The US government has failed to adequately consult with Indigenous Peoples and gain their consent for extraction, energy, and infrastructure projects on their lands, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, said in a press release. This violates the United States’ commitment under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz recently concluded an official visit to the United States to assess how the country is upholding the rights of Native Americans. She will present a full report on her findings to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017.
The Special Rapporteur focused her visit on extraction and infrastructure projects, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would cross the Missouri River 500 meters from the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and threaten the Sioux’s water source. The tribe was not consulted or informed about the effects of the pipeline during the planning stage, and the original environmental assessment completely omitted the reservation as well as historic treaty lands. Although the final assessment recognized the tribe’s presence, it dismissed the risks and continued to ignore treaty lands.
The Sioux’s resistance to the pipeline demonstrates a growing trend among Indigenous Peoples and local communities around the world: many are forming alliances with other Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists, and activist groups to raise awareness of their plight. Many of these groups care deeply about the rights of the world’s marginalized peoples, as well as the benefits that secure land rights bring not only to communities but also to the global struggle against climate change. The Sámi Parliament of Norway successfully advocated for Norway’s largest bank, DNB, to divest from the pipeline, and other banks followed suit. In December, the Obama administration denied a permit to move forward with the project. The Special Rapporteur expressed deep concern that the current administration has reversed this decision.
While the Sioux’s story has been widely reported on in the media, the Special Rapporteur found a pattern of inadequate consultation in the US’s relationship with Native Americans. She concluded that many of the challenges facing Native Americans today are rooted in a long history of land and resource dispossession. The poverty and conflicts plaguing the Great Sioux Reservation are in part due to the Pick-Sloan project, approved in the 1940s without community consent, which ultimately flooded hundreds of miles of fertile tribal land and displaced thousands of Native Americans. The United States government continues to approve energy projects on reservation lands without the consent or input of tribal governments, despite its commitments to consult with them. “The breakdown of communication and lack of good faith involvement in the review of federal projects has left tribal governments functionally unable to participate in consequential dialogue with the United States on projects affecting their lands, territories, and resources,” the Special Rapporteur said in her end of mission statement.
The impacts on indigenous water supplies—which can be contaminated by fracking and drilling—are of particular concern. “For Indigenous Peoples, water provides life, subsistence, and has undeniable spiritual significance,” the Special Rapporteur said. Even in protected native lands and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Mount Taylor and Chaco Canyon, the government is considering mining and oil projects that would “desecrate these landscapes and the indigenous lifeways,” the Special Rapporteur said. “The federal government, rather than the Indigenous People concerned, has final approval authority over the exploration and development of these areas.”
Native peoples living on oil rich lands have also faced increased violence against women as temporary workers flood their homelands. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale region, “the influx of oil and gas workers to the area coincided with a dramatic increase in violent crime and an incredible increase of human trafficking of Native women and children,” the Special Rapporteur said.
Where Indigenous Peoples’ land and resource rights are threatened by extractive activities, they have the right to protest free from reprisals and violence. Yet the Special Rapporteur received reports that Indigenous Peoples were criminalized for their resistance, particularly during their struggle to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While protests have been almost completely peaceful, local law enforcement and private security have responded with military force.
However, the Special Rapporteur did note some signs of improvement, and praised a January 2017 report from the Department of the Interior, the Department of the Army, and the Department of Justice on improving consultation with tribes.
She was also encouraged by the entrepreneurial efforts of many of the tribes she met with. “Indian tribes are owners and operators of new and emerging technologies, breaking the mold of reliance on outside entities,” the Special Rapporteur said. She added that Indigenous Peoples want more control over their energy resources, as well as overall self-determination over their lands, territories, and resources.
The Special Rapporteur urged the government to respect and protect these rights. She also recommended that the government require a full environmental impact assessment for pipelines and other projects that impact Indigenous Peoples’ rights, develop stronger government-to-government relations with tribes, and standardize principles for meaningful consultation to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples.