As oil and gas projects expand across the United States and Canada, often imperiling Indigenous land without ever obtaining consent, land defenders are increasingly pressuring the financiers of fossil fuel infrastructure — banks, insurance companies, and asset managers — to respect their sovereign land right. Amplifying the calls of this grassroots movement, the largest organization representing American Indians and Alaskan Natives passed a historic resolution last month calling on “private insurance companies to end their underwriting of the expansion of tar sands oil, Arctic oil and gas, and LNG export terminals.”

The resolution, put forward by the National Congress of American Indians, or NCAI, also asks insurance companies to adopt policies on “free, prior, and informed consent.” This principle, enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is “really just a fancy way of saying that any corporation, any bank, any agency that wants to engage in a project that impacts Indigenous lands and treaty lands must get consent from that particular tribal nation or Indigenous community,” said Matt Remle, who is Lakota and the primary author of the resolution. “And if the community says no, that project doesn’t happen.”

Remle is also the co-founder of Mazaska Talks, an Indigenous-led organization focused on campaigns to divest from projects that violate human rights and treaty rights abuses, which came out of an effort that began about five years ago to defund the Dakota Access pipeline. This movement pushed the city of Seattle to divest $3 billion from Wells Fargo in 2017, one of the main backers of the pipeline, and sparked similar campaigns throughout the country. More recently, every major bank has agreed to not fund drilling in the Arctic after facing pressure from Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of over 130 organizations which includes Mazaska Talks.

Most Wall Street banks at least publicly acknowledge free, prior, and informed consent while still financing projects, like the tar sands pipelines, that face Indigenous-led opposition. Yet no major U.S. insurance companies, the biggest insurers of oil and gas projects across the globe, have released publicly facing statements about Indigenous rights, let alone the principle of free, prior, and informed consent, according to Elana Sulakshana, energy finance campaigner at Rainforest Action Network. This is, in part, why there has recently been more intense scrutiny of insurance companies’ enablement of fossil fuel projects on Indigenous land.

A 2016 action to divest the city of Seattle from Wells Fargo

Activists demand the city of Seattle to divest its money and banking business from Wells Fargo, over the company’s investment in the Dakota Access pipeline, in 2016.

Photo: Alex Garland

The resolution’s passage builds on the grassroots Indigenous movements underway that have been pressuring insurance companies, as one tool among many, to defend their land.

For instance, last month, the Gwich’in Steering Committee wrote a letter asking insurers to not back the destruction of the sacred calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife refuge. Drilling in the calving grounds threatens the migratory Porcupine caribou, which in turn “threatens the Gwich’in existence and way of life.” The letter calls upon oil and gas companies, banks, and insurance companies to “stand with the Gwich’in Nation by not initiating any oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge.”

This letter was prompted by the Trump administration rushing to auction off drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Under federal law, all agencies are required to respect Indigenous nations’ right to self-governance, which means consulting with communities about drilling projects. The Bureau of Land Management, the agency that administers federal land, did not engage in any form of meaningful consent, said Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. She noted that the agency held public meetings in only three of the nine Gwich’in communities in Alaska and did not hold meetings in communities accessible only by boat or plane.

“They only had hearings in certain communities. They did not have the government-to-government consultation that they’re supposed to,” said Demientieff. “They basically came to our community and told us what they were going to do. That was it.”

The Bureau of Land Management pushed back against the claim that it did not engage in government-to-government consultation, stating that it held more than 25 meetings “with tribal governments with the potential to be directly affected by an oil and gas leasing program.”

The Gwich’in Steering Committee also reached out individually to the 22 insurance companies addressed in the public letter to request a meeting. So far they’ve had one meeting, with Swiss Re, in which Demientieff spoke about the environmental devastation they have been witnessing, she said, such as the erosion of the land beneath coastal villages and “thousands and thousands of dead fish in our lakes and rivers.” On December 14, the committee announced that Swiss Re had committed not to “provide coverage or investment support for projects related to exploration, drilling or production of oil or gas in the Arctic, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Other Indigenous nations have also been seeking to meet with insurance companies. On September 2, the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which represents 16 tribal nations, sent a letter to David Long, the CEO of Liberty Mutual, urging the insurance company to “immediately end its relationship” with the Keystone XL pipeline. This pipeline is expected to carry bitumen oil from Alberta’s tar sands into the United States in a proposed route that would violate Indigenous treaty rights and sacred sites. Long and Liberty Mutual did not respond to requests for comment.

