When the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, it was the first time Indigenous Peoples’ rights were widely affirmed on a global scale. The Declaration contemplated not only the inextricable connection between Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods, culture, and land, but also their collective rights to decision-making and self-determination. Countries have integrated those rights into their domestic policies and laws at different levels, but the Declaration provides a minimum standard under which Indigenous Peoples’ rights can be considered. Moreover, Indigenous Peoples worldwide view the Declaration as the authoritative enumeration of their rights that guides their interactions with government or with business.

In general, corporate consideration of Indigenous Peoples and their human rights is often peripheral to business operations and, when considered, are generally relegated to an environmental compliance process. This means that the impacts of development on Indigenous communities are often only addressed during project implementation, or only after a violation of their rights has occurred. Such an approach detrimentally narrows the focus to remedy of harms already done rather than preventing violations at the outset.

As part of the growing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing movement, Indigenous Peoples have realized the cumulative power of building strategic alliances with concerned investors as an effective means to proactively protect their rights, as well as to integrate respect for their rights into corporate practice. These investors reach other impact-oriented investors to build coalitions that can elevate Indigenous leaders in strategies such as letter writing, speaking at industry events, direct dialogue with banks and corporations, and filing shareholder proposals.

Although Indigenous Peoples and investors have come together frequently over the last decade, few examples are as visible and powerful as what occurred during the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's opposition to construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on their treaty territory. In parallel to legal and international advocacy measures, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe activated a shareholder advocacy campaign targeted towards financial institutions funding pipeline construction. The Tribe, supported by a significant coalition of investors, sent a letter representing over $685 billion assets under management—the total market value managed on behalf of the investors’ clients—that elevated to those institutions the real-time impacts of corporate actors' failure to consider human rights during construction. After meeting with multiple institutions over the course of the campaign, several European banks pulled their commitments from the pipeline. Initially estimated to cost $3.8 billion, the pipeline cost more than $12 billion by the time it was operational in June 2017, losses accumulated from the long delays in construction due to social unrest and legal filings.

Engaging with investors and shareholders to elevate the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ rights is an increasingly critical avenue for advocacy and change, especially as companies and investors seek additional means to activate their own values aligning with social, environmental, and racial justice. Centering the rights of Indigenous Peoples is an imperative for companies who are seeking the best means not only to prevent human right violations but to activate greater respect for Indigenous Peoples by aligning their operations with Indigenous self-determination and well-being.

Read the full article about Indigenous rights and corporations by Carla F. Fredericks and Kate R. Finn at Stanford Social Innovation Review.