International Institute for
Indigenous Resource Management


Indigenous Peoples and Multilateral Trade Regimes: Navigating New Opportunities for Advocacy
 New York University School of Law
May 17-19, 2002


The International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management supported the efforts of the New York University School of Law to convene a conference on Indigenous Peoples and Multilateral Trade Regimes to coincide with the first session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (May 13-24, 2002). Like the Forum, the conference was aimed at broadening Indigenous advocacy from its narrow focus on human rights complaints against States, to a more proactive economic agenda. Multilateral trade regimes (MTOs) such as NAFTA and World Trade Organization have been criticized by Indigenous organizations as new and more powerful instruments of domination. The Institute was especially concerned to learn how the erosion of Indigenous peoples' rights in their traditional knowledge and genetic resources by decisions of MTOs might affect efforts of Indigenous peoples to protect and control their genetic resources.

Indigenous peoples have learned to make effective uses of national courts and the United Nations although these institutions were also created by nation-states to serve states' interests. We were interested in discovering in what ways and to what extent can Indigenous peoples use MTOs to combat discrimination and economic marginalization. The conference was designed to bring together a small, informal group of experienced and creative lawyers, scholars, and Indigenous leaders to "workshop" this question, and to agree on some practical ways of bringing more lawyers and leaders into the discussion.

Participants included both faculty and students from New York University School of Law, the Law School and Centre for International Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia and the Indigenous Law Journal at the University of Toronto, as well as economists and legal scholars from the Harvard Business School, the Estey Centre for Law and Economics in International Trade, and the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management (the Institute). Also participating in the conference were native leaders from the Interior Alliance of British Columbia First Nations, the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, and the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nation Chiefs. Joining the discussions on the last day of the conference were the coordinators of the Andean Indian lawyers' network CAPAJ, and the Ethnic Minority and Indigenous Rights Organization of Africa. Natalie Drache (Digital Broadcast Network) recorded all of the discussions on audiotapes for future reference.

Following a Friday evening seminar on the land-rights issues currently before the WTO in the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber dispute, including an address by Chief Arthur Manuel and commentaries by the lawyers representing the Interior Alliance and NorSask (Meadow Lake Tribal Council), conference participants engaged in a lively and far-ranging discussion on Saturday on ways that Indigenous peoples can avoid becoming victims of trade liberalization and "globalization," and use the new generation of multilateral trade regimes to protect and promote their own economic, cultural, political, and other interests. Four broad areas of strategic opportunities were identified:


Five kinds of follow-up activities were identified on Sunday morning, drawing on the interests, resources and expertise of the participants:

  1. Grassroots pilot projects on the creation, promotion, management, and defense of Indigenous certification, trademark, and geographical names. We discussed a range of possible products and communities, including forest products from Aboriginal territories in Ontario and British Columbia, lobsters from Míkmaw territory in Atlantic Canada, and quinoa and alpaca products from Aymara communities in the Andes. We also considered ways that distinctive marks and names can be used to protect traditional medicines, plant genetic resources such as wild rice, and cultural productions.
  2. Preparation and submission of amicus briefs in carefully selected trade disputes pending before MTOs. We discussed the significance of decisions by the WTO softwood lumber panel to accept an amicus brief submitted by the Interior Alliance submission, and to reject an amicus brief prepared by NorSask. WTO is experimenting with some kind of amicus standing for Indigenous peoples and other groups directly involved in the facts of trade disputes. The substantive and procedural rules for amicus participation are unclear, and need to be refined in the context of thoughtful, well-considered submissions to panels in future disputes, as well as consultations with WTO staff lawyers. As a network we can advance this process by (1) monitoring new trade disputes; (2) assessing their Indigenous aspects and potential as test cases; (2) alerting the Indigenous peoples concerned; and (3) providing legal assistance to Indigenous peoples in appropriate test cases. This activity is ideally suited for law students working under the direction of the commercial lawyers and law teachers amongst us.
  3. Preparing and disseminating a draft trade-treaty chapter on Indigenous peoples, to stimulate wider understanding and interest among Indigenous peoples in current trade negotiations such as FTAA and the WTO's Doha Round. We discussed defining some of the collective rights and national programs and services for Indigenous peoples as "green light" subsidies to render them "GATT-proof," and the possibility of including a positive duty of states to redistribute wealth and economic opportunities to Indigenous peoples on the model of the Social Charter of the European Economic Community. Crafting a draft trade-treaty chapter is an excellent project for law students. Once completed, the chapter can be posted on our linked web pages with a button or link for feedback, and can also be used as a centerpiece for educational workshops organized for Indigenous leaders.
  4. Involving U.S. and Canadian Indigenous leaders in U.S.-Canada bilateral trade and environmental negotiations, as a prototype for increasing Indigenous participation in wider multilateral trade negotiations. A U.S.-Canada negotiating framework could easily be expanded to include Mexico, as part of NAFTA. We discussed several possible issues for our starting-point, ranging from forest products and salmon fisheries to proposed bulk water transfers from Canada to the western U.S. states, and considered the (expired) U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty as a precedent and possible model. The leadership on this initiative must be taken by Indigenous leaders with the requisite political authority.
  5. Develop and selectively test some creative applications of private international law to the defense and recovery of Indigenous peoples' lands and cultural resources. We discussed litigating the ownership of timber, minerals, and other resources extracted from Indigenous territories without prior informed consent and mutually agreed compensation. Constructive trust theories may be used to impose legally enforceable duties on importers and distributors of such resources, for example the duty to segregate the proceeds of sales and to account to the rightful Indigenous owners. With the assistance of law students, the commercial lawyers amongst us can network and collaborate on significant test cases that may come our way, especially disputes that arise in developing countries where the assets or proceeds are found in the U.S. or Canada . Private commercial litigation also appears to be most promising for promoting recognition and respect for Indigenous customary property laws.

Conference participants agreed to form an informal and loose-knit coalition called, at least for the present, the First Peoples Trade Law Network. Most of the conference participants are lawyers, and the efforts we proposed pursuing cooperatively fall in the realm of litigation and negotiation as well as research and education. Conference participants felt it important to avoid a name that implies that this loose-knit coalition is always either for or against trade. Our interest is in promoting trade wherever Indigenous peoples feel that it is in their interest; and intervening forcefully whenever and wherever international trade exploits Indigenous communities. For the time being, the First Peoples Trade Law Network is a web of individuals and institutions with a commitment to designing and undertaking concrete collaborative projects and cases to protect and advance Indigneous peoples' interests in Multilateral Trade Regimes.

Russel Lawrence Barsh
Mervyn L. Tano