People in a small salmon fishing village on Bristol Bay, Alaska, are struggling against Pebble Mine, a proposal by a partnership between some the world’s largest multinational mining corporations, to build one the biggest open pit gold, copper and molybdemum mines on earth.
The project runs a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay and ruining the salmon run, which provides physical, cultural and spiritual sustenance to the Yup’ik communities along the bay’s tributaries, and supports a $500 million commercial and sports fishery as well.
That would devastate the Indigenous communities, according to Tom Tilden, the First Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council. “Taking our salmon away would be like what happened to the lower 48 Indians when they took their buffalo away,” Tilden says in “We Can’t Eat Gold,” a new documentary feature about the Pebble Mine proposal.
Enter FPIC. FPIC – pronounced EF-PIC – is an acronym for “free, prior and informed consent” – a principle that’s crucially important to indigenous rights, such as the sustenance fishing rights the Yup’ik people of Bristol Bay continue to fight for.
Information and education about FPIC will be presented by First Peoples Worldwide (FPW) and its coalition partners in a free webinar called “Engaging FPIC: Understanding, Interpretation & Self-Determination.” The webinar will take place on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on Friday, August 9 beginning at 11 a.m. Participants can register online. The webinar focuses on how Indigenous Peoples can hone their knowledge and skills about free, prior and informed consent and be better prepared to face the challenges of development in their communities.
First Peoples Worldwide, Cultural Survival, and the International Indian Treaty Council will host the webinar. The event will include an online panel discussion with Danika Littlechild, attorney at International Indian Treaty Council; Rebecca Adamson, executive director, (FPW); Suzanne Benally, executive director, Cultural Survival; and Mark Camp, deputy executive director, Cultural Survival. The webinar will be an hour and 15 minutes with lots of time for questions and answers, said Dan Morrison, FPW communications director.
“Danika will give the basics of FPIC in case there’s anyone on the call who doesn’t know what it is, then Rebecca is going to talk about why it’s so important for communities to come up with their own FPIC plan – she’ll present a sort of practitioner’s guide to using FPIC. Then Mark and Suzanne will be talking about building awareness for actions in your community,” Morrison said.
Participants will be able to submit questions via a chat room on the webinar or tweet them on Proud to Be Indigenous at hash tags #FPIC and #P2BI or the Facebook page.
Free, prior and informed consent is not an easy principle to implement, because FPIC is not binding and “it can be distorted for the purposes of manipulation, inequitable bargains, and poor representation for Indigenous Peoples,” according to FPW. “Without clear definitions of what qualifies as ‘consent,’ outside actors can claim the legitimacy of FPIC even if its true spirit has not been upheld, making their projects even more difficult to challenge.” The webinar is one way to empower Indigenous Peoples and communities with tools to support FPIC. The organizations are focusing on FPIC during the week leading up to the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and its fundamental idea that corporations, governments, and other entities include Indigenous Peoples in the planning and implementation of all development projects or other actions on traditional land, and obtain their consent before beginning a project, and also respect their right to say no.
“Every day we’ll post stories about current FPIC issues, struggles, and successes – and we want you to participate!” the FPW website says. “How are you and your community learning about, teaching about, and implementing FPIC? Are our rights being threatened by companies who are disregarding free, prior, and informed consent?” FPW invites participants to send stories and pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet them to #FPIC and #P2BI or the Facebook page.
The FPIC principle was first introduced in 1989 in the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. It grew out of the fact that the world’s indigenous territories hold vast amounts of natural resources that governments, companies and other outside forces expropriate for their own purposes and profit. Whether it’s mining for gold, copper and other minerals, such as in the proposed Pebble Mine, drilling for oil, selling the land or removing the people from it, governments and companies have traditionally taken what they want without the consent of those who have lived on the land since time immemorial and are sustained by it. The idea behind FPIC is that indigenous communities have the inherent right to give or withhold consent before being relocated or having their land developed, sold or otherwise used. The concept got a huge boost with the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which describes various situations in which FPIC should become the standard “best practice” for negotiations between Indigenous Peoples and any other entities.
But that’s easier said than done since the Declaration is not binding – yet. Indigenous activists hope that through implementation the Declaration over time will become a convention. A victory for the Yup’ik would go a long way in establishing FPIC as a standard. While the Yup’ik have clearly expressed their free, prior and informed opposition to the project – with support from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and even celebrities like Robert Redford – it remains to be seen whether their “no” will win out in the end. At this point, the people are waiting to see whether President Barack Obama and the EPA will issue the necessary permits for the mining project to move forward just as the controversial XL pipeline proposal awaits Obama’s decision. Or will the Obama administration respect the UN Declaration and the principle of FPIC, which it endorsed December 16, 2010 and say no?
For the people of Bristol Bay the mine’s impact “would be immense because for thousands of years we’ve survived off the water, the land, and the air,” Bobby Andrew, Nunamta Aulukestai spokesman and Yup’ik elder, says in the film. “The people in the region aren’t going to change their opinion, and many of the people don’t want to get bought out, they don’t want (the mining company’s) money. … The mining companies know what they want, but what they want we can’t eat. We can’t eat gold.”