In 2014, the West African nation of Liberia faced an epidemic outbreak of Ebola, which claimed over 11,000 lives globally. To combat the spread of disease, Liberians were urged to stay home, wash hands frequently, and refrain from touching those who were suspected to be sick. During the height of the outbreak when public gatherings were banned, a prominent agribusiness company expanded its operations by convening community meetings and insisting villagers sign over thousands of hectares of their land, at a time when communities were unable to participate without risking deadly consequences.
Civil society cried foul, claiming the company was exploiting the crisis and acquiring communities’ land without their free, prior, informed consent – a right that is enshrined in both international law and the company’s own policies. Years later after the situation stabilized, these claims were affirmed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the certification body for the industry. In 2018, Golden Veroleum Liberia was ordered to halt its expansion and renegotiate its agreements with communities. By then, GVL had nearly doubled its land bank and cleared thousands of hectares of West Africa’s last standing forests.
Today, as we face a global pandemic, GVL’s shady dealings in Liberia serve as a cautionary tale of how powerful industries exploit crisis for short-term profit.
Around the world calls are intensifying for dangerous and destructive projects to be put on hold as communities’ health, and in some cases their survival, are threatened by COVID-19. In solidarity with Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon, international groups are pushing for a moratorium on mining, logging, oil extraction, and industrial agriculture in indigenous territories, as the spread of the virus could lead to ethnocide. Lest we forget, unprecedented fires set in order to expand agribusiness operations raged across the Amazon just six months ago.
From the Amazon to Indonesia, escalating annual fires from agribusiness are fueling the destruction of forests and biodiversity – an identified cause of zoonotic viruses such as COVID-19, as well as runaway climate change. New research showing the links between air pollution and an increase in coronavirus fatalities makes it clear: we should immediately halt the expansion of plantations and other extractive projects before 2020’s fires accelerate the devastation of communities’ lands.
The right to free, prior, informed consent is recognized in several international covenants from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People to the Guiding Principles on Business Human Rights – and yet it is vanishingly rare in practice. Ensuring that development projects and stimulus efforts adhere to this fundamental normative principle should be the starting point for recovery. This would place communities in the driver’s seat of the development process and steer our global economy away from the proliferation of extractive industries that are destabilizing our planet.
In the United States, where the rate of infection and calamity from COVID-19 continues to rise, CEOs of fossil fuel corporations met with President Trump seeking a massive government bailout. Rather than reckoning with the deepening climate crisis by transitioning to clean energy, the Trump Administration is allowing the fossil fuel industry to dictate gutting environmental laws, expanding oil subsidies, and drilling freely on public lands. In a time of tragedy and economic pain, stimulus efforts should support everyday people who are hurting – not failing oil, gas, and fracking companies.
Already, pipeline projects advancing across North America routinely and disproportionately harm Indigenous Peoples as their rights to free, prior, informed consent are rarely respected. In North Carolina, fossil fuel giants Dominion and Duke Energy are pushing through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which threatens the public health and livelihoods of four tribes including the Lumbee – the largest Native tribe east of the Mississippi.
Despite Native Americans being over-represented by a factor of ten along the North Carolina section of the pipeline route, tribal and other minority communities have been largely excluded from the decision-making process. Growing resistance to the pipeline has led two tribes to take their case to the Supreme Court, while resolutions supported by the National Congress of American Indians are calling for proper consultation with native nations.
The global pandemic is forcing us to examine our relationship to the world around us. We can no longer afford to do business as usual – where the impacts of the reigning economic system put peoples’ and the planet’s health at risk. In recovery, governments, development finance institutions, and investors alike must adhere to international laws that center and respect communities’ rights. They have a responsibility to work toward a healthier world– otherwise they risk being deemed non-essential.