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Understanding corporations: Investing in the Native values option

Last month, environmental and human rights groups demonstrated outside the offices of Fidelity Investments in Boston, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities, while others targeted the Colombian embassies in Prague, Geneva and Tel Aviv. Fidelity, one of the largest American mutual funds, owns an 8.5 percent stake, or about 30 million shares, in Occidental Petroleum, which is trying to drill for oil on ancestral lands of the Uwa, Indigenous peoples of Colombia.

Not two weeks later, on Feb. 14, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development convened in Geneva. The council, a membership organization of some 125 chief executive officers from Fortune 500 companies, has set itself the goal of showing that environmentally sustainable business is good business; that is, profitable business, with payoffs that show up on a bottom line.

The current project, to assess environmental impact at major mining sites, began in 1998 with a meeting of top mining company executives, who admitted their industry has a poor reputation regarding Indigenous people. So although this assessment may not be directly linked to the Fidelity demonstrations, still here was an acknowledgment that more and more financial powerhouses are facing the "problem" of Indigenous people.

But as with many problems, the worst thing about it could turn out to be the solution. For corporations are economic organizations. When they finally confront problems, they confront them as economic problems. Economic solutions to the problems corporations cause Indigenous communities might be a kinder, gentler form of assimilation, but still would come at the price of our cultures.

An economist once spoke for his profession at a conference where the cultural values concept had been mentioned and said, by way of protest, "As soon as you bring in culture, we might as well break for pizza." Cultural values are too difficult to measure in terms of a dollar value, and so they disrupt the whole discipline of economics. Economic activity is seldom if ever evaluated as an investment in the intangible wealth of cultural values; and, cultural values are always reduced or excluded in economic planning.

The day is coming when economists may get to enjoy their pizza. The question is, how can we demonstrate that cultural values have economic value? For only then will Indigenous issues have a place at the corporate table when economic decisions are made. We must express our willingness to pay a price for future choices, whether it be preserving the environment for children, practicing our culture, or securing a homeland and legal title to traditional territory.

In economic terms this price is called option value. It is a concept corporations are loath to admit, because it undermines the corporate priority of limiting value to money-denominated returns on investment.

It is good news that an Indigenous Social Screen now exists. This is an economic tool that could be the key to translating our cultural values into an option value that economists can measure in economic terms ? the terms multinational corporations ultimately respond to.

Calvert Social Investment Fund, where I am a trustee, is a socially responsible fund in the United States, and the first to develop a set of policies on Indigenous peoples. We call this set of policies the Indigenous Social Screen. Through the Indigenous Social Screen, socially responsible investors can engage in direct advocacy for Indigenous peoples anywhere in the world.

We can do so by applying the Indigenous Social Screen to direct our investment dollars toward companies whose practices support Indigenous values, or withdrawing them from companies that violate and belittle those values. For the first time, the Indigenous Social Screen gives average investors a way to tell the difference.

Native peoples and tribes can also participate, either by applying the Indigenous Social Screen to the mutual funds that invest their pension plans or 401K/403B accounts at the office or to their own stock portfolios.

The Indigenous Social Screen provides credible, Internet-accessible evidence when a company is engaged in the violation of Indigenous rights. With $2.2 trillion in socially responsible investments on the line, we can directly impact how these companies respond to the needs of Indigenous peoples.

By expressing the value we place on our culture and the environment, we can force corporations that are clearly engaged in destructive behavior to express our option value ? the highest price we are willing to pay to preserve a future option ? as a cost they must be willing to bear if they want to do business. At that point, well want to make it clear that were defining their cost as our benefit: the benefit of avoided damages to our cultural values and our environment.