Financial institutions supporting violations of Indigenous rights

26 May 2021

Agribusiness, real estate, hospitality, mining and infrastructure projects pose significant threats to Indigenous rights and lands in Brazil, backed by significant financial sector investment, and with political moves underway to remove protections in favour of these sectors. 

Threats to Indigenous peoples go hand in hand with threats to biodiversity, the Amazon and Cerrado, and our climate. Financial institutions must take responsibility for the harmful impacts of their investments in these sectors.

Political moves reversing Indigenous protections

In Brazil today Indigenous peoples and their lands are under attack. A Bill of Law (PL) 490/2007 is currently on the agenda of the Constitution and Justice Commission (CCJ) which would allow the government, unilaterally, to remove the established possession of people's indigenous areas, open Indigenous Lands to exploitative activities, such as gold mining, and enable the automatic legalization of hundreds of illegitimate mining sites, linked to the spread of Covid-19 and malaria, mercury contamination, the pollution of springs and rivers, and the acceleration of deforestation. 

The bill also allows for large scale development of hydroelectric plants, mining, roads and large agricultural enterprises, without free, prior and informed consultation with affected communities. Finally one of the most serious aspects of bill PL 490/2007 is that it paves the way for the end of the policy of “no-contact” with isolated indigenous people. The bill proposes contact by agents of "public interest", which could be "public or private companies" contracted by the State, including businesses and religious missions.

It has been established for many decades that Indigenous peoples must have the option to maintain no contact with the State, or to do so at the time and in the manner they see fit. In return, the government must protect their territories from invaders and environmental degradation. These Indigenous groups are extremely vulnerable to unforeseen contacts and conflicts as they do not have immunological resistance to contagious diseases common among non-indigenous people, such as influenza and tuberculosis. In addition, they are usually in remote regions that are difficult to access, which can make emergency and lifesaving medical care extremely difficult.

Indigenous Peoples under threat

There are more than 300 indigenous ethnicities in Brazil, amounting to more than 800.000 people fighting for their rights, and of these about 36,2% live in cities. Even though indigenous people are increasingly gaining a voice in the public debate, as represented by Ailton Krenak, Davi Kopenawa, Raoni Metukitire and Sônia Guajajara, they still face significant threats.

Shockingly attacks on the rights of these indigenous peoples, including deliberate genocide, resource exploitation, and land grabbing are escalating. These are being further accelerated by President Bolsonaro’s government dismantling of environmental and human rights protections through Bill proposals such as PL 490/2007.

Financial institutions' links to violations

The financial sector is a key contributor to indigenous peoples' rights violations, though this doesn't tend to receive sufficient public attention.

There are a lack of policies within Brazil's financial institutions safeguarding indigenous rights, evident in the latest Fair Finance Guide Brazil bank policy assessments launched in February 2021. Under the Human Rights theme, the nine banks analyzed in Brazil received an average score of only 36%. The performance is even lower in the Mining and Food assessment categories where the average is just 29%.

In practical terms, the biggest banks operating in Brazil fail to comply with the minimum standards required by national and international norms. None ensure that the companies they invest in, whose operations affect indigenous people have secured free, prior and informed consent, as demanded by International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.

In addition to banks, other financial sector players also cause negative impacts. Financial brokers are at the center of illegal gold mining - also called “the new gold race in the Amazon”. Civil society organization Instituto Escolhas, published a study showing how securities and real estate distributors allow illegally extracted gold from indigenous lands to enter the market as if it was legal. Through these so-called “gold laundering” practices, illegal gold panning in Indigenous lands is now rapidly expanding. In Yanonami people’s lands for example it has increased by 30% in 2020, and has also contributed to the spread of Covid-19 and malaria. 

Last year Fair Finance International network shared damning research on the billions in European financing behind the Agribusiness companies deforesting the Amazon and Cerrado.

Shareholder Activism

Indigenous people are taking strategic action against the financial institutions funding these harmful activities. In 2019, Eloy Terena, President of Brazil's Indigenous Peoples Voice (APIB), bought shares in investor BlackRock, so that at its shareholder meeting he could denounce its agribusiness investments in deforestation-linked JBS and Bunge.

In the same year, the Guarani-Mbyá people from São Paulo state coast used the shareholder platform to denounce the company Rumo Logística for not complying with commitments to mitigate environmental and human rights impacts, when laying a railway through their territories. This shareholder activism has mobilized compliance and promoted other investor pressure. In addition, it opened engagement on monitoring companies’ compliance with environmental and human rights policies with the Federal Public Ministry, the government body responsible for oversight.

Use your 'shareholder vote'

Shareholder activism highlights the chain of responsibility between harmful corporate activities and the financial institutions that invest in those companies.

As customers of financial institutions we are all like shareholders - as it is our money being used by financial institutions to fund these corporations. You can use your voice to demand your bank puts in place responsible investment policies and practices, and stand in solidarity with Indigenous peoples under threat from political power brokering and corporate interests.

Send a bank a message today via the Fair Finance Guides in Belgium, Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Thailand.

Information in this article was first published by Fair Finance Brazil as part of their campaign for the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Photo credits to APIB.