. Any funder that supports the community’s right to make its own decisions, whether it is a foreign NGO, a government, or a corporation, can be an invaluable ally to the community. On the other hand, even the most well-intentioned organization will inevitably cause more harm than good if it fails to respect the community’s wishes and its right to determine its own future.