Indigenous People Must Lead World to Sustainability

Rebecca Adamson’s TED Talk dominates Times Square in New York.

Indigenous People Must Lead World to Sustainability

Rebecca Adamson’s decision to close First Peoples Worldwide by year’s end is an opportunity for other organizations to take over innovative and compelling projects intended to restore to Indigenous Peoples their rightful position of leadership in today’s troubled world.

Adamson, Cherokee Nation, tells ICTMN, “Whether we like it or not the simple truth is that Indians have to become leaders beyond their own communities. We have to get out there and we have to start leading now. There’s no choice.”

What we see in today’s Western societies, she says, “is fear-based — a scarcity of resources and individuals with insatiable appetites. When you look at an indigenous economy that’s survived for tens of thousands of years you see [an assumption] of prosperity and a kinship-based sense of enoughness. In one economy you hoard and you compete and you beat your competition down. In the other economy you share and you collaborate. One of them will sustain and be sustainable and the other won’t.”

Adamson, an economist, founded First Nations Development Institute in 1980. In 1997, she and her daughter turned the FNDI project First Peoples Worldwide into an independent entity and went global.

One component of the new organization was the Keepers of the Earth Fund, which has awarded more than $2.1 million in small grants to 579 communities in 62 countries. From that, grantees have leveraged $16 million in funding, just one example of how Adamson’s vision of indigenous capacity has played out.

“I am so fed up with philanthropy constantly nickel and diming indigenous projects,” she says. “We get the scraps and the bottom of the barrel. And they go, ‘Ahh, well, you know, indigenous capacity.’ But here you’ve got a program that just made little tiny grants but we’ve leveraged over $16 million. What’s that about capacity?”

Finding Keepers of the Earth a new home probably will not be difficult, Adamson says. There are a number of options, including having the original backer take over, possibly under the guidance of a group of indigenous advisors. “The conversation has always been around the best way to continue the small grants. It’s not about not doing it, it’s really more about the best way to do it,” says Adamson.

Another project, Shareholder Advocacy Leadership Training (SALT) “is the second piece that’s very straightforward because we have the curriculum designed, we’ve been doing this now for a number of years and people have gone through the training [including at the United Nations],” she says. “Two First Nations groups are in conversation with us to take over SALT, where we’re training our leadership and communities on how to document corporate behavior in your territories and how to either be a shareholder themselves if they want to go buy the stock or how to build a platform of investors who will work side by side with Indigenous Peoples to uphold their rights.”

The piece that remains unclaimed, however, is a research project that has the potential to profoundly change the global marketplace and with that global politics.

“We looked at 52 publicly-held oil, gas and mining companies in the United States. And we looked at where they were operating and found that 330 sites are on indigenous lands. Thirty-six percent of the current oil, gas and mining production, over a third of today’s production, is all taking place on indigenous land. And if you look at what they call future reserves, it’s 47 percent. So almost half of the world’s production is going to be on our lands.”

FPW looked at the 330 sites and assigned a risk value from 1 (low) to 5 (extremely high) to each project based on how the company dealt with indigenous rights. Did they work with indigenous leaders to mitigate environmental and social consequences? Did they have informed prior consent for the project? How well did the country in which the project was located protect Indigenous Peoples?

FPW’s risk assessments turned out to be spectacularly accurate. Within a week of the report coming out, two of the companies to which FWP had assigned 5s imploded. People were arrested, assets dissolved, Indigenous Peoples won the ensuing lawsuits, and FPW’s phones were ringing off the hook as investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and the research companies that analyzed risk for shareholders called to get more information and ask about methodology.

It turned out that not only did projects with good relationships with their indigenous hosts present less risk to shareholders, the research also found “that the companies that upheld indigenous rights outperformed [the others]. They had a 4.3 percent higher rate of return on their investment than those companies that were violating our rights,” says Adamson. “That’s the kind of stuff that changes markets. The World Bank, U.S. Treasury, USAID, they’re all looking at the facts on this.”

Indigenous Peoples who control the lands on which 47 percent of extractive industries will need to work therefore have tremendous power to influence global politics – and with that the values that inform those politics.

But a lot more work needs to be done in this area. “We’re still looking at where to house this research because markets change, there’s mergers and acquisitions and we only did the U.S.,” says Adamson. “We need [still] to do either the Canadian or the European market and we’re not going to be able to do that this year. If my health had been OK I would have probably hung in for a couple more years. But I can’t travel to these sites anymore. So we’ve decided that given our timeline to look for someone to take over.”

One possibility is for the project to go to academia, possibly to a Canadian university where there are a lot of First Nations students, or to a U.S. institution, such as Arizona or Colorado.

Another is for it to go to a private company. “We really thought this research, the intellectual property on it, could be a gold mine. That would have taken some young entrepreneur that wanted to start a company and look at selling this kind of data because nobody else knew how to get it. It’s completely new data sets. Now we’ve cracked the mold. We know how to do it,” says Adamson.

But, “I still like the idea of it being in a university because I like the idea of information being free. Everything I’ve ever done around intellectual property has been out in the public domain so people can use it. It’s brilliance coming out of our community anyway. It’s Indigenous Peoples’ brilliance is what it is. Nobody can own that.”

Adamson’s plans for the future include writing “a book or a pamphlet or a brochure… A book is as intimidating as all get out,” she laughs. She also intends to expand her advisory role – she is currently on the board of the Calvert Social Investment Fund – to help to transition FPW’s projects into their next incarnations and to continue to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Indigenous Peoples.

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