On July 6, 2020, the Inter-American Development Bank’s Board of Directors approved the second draft of its “Environmental and Social Policy Framework,”1 a set of 10 policies addressing environmental and social concerns, commonly referred to as “safeguard policies.” In doing so, the IDB launched the second phase of the policy review process, which entails online public consultations for a period of 30 days.2 Based on relevant public input, IDB Management will produce a final draft of the Policy Framework and submit it to the Board of Directors for final approval. The policy will ultimately shape public development finance in Latin America and the Caribbean for decades to come.
The indigenous peoples policy, the IDB “Environmental and Social Standard 7 Indigenous Peoples,” is perhaps the most contested policy under review. A diverse range of external stakeholders engaged in heated discussions about this particular policy—indigenous peoples and organizations, conservationist organizations, human rights groups, “bank-watchers,” development finance experts, women organizations, and academics.
Although these stakeholders vary in their personal convictions and professional training, everyone agrees on the need to preserve indigenous peoples’ collectively-held lands. These lands are critical both for indigenous peoples’ physical and cultural survival, as well as for environmental protection and climate change resistance. These views are reflected in the feedback from the region’s indigenous peoples3 and civil society organizations4 regarding the IDB’s first draft of the indigenous peoples policy.
These stakeholders encouraged the IDB to financially support borrowing countries’ projects aimed at preserving indigenous lands via surveying, titling or registry procedures. Stakeholders also asked the IDB not to support projects aimed at dividing lands via individual titling. All stakeholders understood that public policies that break up collectively-held indigenous lands for development purposes is a bad practice. Projects with such policies break indigenous peoples special attachment to their lands and threaten their continued existence as a distinct people within existing nation-states.
Shockingly, instead of devising a policy provision that creatively addressed such input, the IDB decided to copy a World Bank provision that directly opposes it. Indeed, this provision allows borrowing countries to convert collective property land rights to individual ownership.5 Mysteriously, in the same way that the World Bank proceeded in the second phase of its policy review process,6 the IDB included this provision in the second draft of its indigenous peoples policy;7 it did not appear in the first draft at all.8 Indigenous peoples and experts strongly critiqued the World Bank’s approach at that time and opposed the provision.9 Regrettably, it was too late in the policy review process to reverse such a drastic change.
Many questions emerge. Why is the IDB following the World Bank’s tactic in proposing this change in the second draft? Is the strategy to avoid discussion following the first draft? What are the internal forces in the IDB (and the World Bank) that pushed for this policy shift? Is this what member countries actually want? Is this the opinion of an IDB “field expert?” Is it perhaps the same “field expert” that swayed the World Bank?
This alteration in the indigenous peoples policy is drastic and damaging. From a policy perspective, it contradicts all six objectives of the IDB indigenous peoples policy, and it undermines the entire Policy Framework’s safeguards aimed at protecting the environment and fighting climate change. Legally, the proposed policy contributes to the state violation of all international human rights treaties and declarations protecting indigenous peoples’ collective ownership rights to their lands, territory and resources. Finally, it contradicts several countries’ land titling procedures aimed at recognizing collective land ownership to indigenous peoples. For example, in the United States, the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) ended the process of individual allotment of Indian lands.10
This policy change is so radical that it deserves an explanation and an opportunity for debate. This cannot be adequately addressed via online consultations that do not provide space for real questions and answers. Stakeholders deserve answers. In order to preserve the policy review process’ transparency and legitimacy, the IDB should hold a meeting with stakeholders to discuss the policy’s second draft and pursue creative solutions as in the past. If time does not allow for this, the IDB should remove the divisive provision and revise the policy draft to reflects the input provided by both indigenous peoples and civil society organizations from the region.