In this post, Dina Lupin Townsend discusses her recent article co-authored with Leo Townsend in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the silencing of indigenous communities in consultation processes.
Ten years ago, I was working as an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, an NGO and environmental law clinic in South Africa. My work involved representing impoverished rural communities whose land and livelihoods were threatened by mining activities. With almost no resources, these communities were battling some of the most powerful multinational companies in the world.
Despite this inequality of resources, these communities should have been able to hold mining companies to account under South Africa’s rights-based legal system. The law requires that any development includes those affected within decision-making processes. Communities have a collective right to participation in these processes, and mining companies are obligated to consult with them before undertaking any activities.
On the face of it, the right to consultation should ensure that communities are kept informed and given a say in the decision-making process. In practice, however, consultation with affected communities is often little more than a box-ticking exercise. The clients I represented frequently complained of being unheard and marginalised by the very processes that were meant to empower their voices.
The experience of South African communities is far from unique in this regard. Faced with similar circumstances, Indigenous and rural peoples across the world have demanded that they be consulted and given opportunities to have their say about industrial activities on their land. But while states and companies are increasingly recognizing that they must consult affected communities, the consultation processes that they undertake often fail to give these communities a real say. Indeed, as Leo Townsend and I argue in a recent paper, there are consultation practices that routinely prevent communities from having their say and thereby silence their voices.