BlackRock Must Commit to Indigenous Rights – Not Just Climate Change

I've lost count of the number of times, working as a journalist across Latin America, that I've met, spoken to, or heard from or about Indigenous peoples and other local communities struggling in some way with a company in which the world's largest asset manager, BlackRock, was an investor.

The Secoya, Kichwa and Matsés in Peru; the Siona and U'wa in Colombia; the Cofán and Waorani in Ecuador; and the Maya Mams and Maya Sipacapenses in the highlands of western Guatemala. . . It's almost always the same: either desperately trying to keep some oil, gas or gold mining company or other out of their territories, or forced to deal with the appalling consequences of ongoing or even long-ago terminated operations.

Not that any of those Indigenous peoples seemed to be obviously aware that BlackRock, based in New York, was connected in any way to the problems facing them. Some years back, when I tried to explain the asset manager to a Machiguenga man whose tiny village in the remote southeast Peruvian Amazon had been caught up in a massive gas development, known as, the "Camisea project," he said, "You mean, it's like a bank?"

For some slightly absurd reason, I found myself translating BlackRock's name into Spanish, as if that would make what I was trying to express more comprehensible. "It'd be something like ‘Piedra Negra,'" I said. The Machiguenga man looked at me nonplussed. Put like that, the asset manager sounded even more unaccountable, mysterious and ominously powerful.

But in January something very unusual — although not unprecedented — happened: instead of directly lobbying the companies operating in their territories, some Indigenous people from one Latin American country appealed to BlackRock instead. The Articulacao dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), a Brazilian federation representing eight organizations, wrote to CEO Larry Fink accusing BlackRock of investing in companies involved in "illegal deforestation and human rights violations, land grabbing, and increased carbon emissions from fires," and urging it to adopt a "Forest and Indigenous Rights Policy" respecting Indigenous rights to land, self-determination and free, prior and informed consent.

Referring to a report that it co-published with US NGO Amazon Watch last year, APIB told Fink it had already "showed that BlackRock is financially enabling at least nine companies directly or indirectly implicated in land grabbing and other abuses of Indigenous peoples' land rights in the Amazon." Those companies included the US-based Cargill, an agribusiness company, and UK-headquartered Anglo-American, a transnational mining firm.

"In Brazil the operations of corporations like the ones we mention above, into which BlackRock directs substantial investments on behalf of clients, have profound negative impacts on our communities, our forests, and the climate," APIB wrote. "You therefore have a responsibility for our future. And if the Amazon is destroyed, the future of the entire planet is at risk."

After a long time trying, the Brazilians recently held a meeting with BlackRock. "They continue to be one of the biggest funders of Amazon destruction," APIB's Luiz Eloy Terena tells me. "We believe they have outsized complicity in destruction and are well aware of the destruction and Indigenous rights violations they are complicit in."

Some people — perhaps even BlackRock employees or their clients, so far removed from the daily heartbreak and horror to which their investments contribute — might wonder why a New York-based asset manager needs an Indigenous rights policy. There are any number of arguments. In addition to BlackRock's own bottom-line and reputational risk, as well as the example it would set to others, there is the need for financial institutions to assume far greater responsibility for their investments because of the way that governments and companies so routinely violate Indigenous rights.

There is also the fight against climate change to consider, on which BlackRock is positioning itself as a global financial leader. A letter from Fink to company CEOs in January discussed it more than anything else, but they're not going to get very far in that effort if, among other things, they don't respect Indigenous rights. You can't do the one without the other. That is because of the now widely recognized crucial contribution that Indigenous peoples play in managing land sustainably, preserving biodiversity and reducing deforestation, which in a seminal report in 2019 led to the UN identifying the world's Indigenous peoples as a "key actor" in combatting climate change, together with governments, scientists, the private sector and several others.

As the then UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, put it to me so pithily in an interview with The Guardian four years ago, Indigenous peoples are "the best guardians of the world's forests and biodiversity. Studies show that where Indigenous Peoples have secure rights to their lands, carbon storage is higher and deforestation is lower."

Gaurav Madan, from Friends of the Earth-U.S., is another who emphasizes that BlackRock, which reportedly controls more than $8 trillion in assets, should adopt an Indigenous rights policy for climate change reasons.

"BlackRock is the largest investor in the industries driving the climate crisis and has often defined itself as Wall Street's conscience," he says. "It's already putting itself out there as the guiding light on climate change and while the rhetoric has been encouraging, the reality has been disappointing. I don't think they have a grasp at all of their responsibilities or their impact when it comes to respecting Indigenous peoples' and local communities' rights."

Does anyone at BlackRock understand the importance of respecting Indigenous rights in the climate change battle? They don't give that impression. Neither Fink's CEOs letter, nor a more recent letter from its Global Executive Committee to clients, nor a briefing on "climate risk" released late last month, nor updated "investment stewardship" guidelines issued on 18 March once mentioned the word "Indigenous," while a statement early last year on agribusiness just lumped "Indigenous peoples" together with other so-called "social factors" such as "product traceability" and "antibiotics in animal raising."

In a commentary also released on 18 March on "natural capital" BlackRock did at least state that it is "important for companies to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples for initiatives that affect their rights," as well as making passing mention of "locations where biological diversity is greater" tending "to be inhabited by indigenous and traditional peoples." However, it cited a more-than-20-year-old report as a source for that latter assertion. All this is a long, long way from seeing Indigenous peoples, as the UN has come to do, as a "key actor."

When I put that question about Indigenous environmental stewardship and climate change to BlackRock I didn't get a straight answer, and when I asked if they were going to heed APIB's demand for an Indigenous rights policy I didn't get any answer at all. All a spokesperson would say was: "We recognize the importance of companies respecting indigenous peoples' rights from a number of different perspectives. Climate change and how companies monitor and manage their impacts on people, including indigenous peoples, are topics we actively engage and vote on in our role as stewards of our clients' capital."

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