TOPICS : Partnership with World Bank follows a rocky road

Marty Logan

The 2004 session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has demonstrated again how far the planet’s native peoples and World Bank officials must still travel before they become full allies in development. While representatives of the two groups sat together during the past two weeks in various meetings and discussions, the results were often mixed. The Forum, set up three years ago as the only full-time body advising the UN on indigenous issues, ends Friday, just weeks before the World Bank’s policy committee is to consider a revised draft of its policy on indigenous peoples.

A meeting Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN event was intended to discuss indigenous peoples’ concerns about legal issues, particularly the Bank’s performance in following international human rights law. But it took a wrong turn before participants even entered the room, with many indigenous leaders receiving just a few days notice of the event before they left their homes at the beginning of May for the Forum gathering at UN headquarters in New York, leaving them no time to consult with their constituents. Then, the meeting’s date was changed. Officials told Wednesday’s gathering of more than a dozen indigenous representatives that they needed to submit the draft policy to the Bank’s committee on development effectiveness (CODE) by Friday, so it could be considered at a June 7 meeting, leaving just a few days for input from indigenous peoples.

Relations between indigenous people and the World Bank appeared more promising at the 2003 Forum meeting. Bank Vice-President Ian Johnson announced the institution’s Global Fund for Indigenous Peoples, which would have three parts: training for indigenous leaders in Latin America, direct funding for small-scale development projects by indigenous peoples, and 150,000 dollars to help the fledgling Forum operate. But one year later, the Forum has yet to receive the money.

The Facility’s interim board is composed of six indigenous people and two World Bank staff. Bank officials told last week’s meeting it will be replaced by a full-time board, with a majority of indigenous members, by Jan. 1, 2005. That body will be completely independent of the Bank by June 2006, they added. To date, the interim board has awarded 21 grants worth 357,000 dollars, and the Bank is trying to attract funding partners, starting with Norway and Canada, added officials.

Many indigenous people are also waiting to see if the Bank fulfils the principles laid out in something called the Extractive Industries Review, an independent report commissioned by the Bank that recommends that the institution stop funding extractive industries, including oil, gas and mining, by 2008 and switch its backing to alternative energy sources. The report recommends that the Bank “ensure that borrowers and clients engage in consent processes with indigenous peoples and local communities directly affected by oil, gas, and mining projects, to obtain their free, prior and informed consent.” Despite recent setbacks, indigenous peoples have made enormous gains at the World Bank in the 13 years since its indigenous policy was adopted, says one advocate. — IPS