President’s Message | August 2011

Our program to advocate for indigenous peoples affected by multilateral development banks is a cornerstone of the work at the Indian Law Resource Center.  This project began in the late 1970s when the Center represented the Yanomami people of Brazil. The Yanomami lived a peaceful and self-sufficient life, with no ties to the global economy, until Brazil received money from the World Bank to build a road through their territory.  The road unleashed chaos within the Yanomami communities.  Road workers brought malaria and many Yanomami died because they had no resistance to the disease.  The road provided access for miners and loggers to reach Yanomami territory for the first time, bringing pollution and damaging the delicate ecosystem that fed the Yanomami and provided them with medicines.  For many Yanomami women, prostitution became a way to avoid starvation but often left them sick and abused.  The Center worked with the Yanomami people to gain recognition and protection of the right to own and control their homeland, which culminated in an agreement with Brazil to protect and demarcate lands for the Yanomami.

With this case, we showed the World Bank that ignoring the rights of indigenous peoples when investing in development projects hurts communities and individuals. Additionally, projects that violate indigenous peoples’ rights are often bitterly opposed and become massively expensive.  As the United States taxpayers own about 20% of the World Bank’s stock and contribute more than $2 billion to the bank each year, the U.S. has a stake in seeing that the World Bank avoids violating the rights of indigenous peoples.

Since our work with the Yanomami, the Center has continued to demand that the World Bank adopt strong policies on the rights of indigenous peoples.  We have seen the World Bank take significant strides in the past 30 years.  In 1982, it adopted the first development bank policy on indigenous peoples, recognizing how projects that affect indigenous peoples can lead to harm and even destruction of entire communities.  In 1991 and 2004, the World Bank updated the policy.  Since 2004, however, the World Bank has failed to keep up with advances in human rights.  The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007, calls for recognition of a full range of rights for indigenous peoples including the right to decide whether their lands are developed.  In comparison, the current World Bank policy on indigenous peoples, OP 4.10 only requires developers to discuss plans with indigenous peoples, with no requirement for their consent.  As the World Bank updates its safeguard policies, including the policy on indigenous peoples, we will insist that the World Bank strengthen its policy on indigenous peoples.  Within the next few months, we will ask for your support to show the World Bank that a strong indigenous peoples’ policy is important.

Climate change has added a new dimension to this work.  At the last global climate negotiation held in December, 2010, the world’s leaders made a plan to invest $100 billion per year in green energy and forests beginning in 2020.  The most common name for these forest investment programs is REDD+, which stands for Reduction in Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.  The idea behind REDD+ is that countries in the north, like the United States and France, should pay countries in the south, like Mexico and Indonesia, to conserve their forests.  While standing forests trap carbon and help to slow global warming, forests that are burned or logged release carbon into the atmosphere.  What concerns many indigenous peoples about REDD+ is that they own or live within much of the world’s standing forests.  Often they lack legal title to their lands.  Without legal title, their lands are open to takeover by governments, conservation groups, or others who wish to receive money through a REDD+ program.  If REDD+ programs do not have strong policies preventing this type of abuse, indigenous communities in REDD+ countries are likely to lose their lands and rights to their forests, leaving them in a similar position to the Yanomami people in the 1970s.  The Center has recently engaged the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the UN-REDD Programme to encourage them to do the right thing for indigenous peoples.  We are also collaborating with human rights and environmental organizations to build a strong case for the importance of human rights and indigenous peoples’ rights within the discussions around climate chang and REDD+.  We look forward to your support in this important work.


Robert T. Coulter


Carbon:  A chemical element present in all known life forms. Carbon Dioxide is called a “greenhouse gas” because it accumulates in the Earth’s atmosphere and traps energy from the sun that would otherwise be reflected back to space.

Development:  Initiatives, projects and activities intended to add to the wealth and well-being of a nation.  Examples of development projects include power plants, mines, highways and hospitals.

Forest Carbon Facility Partnership (FCPF):  An organ of the World Bank’s Carbon Finance Unit.  It is operating in thirty-seven countries, including: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Suriname.  Its purposes are to help developing countries to prepare to sell environmental services (called “carbon credits”) in the form of forest conservation efforts, and eventually to facilitate sales of environmental services between developed and developing countries.

Multilateral Development Banks:  International banks that provide loans to countries to develop their economies and offer services to their citizens.

REDD+:  Conservation programs designed to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere by encouraging developing countries to protect existing forests and create new tree plantations.

UN-REDD Programme:  A collaboration of three U.N. agencies, U.N. Development Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the U.N. Environment Programme.  Its focus is on helping developing countries to create governmental mechanisms to enable them to sell environmental services in the form of forest conservation efforts.

World Bank:  A multilateral development bank based in Washington D.C. that was created to restart the world’s economies following World War II.  Its current mission is to end poverty.  The World Bank provides countries more than $50 billion in loans each year.

Yanomami people:  An indigenous people of the Amazon, with communities in the countries of Brazil and Venezuela. The Yanomami People avoid significant contact with the world outside of the Amazon in order to maintain their ways of life.