Social and environmental safeguards are now commonplace in policies and procedures that apply to certain kinds of foreign investment in developing countries. Prominent amongst these is the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which is commonly tied to policies and procedures relating to investments that have an impact on ‘indigenous peoples’. This paper treats international safeguards as a possible manifestation of what Karl Polanyi called the ‘double movement’ in the operation of a capitalist market economy. Our concern here is with the way that the FPIC principle has been applied in struggles over the alienation of land and associated natural resources claimed by indigenous peoples or customary landowners in three developing countries—Cambodia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Case studies of recent land struggles in these countries are used to illustrate the existence of a spectrum in which the application of the FPIC principle may contribute more or less to the defence of customary rights. On one hand, it may be little more than a kind of ‘performance’ that simply adds some extra value to a newly created commodity. On the other hand, it may sometimes enable local or indigenous communities and their allies in ‘civil society’ to mount an effective defence of their rights in opposition to the processes of alienation or commodification. The paper finds that all three countries have political regimes and national policy frameworks that are themselves resistant to the imposition of social and environmental safeguards by foreign investors or international financial institutions. However, they differ widely in the extent to which they make institutional space for the FPIC principle to become the site of a genuine double movement of the kind that Polanyi envisaged.
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