After today’s meeting with representatives of so-called indigenous groups, Pope Francis said that such groups should be allowed to give prior consent for any economic activity that affects their native lands. The representatives were met at the Vatican by the pope while the groups were in Rome to attend a United Nations meeting on agriculture. A key issue for the groups is how to protect their cultures and lands while balancing them against the right to economic development.
The Pope said, "In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail." He added, "Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict."
The Pope’s reference to prior consent is found in the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007 despite opposition by the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
The pontiff did not mention specifically the Dakota pipeline dispute by name, which pits the federal government and the US Army Corps of Engineers against the Cheyenne River and the Standing Rock Sioux tribes. The latter two groups have sued to stop construction on the final stretch of the Dakota Access pipeline, which would bring oil from North Dakota's rich Bakken fields under a lake sacred to the Sioux and across four states to a shipping point in Illinois. The delay in construction has been a sore point in US/Canadian bilateral relations.
The tribes fear that the Dakota the pipeline endangers their drinking water, cultural sites and ability to practice their religion, which depends on pure water. The last segment of the pipeline is to pass under a reservoir on the Missouri River, which marks the eastern border of both tribes' reservations. Energy Transfer Partners of Texas, which is building the pipeline, has insisted the water supply will be safe.
Media reports say that the Vatican press office averred that the Pope had made no direct reference to the Dakota pipeline. But Francis has been a strong defender of the rights of indigenous people. He has frequently spoken about the living conditions of Native Americans and their struggle to resist development that threatens their lands. "For governments, this means recognizing that indigenous communities are a part of the population to be appreciated and consulted, and whose full participation should be promoted at the local and national level," Francis said today.
By the end of the Obama administration, protesters mobbed a site along the pipeline. Temporary structures and tents arose where hundreds of protesters settled in for months, causing considerable expense to the public coffers of nearby towns and counties, as well as tribal treasuries. The protests led to approximately 700 arrests. The county government is now trying to remove the tons of trash left behind.
Translation of original Spanish of Pope Francis' prepared remarks:
I am pleased to welcome you at the conclusion of the third Indigenous Peoples’ Forum convened by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which this year is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its foundation.
You have come together to identify ways of giving greater economic empowerment to indigenous peoples. I believe that the central issue is how to reconcile the right to development, both social and cultural, with the protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories.
This is especially clear when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth. In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail, as foreseen in Article 32 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.
A second aspect concerns the development of guidelines and projects which take into account indigenous identity, with particular attention to young people and women; not only considering them but including them! For governments, this means recognizing that indigenous communities are a part of the population to be appreciated and consulted, and whose full participation should be promoted at the local and national level.
IFAD can contribute effectively to this needed road map through its funding and expertise, keeping in mind that “a technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress” (Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, 194).
I offer you heartfelt thanks for your presence, and I ask the Almighty to bless your communities and to enlighten the work of all those responsible for governing IFAD.