Liberty Mutual is providing financial backing to the Keystone XL pipeline with a publicly filed surety bond worth $15.6 million. An additional $15.6 million bond is required after construction begins.

The company did not acknowledge the letter, so Indigenous activists delivered a petition and staged a protest on October 2 outside of Liberty Mutual headquarters in Boston, constructing a mock pipeline covered in red handprints to signify the Indigenous women who have been sexually assaulted and murdered, often in connection with fossil fuel extraction and pipeline workers moving near their homes. On October 19, over 40 Indigenous women signed another letter to global financiers backing the tar sands fossil fuel projects that will harm their communities across the United States, including by increasing the spread of Covid-19 with an influx of out-of-state workers.

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Left/Top: Activists in front of Liberty Mutual headquarters in Boston deliver a petition calling on the insurance company to stop supporting the Keystone XL pipeline. Right/Bottom: Eva Blake, who is Wampanoag and works at the Indigenous Environmental Network, delivers a petition to Liberty Mutual headquarters on Oct. 2, 2020.Photo: Courtesy of Kayana Szymczak/Indigenous Environmental Network

“We want insurance companies like Liberty Mutual to meet with Indigenous leaders, tribal leaders, chairmen, and presidents. We want them to meet with grassroots people. We want them to hear our stories,” said Joye Braun, a signatory of the October letter, a community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and a land defender and water protector for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Fossil fuel infrastructure poses especially devastating risks to Indigenous people, given that the “Indigenous economy is everything from the land, everything that flows from the land, everything that feeds us and nourishes us, clothes us and houses us, that’s been able to give all of our basic human needs,” said Kanahus Manuel, a Secwepemc land defender with the Tiny House Warriors, a movement and village of mobile tiny homes placed strategically in the path of the Trans Mountain pipeline in western Canada.

By failing to take into consideration the harm posed to Indigenous communities and the ongoing Indigenous-led resistance, Manuel points out that insurance companies are also putting their own business in jeopardy. “It’s bad business to not properly know the risks associated with a project,” said Manuel.

The pipeline’s largest insurer Zurich dropped the project in July 2020, shortly after Talanx had dropped the pipeline. Yet a number of insurers listed in the 2019-2020 certificate of insurance are still underwriting the pipeline, including Chubb, AIG, and Liberty Mutual. Chubb and AIG declined to comment on the record.

The Tiny House Warriors have presented insurers with a risk assessment of the Trans Mountain pipeline, conducted by the Indigenous Network of Economies and Trade, that outlines the risks associated with Indigenous jurisdiction. Over half the pipeline will cut through unceded Secwepemc territory, spanning 180,000 square kilometers. The Canadian government did not seek consent from the Secwepemc, whose land defenders are prepared to stop its construction through “any means necessary,” according to the assessment.

“We are the biggest risk,” said Manuel. “We are the biggest financial liability against this project right now, just our pure presence of occupying our land and asserting our Indigenous jurisdiction and territorial authority to our lands.” She noted that even delays in the pipeline’s construction pose a financial risk, which she believes insurers are failing to fully anticipate in their decision to underwrite it.

Manuel was trained to assert the right to the land by her late father, Arthur Manuel, the well-known author and Secwepemc leader. “He told me when you go over to the United Nations, when you go to The Hague, when you go to these international banks and insurance companies,” Manuel said, “you walk in like you are the owner and title holder of 180,000 square kilometers of land because you are.”

The Tsleil-Waututh Nation, whose unceded territory centers on the Burrard Inlet in southwestern British Columbia, also conducted its own risk assessment of the Trans Mountain pipeline. The assessment concluded that oil spills are inevitable, which will undermine the Nation’s obligation to steward the land. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative, which was formed to stop the pipeline, reached out to all of the pipeline’s insurers about a year ago, according Charlene Aleck, a liaison to initiative. No insurance companies have agreed to meet, said Aleck.

“We’ve maintained that we’re opposed to this pipeline because it does irreparable damage,” said Aleck. “We will continue to do so as long as we need water, as long as we need fresh air and a place to live.”

Update: Dec. 14, 2020
This article has been updated to include that the insurance company Swiss Re pledged not to provide coverage or support for oil and gas projects in the Arctic.