Behind the Indigenous People’s Free, Prior and (Un)-Informed Coercion

Photo: Percy Ramirez/ Oxfam America


Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is not a familiar term that is often heard by society in general. Originally, the concept of FPIC was used in the medical world to protect the rights of an individual patient. During the process of examination and treatment, the patient’s physician is required to seek approval before taking any medical action. The concept was later developed and applied by NGOs and environmental activists in their campaigns to protect natural resources and the interests of indigenous peoples.

The NGOs’ goal is to make FPIC guidelines mandatory for anyone, whether it is a government or private company, who intends to develop regions that are home to indigenous peoples. It is interesting to note that out of fear of the NGOs, companies are feeling compelled to agree to adopt this highly questionable legal concept in direct violation of Indonesian national laws. More so, this is being done in contravention of Indonesian laws. Amazingly, no Indonesian lawmaker, no member of the public is raising a voice of concern. Why should we? After all, so the NGOs claim, the United Nations endorses this. Is this a fact or a plain and simple lie to the public? The argument is made that FPIC is expected to minimize the negative impact of a development that often threatens the environment and the livelihood of indigenous people. But is the field implementation of FPIC as perfect as its noble concept and purposes?

First of all, we need to recognize that FPIC is not a law. It is not recognized or endorsed by the state. So why are companies so eagerly endorsing it? The answer can be found in global campaigns undertaken for years by foreign NGOs to force companies to surrender and in return for relative peace use the companies to influence policy makers. This is not only a direct violation of democratic principles but a violation of national laws.

As a non-legally binding international law recognized for just a few years, in fact FPIC is still passing through the stage of trial and error. Since its introduction through the Indigenous Peoples Right Act in 1998, FPIC has recorded very few successes. Following the footsteps of the Philippines, Australia, and Bolivia, which already incorporate FPIC into their national law, some local governments in Indonesia have done the same thing as one of the rules in managing natural resources. This has been done by, among others, the Government of Minahasa (in North Sulawesi), Bengkayang (West Kalimantan), and Lebak (Banten). In addition to penalties of millions of rupiah, violations of FPIC in those regencies can lead to criminal charges and imprisonment. Some large companies like Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and its competitor APRIL also incorporate FPIC in their environmental policies.

But such success is nothing compared to the global failure of FPIC that threatens the well-being of indigenous peoples around the world. Small examples include those experienced by the people of the Cordillera and Mindanao in Philippines, the Cauca society in Colombia, the Ngäbe community in Panama, and some tribes in India. Most indigenous people are complaining that the implementation of FPIC is considered to deviate from its original purpose and is actually violating the rights of indigenous peoples.

Even more surprising, the weak implementation of FPIC is also thick with fraud, bribery for bureaucrats and prominent tribal leaders, as well as acts of deadly violence. Chairman of the Palawan tribe in Philippines, Pedro Sagad, expressed his suspicion about the existence of a fake tribal council as representation during the negotiations with the mining company MacroAsia in 2011. Still in the Philippines, the B’laan tribe in Tampakan, South Cotabato rejected FPIC because of the violence that resulted in the death of their leader in August 2013. The B’laan tribe believed the ongoing violence and militarisation would not produce a free and informed consent related to the implementation of the FPIC proposed by the Switzerland-based company SMI – Xstrata.

Indonesia also experienced a similar incident. In February 2012 the villagers of Talaga, Dampelas-Tinombo in Central Sulawesi expressed their rejection to the FPIC process when their forest was used as a REDD (Reduction Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradatio) project which was initiated by the United Nations. The reason is they were traumatized when in 2009 the Ministry of Forestry (MoF) suddenly put the the boundary markers in their agricultural areas without prior notice. The MoF’s unilateral actions were carried out to establish the Forest Management Area as a preparatory process before the implementation of REDD. Since then, the villagers of Talaga have been skeptical of any development program.

The assistance of the NGOs seems to not do anything other than submerge the real aspirations of the indigenous peoples. For example, when Greenpeace held the Kiruna[1] Indigenous Peoples Conference, which resulted in the declaration of a moratorium on Arctic resource development to protect the environment, Arctic Council President Jim Stotts revealed that the declaration did not represent the opinion of the Inuit who were the original inhabitants of the Arctic. “Inuit have legitimate concerns about Arctic resource development; but we need to approach these concerns from our own perspective, not someone else’s,” Stotts added.

The examples above illustrate how ironic FPIC is. It has not only failed to protect indigenous people as minorities, but its implementation assembles more of a colonial ruling that creates a secondary class of citizens and makes communities increasingly isolated and away from development. In most cases of FPIC violations, indigenous peoples reveal that they did not reject the development. Instead they complained about the non-fulfillment of the basic principles of FPIC. In determining the viability of a development project, FPIC actually makes them not be informed and not free to give consent. It is quite ironic, right? The concept of FPIC that indigenous peoples know is not Free, Prior and Informed Consent, but rather Free, Prior and Informed Coercion.

[1] Kiruna is the northernmost town in Sweden, situated in the province of Lapland.

About Ika 12 Articles
Ika Virginaputri is an independent writer and current-affairs observer for the Dekker Center. She lives in Jakarta and writing for the Dekker Center and national and international media.

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