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Tribes Get Results from the Inside

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BETHESDA, Md. ? Tribes are taking a new route to getting the attention of corporate America -- from the inside. And it's working. Tribes and groups working with them increasingly are becoming shareholders of public companies or finding friendly parties that already are. This allows them to file shareholder resolutions at firms' annual meetings, getting them a foot in the corporate door and giving them a forum to object on the record when they don't like what those firms are doing in Indian country.

And while they may not get the companies to reverse course, the resolutions or comments at least can get Indian concerns out in front of board members and general shareholders. This forum also provides a potent publicity tool.

In at least three recent instances, small voting blocs have brought tribal concerns before a utility, an energy company and a mining firm about environmental policies tribes feel are damaging to them.

In Idaho, a Maryland-based social investment fund affiliate is introducing a resolution to a utility that could benefit the Nez Perce tribe and others on water issues. In Arizona, the Hopi Tribe and other groups initiated a resolution with the parent of an energy company it feels is endangering its water aquifer. And a mining company that wants to dig clay for kitty litter in Nevada heard from irate shareholders protesting on behalf of the nearby Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

The Calvert Asset Management Co. here, investment adviser for the socially responsible mutual funds of Calvert Group, Ltd., recently wrote to Idacorp, Inc., telling the utility it intends to present a resolution asking the firm for a written policy on dealing with indigenous people at Idacorp's 2002 annual meeting.

And the Nov. 30 letter from Calvert senior vice president and chief investment officer Reno Martini has gotten the company's attention, according to Nikki Daruwala, shareholder advocacy analyst. After ignoring a previous letter on the issue, Idacorp has informed Calvert it is working on a response, said Daruwala.

According to Alya Kayal, senior human rights analyst for Calvert, the firm was researching Idacorp for inclusion on its "Social Index"? a broad-based benchmark of large- and mid-cap socially responsible U.S. companies, when it found concerns over possible infringements of treaty fishing rights of the Nez Perce and other tribes by the Hells Canyon dam complex (the three dams there are used to generate hydroelectric power for the utility).

Kayal noted concerns that operations of the dam could be affecting fish runs and the local populations depending on them, and noted that the Nez Perce and Idacorp had settled a lawsuit on this issue in 1996. Idacorp paid out $11.5 million.

The resolution asks the utility to develop and adopt a policy on the proper way of dealing with indigenous people, similar to the one Calvert itself adopted in 1999, and to hold ongoing consultations with affected tribes.

This is the first time Calvert has used a shareholder resolution to ask for a written indigenous policy, said Daruwala, although it has attempted similar tactics with other firms (Liz Claiborne, for instance) over specific cases of offensive American Indian imagery.

Daruwala says the firm sees its role as that of mediating between tribes and investors, rather than telling either party how it should act. But, she said "we will not invest in companies that have egregious policies concerning American Indians."

Taking this resolution to a vote would help educate other Idacorp shareholders on Indian issues, said Daruwala, although she conceded there is no possibility of winning. (Getting 10 percent on a vote is considered a good result.)

If a firm is responsive beforehand, though, the resolution may not come to a vote. "If we find the company is making a good faith effort, we might actually withdraw the resolution and work with them," she said.

In Arizona, the environmental group Wild Angels said it initiated a shareholder resolution with the leading investor in Peabody Energy to have Peabody phase out or reduce its use of water from the Navajo Aquifer to slurry coal. And the resolution, plus an article on the controversy in Time magazine, has prompted a quick response from the company.

Wild Angels, based in Santa Fe, N. M., said it is working with the Hopi tribe, Black Mesa Trust and other groups to save the aquifer, which provides water to the Hopi Tribe and parts of the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

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The resolution was filed with Lehman Brothers, which owns 57 percent of the common stock of Peabody. It may, however, be withdrawn as the result of dialogue with Lehman Brothers.

It was officially filed by the General Board of Health and Pension Benefits of the United Methodist Church and Walden Assets Management, on behalf of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, after the coalition asked the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility to search for Lehman stockholders to sponsor it.

The resolution says the aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for the Hopi and that springs and seeps dependent on it are critical to the tribe's religion and culture.

Michael Stewartt of Wild Angels participated (by phone) in a New York City meeting attended by three Lehman vice presidents, three Peabody representatives, the Hopi tribe and the two filing entities.

"Lehman Brothers was genuinely engaged in the meeting," he reported, although "Peabody was doing its standard song and dance."

Said Stewartt, "I think Lehman Brothers does not want to get a black eye on this. We hope Lehman stays engaged."

Following the meeting, a draft letter to be sent to the federal government asking for an alternative source of water for Peabody (probably Lake Powell) is circulating among the parties for approval. Stewartt feels Lehman will agree to meet again on the issue every six months until it is resolved.

The group claims Peabody uses 4,400 acre feet of water a year to slurry Black Mesa coal 273 miles, while Hopi and Navajo use is about 3,000 acre feet a year. Recharge rate of the aquifer is approximately 2,500 to 3,500 acre feet a year, it claims. The numbers come from the most recent U.S. Geological Survey study, says Stewartt.

In Nevada, where Oil-Dri Corp. wants to mine clay for kitty litter near the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, tribal members and environmental and labor activists recently tried the stockholders' protest route also. But they took a different tack than the shareholder resolution.

Six members of the anti-mining coalition traveled from Reno to Chicago to give the annual meeting of Oil-Dri a piece of their mind about the potentially adverse effects the mining might have on tribal members.

Bob Fulkerson, one of the six, said each of the group bought one share each of Oil-Dri and then went to Chicago with the aim of "crashing and infiltrating" the annual meeting. Three were tribal members, and the other three belonged to activist groups.

"We wore our best business suits and looked like shareholders," Fulkerson said, and they split up and sat separately amidst the other shareholders.

When CEO Daniel S. Jaffee asked if there were any questions, just six hands went up, and each of the six asked about the cat litter mine.

Their corporate gadfly activism didn't sway the company (Mr. Jaffee assured the stockholders the necessary permits will be received and that groundbreaking will happen in the fall of 2002) but afterwards a couple of Oil-Dri shareholders did ask the group to tell them more about the issue.

Mr. Fulkerson noted, however, that last week Oil-Dri hit a speed bump when the Washoe County Planning Commission denied a special-use permit for the project at an eight-hour meeting that drew 300 people.