Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Rasha Rehman headshot

Clean Energy Mustn't Scale at the Expense of the World's Indigenous People

Critics say too many clean energy projects worldwide lack any local community engagement with Indigenous communities or other marginalized groups.
By Rasha Rehman

Investors and project planners must take cautionary measures when executing climate mitigation and clean energy projects to prevent adverse effects on Indigenous and other local communities, advocates say. These impacts encompass land, human rights and resources. Yet during many of these projects’ planning phases, there is frequently a lack of local community engagement, a dearth of educational awareness and a failure to provide sufficient security, says Natalie Bridgeman Fields, co-founder of Accountability Counsel, a nonprofit that advocates for people harmed by internationally financed projects.

Clean energy projects too often put Indigenous communities at risk

"These are community-based organizations that are being threatened. Their advocates are being detained, tortured, silenced,” Fields said in an interview with TriplePundit. “Even if it's a renewable project or a solar project, that doesn't mean there's not violence or oppression in that country just because it's a well-intentioned project.”

Among its various work, Accountability Counsel manages a database of environmental and human rights abuses that have occurred during internationally sponsored projects. The database has logged more than 1,600 complaints across 137 nations within 15 industries.

According to these records, community projects with a conservation or clean energy focus too often end up not being sustainable, and in fact, can harm local communities. Fields said. Instead of involving local citizens, these projects frequently take a "top-down" approach rooted in the perspective of funders from faraway places. In this process, Indigenous and other local communities are frequently excluded from any level of involvement on a project and have been even been forcibly displaced from lands for conservation purposes.

Climate projects that ignore social and environmental responsibility are costly. A failure to include local communities and assess repercussions creates long-term community distrust against clean energy companies and reputational risks for companies and investors.

Supporting and defending the marginalized

At Accountability Counsel, Fields works to protect and defend communities and their local environments from both climate and clean energy projects that aren’t inclusive or lack any plans to mitigate any harmful impacts on Indigenous and other marginalized communities.

She points to the Cerro de Oro hydroelectric project in Mexico to illustrate the harm of such projects and how the organization defends local communities. This project was created to produce electricity for private companies. It also threatened local health and safety, as well as the potential destruction of a local freshwater spring, Arroyo Sal. Accountability Counsel supported three Indigenous communities in Oaxaca to end the U.S. agency, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)-funded project. The group’s efforts included providing trainings regarding OPIC’s Office of Accountability (OA) and support in drafting complaints to the OA.

In another case, Accountability Counsel produced a video and supported Liberians' complaints to OPIC in 2014. OPIC had approved the financing of the biomass company Buchanan Renewables (BR) and its project, which involved the cutting down of rubber trees for biofuel purposes. Backers of this project said it would revitalize Liberian family farms and create sustainable energy. However, it instead led to human rights and environmental abuses and even the sexual abuse of Liberian women by BR employees.

Most recently, Fields recounted the findings of an Accountability Counsel team’s work in Nepal, where the group supported Indigenous and traditional communities confronting various risks by the construction of high-voltage transmission lines to be used for transmitting hydropower. Funded by the European Investment Bank (EIB), local residents claim this project forced them from their land without compensation, and others had even been beaten, run over by bulldozers and detained without charge.

There are many factors that contribute to the challenges around Indigenous and traditional communities’ sense of security and health and safety. And these issues are exacerbated when global finance flows into countries with weak regulations, ongoing censorship of the local media and government corruption, Fields says. In preventing such harm to local communities in the first place, planners and investors need to start building relationships and trust from a project’s very beginning.

What’s needed: Assessment, education and engagement

A big challenge is that Indigenous and local communities often don't know they actually have the right to engage on equal footing with what are often well-funded and powerful companies and organizations, Fields says. These communities are in need of local partners who are well resourced and can come from a position where they can speak out safely, she explains.

To prevent climate and clean energy projects from exacting harm on these communities, she points to the need for “reversing” these projects’ planning phases to start with a more community-centered approach. In this method, investors and project planners would work to understand the local context, practice community engagement, and obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) with local communities in order to minimize any harm prior to launching the projects. In this strategy, local engagement is “wise and sustainable,” and is often the first part of due diligence that does not occur, Fields says. 

Another area for improvement is environmental and social impact assessments. While industry performance standards for these assessments exist, such as those set by the International Finance Corporation, these guidelines are often little more than a simple tick-box approach, Fields says. Instead, impact assessments should screen for any potential negative repercussions that can result from a climate or clean energy project. In doing so, plans can be designed with such repercussions in mind, and they can inherently be avoided or attenuated.

The inclusion of local communities and investing in their long-term wellbeing is crucial for the success of climate and clean energy projects. Investors and project planners driving clean energy and sustainable technology projects must reduce any negative and harmful consequences of these projects as early as possible, and this requires improving community engagement and planning immediately.

Image credit: Tom Fisk/Pexels

Rasha Rehman headshot

Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.

Read more stories by Rasha Rehman