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Building relationships with Indigenous peoples: A 5-step guide for companies

Here are recommendations on how to rethink your corporate Indigenous partnerships to protect biodiversity and the climate.

From left: Reno Franklin, PG&E; Mary Jane Melendez, General Mills; Bonnie Lei, RMI; Margaret O'Gorman, Wildlife Habitat Council.

The importance of Indigenous perspectives in mitigating the biodiversity crisis was a focal point at Bloom 23 last month — including during a keynote conversation featuring (from left) Reno Franklin of PG&E, Mary Jane Melendez of General Mills, Bonnie Lei of RMI and Margaret O'Gorman of Wildlife Habitat Council. Burgundy Visuals for GreenBiz

It’s been almost a year since the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was adopted at COP15 in Montreal. A third of the GBF’s targets cited respecting Indigenous peoples and including them in decision-making. 

Ever since, companies have been wondering about their role in engaging local communities — especially as many have troubled histories. How can they become better allies? 

Indigenous rights are central to biodiversity and climate 

Native people comprise only 5 percent of the global population, but they protect 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, according to World Bank data published in Australia’s 2021 State of the Environment report.

Over a third of the world’s intact forests are within Indigenous peoples’ lands alongside other protected areas that store significant amounts of carbon and preserve biodiversity. Yet, they receive only a fraction of conservation funding. Even when funds are earmarked for Indigenous land conservation, the communities themselves only receive 17 percent of funding, according to Rainforest Foundation Norway and the Rights and Resources Initiative. 

At the same time, Indigenous peoples continue to struggle to obtain land rights for their traditional territories and face illegal resource exploitation, encroachment and discrimination. Empowering them could therefore be a scalable way to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crises. 

5 steps toward effective partnerships

These recommendations draw on conversations at our recent biodiversity event, Bloom 23.

1. Do the research

Learn about the histories of Indigenous peoples, the victories they’ve won — for example, as part of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — and the challenges they face. Dive into cultural aspects as well. For instance, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book "Braiding Sweetgrass" is a beautiful and illuminating read on the topic.

Then, look into the tribes your company may interact with in your operations, supply chains or philanthropic arm and identify who you want to work with.

2. Build unconditional relationships

Next, it’s time to meet some of the people. Take your leaders to visit their leaders — and listen to their needs and ideas. Having these initial conversations without an agenda and not rushing the process is essential.

Reno Franklin, tribal chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, White House adviser and tribal liaison for energy company PG&E, shared that Patricia Poppe is the company’s first CEO who visited some of the 58 Indian Reservations in its service area. 

"It was important that we went to tribes, presented what we were thinking, but in no way said this is what we are going to do," said Franklin. "Setting that stage, opening that space, offering that olive branch and really hearing from tribes and letting them run that show for us" was an approach that worked well for PG&E.

[Catch up on all of our coverage of Bloom 23.]

3. Work on an equal footing

Jing Tauli Corpuz and Juan Carlos Jintiach, Indigenous leaders from the Philippines and Ecuador, said they are tired of being part of superficial processes that merely let companies tick their engagement checkboxes.

Instead, Indigenous communities want to be full partners in strategy, design and implementation. This means trusting the community and following its lead. Examples include:

  • Indigenous people tend to have a more holistic view and might advocate for a different project design. Rather than optimizing for carbon sequestration or biodiversity protection in isolated initiatives, a project may end up balancing various environmental, cultural and social factors.
  • Communities might ask for funding that can strengthen their organizations in addition to covering project costs. They tend to work with fewer resources than companies or governments and require additional support for cross-cutting capacity-building and advocacy efforts.
  • Letting communities say no if they’re not interested in collaborating is vital. "You have to be assured and certain that there’s an equitable distribution of the resources, that there’s free, prior and informed consent and that the peoples that are affected actually have the opportunity to say no," said Peter Seligmann, CEO of Nia Tero and Chairman of Conservation International. "If we do not do that, we’re continuing this process of taking, and that’s my real concern."
4. Amplify their voices

Companies should also open up decision-making spaces so that Indigenous peoples can advocate for their rights. This could mean seats on your board of directors, a role within your sustainability team or supporting an Indigenous leader’s run for public office.

Jing Tauli Corpuz stressed that not all Indigenous people can take up board seats or work collaboratively with organizations. Companies need not reinvent the wheel, which brings us to the last step.

5. Tap into existing resources

"People are afraid to talk about or with what they don’t understand. You don’t have to be the expert on how to talk to tribes — you just have to know the expert who does," said Franklin. This advice extends to other collaboration areas, including funding, project design and leveraging traditional ecological knowledge. 

Companies should tap into organizations that bundle resources, expertise and relationships rather than charting their own path. Here are two examples:

  • Nia Tero, a policy and advocacy group, has built partnerships with over 300 Tribal communities. It can share a database of organizations with the capacity to build new partnerships.

  • Earthworm Foundation has successfully supported several brands in engaging with Indigenous communities.

To learn more, explore the GreenBiz YouTube channel featuring interviews with Jing Tauli Corpuz and Peter Seligmann and Juan Carlos Jintiach.

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