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Joining Together for a Just Transition: Indigenous Leadership in Emerging Green Economies

This article is co-written by members of a coalition working to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the transition to the Green Economy: Cultural Survival, First Peoples Worldwide, Batani Fund, Aborigen Forum, Earthworks, and the Society for Threatened Peoples.


Indigenous communities are taking a leadership role in emerging green energy economies by holding companies accountable to human rights commitments through the supply chain. On October 28, 2021, ahead of the climate negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Cultural Survival and 140 other organizations issued a joint statement calling on climate negotiators to make a binding commitment to source transition minerals responsibly, and for the centering of human rights of Indigenous and frontline communities and workers at mining, recycling, reclamation, manufacturing, and renewable energy projects. Transition minerals such as nickel, lithium, cobalt, and copper play a critical role in the development of a green, low carbon economy. Clean energy technologies, from electric vehicles and battery storage to wind turbines and solar panels, require a wide range of minerals and metals, and demand is skyrocketing. A report from the International Energy Agency forecasts that mineral requirements for clean energy technologies will quadruple by 2040, with electric vehicles and battery storage creating the largest industry demand. Demand for lithium, crucial for electric vehicle battery production, is estimated to increase 10-fold over the next decade, with at least one new mine needing to begin operations each year.


The rapid increase of mining increases the danger of further displacement and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous territories contain significant concentrations of untapped heavy metal reserves around the world. In the United States, 97 percent of nickel, 89 percent of copper, 79 percent of lithium, and 68 percent of cobalt reserves and resources are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations. Globally, we know that mining potentially influences 50 million square kilometers of Earth’s land surface, with 8 percent coinciding with Protected Areas, 7 percent with Key Biodiversity Areas, and 16 percent with Remaining Wilderness.


Human rights violations follow the mining sector. The Business and Human Rights Resources Centre reports 304 human rights allegations made against all 115 companies involved in transition mineral extraction. Development frequently occurs without the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples, and has significant long-term impacts. In the short term, it brings an influx of temporary workers that can lead to increased transmission of COVID-19, increased criminal activity, and a degradation of local infrastructure. Other violations include forced migration, the murder of human rights defenders protesting development, and environmental threats to the land, water, and subsistence resources.
 

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The Fenix Nickel Mine in El Estor is Guatemala’s only active metal mine, and extracts 120,000 tons of nickel per month, making it the biggest in Central America. Photo by Cultural Survival.


The mining methods used in the extraction of transition minerals, such as water intensive extraction and open-pit mines, remain unchanged, and increased demand now threatens even more cultural and sacred sites, watersheds, and landscapes. During extraction, toxic materials such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and lead are released into the air and water, with devastating long-term effects on people and the environments they depend on.
 

Indigenous communities are fighting back against increased mining within their homelands. In Argentina, companies started lithium mining and exploration without securing the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous communities. Now, 33 Kolla and Atacama communities have united to oppose any lithium extraction on their lands.


Rising demands for electric vehicle batteries have led companies to expand lithium production in the Atacama salt flat of northern Chile. Some Lickanantay communities have successfully opposed the mining industry due to impacts on the salt flat, water table, biodiversity, and communities. In 2019, a lithium mining project was abandoned due to Indigenous opposition. Conflicts over other lithium mining projects continue, however, and other Indigenous communities in northern Chile are being threatened by projects emerging in some of the country’s smaller salt flats, such as Maricunga.


In Guatemala, the Fenix Nickel Mine on the shores of Lake Izabal, Guatemala’s largest lake, has been mired in violent conflict since it was built on Indigenous land without consent in 1960 during the country’s civil war. In 2007, uniformed mine personnel allegedly gang-raped at least 11 Q’eqchi women after burning their homes to evict them from their ancestral lands. In 2009, mine security opened fire on Q’eqchi land defenders protesting their eviction, killing community leader Adolfo Ich. In 2017, Carlos Maaz Coc, a fisherman peacefully protesting the mine’s contamination of the lake, was shot and killed. In October 2021, Guatemala’s President declared martial law and suspended civil rights in response to a peaceful blockade by Q’eqchi community members.


Indigenous Peoples elsewhere in North America are also speaking out. In Nevada, Indigenous community leaders with Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) are protesting the Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, citing the harm it would cause to the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, ancestral burial sites, water resources, and local wildlife like greater sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, and sacred golden eagles.

 

Finding an Indigenous-Led Way Forward
Indigenous Peoples are crucial agents of change for both climate mitigation and adaptation. While making up just over six percent of the global population, Indigenous managed lands are home to about 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous Peoples manage or hold tenure over 25 percent of the world’s land surface and manage at least 24 percent of the total carbon stored above ground in the world’s tropical forests.


Rapid exponential expansion of the extraction of transition minerals will not only continue to pose a threat to Indigenous rights and territories, but also to lands that are crucially important for biodiversity and carbon sequestration. In order for the low carbon transition to be a truly just transition, Indigenous and other marginalized populations must be at the center of decision-making, particularly when proposed policies and projects may affect their rights and livelihoods.


Indigenous-led organizations are calling on companies to do better. To start, governments and companies involved in the new green economy should observe and implement rights enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. But, governments have been slow to address the potential impacts of transition mineral extraction on Indigenous Peoples. In March 2022, the European Parliament will consider a new law to ensure the ethical sourcing of battery materials by requiring battery makers and importers to apply Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Due Diligence guidelines devised to respect human rights. It has not yet been confirmed whether the new law will include Indigenous and NGO demands to incorporate Indigenous  Peoples’ rights. Meanwhile, industry lobbyists are encouraging a delay in implementation of the new law for up to 36 months. In the U.S., the Biden administration has yet to start a process to ensure ethical sourcing of battery materials.


In the absence of government action, Indigenous leaders are directly engaging companies in the supply chain to make sure that they are aware of the risks to Indigenous Peoples. In 2020, after Elon Musk put out a call on Twitter announcing Tesla’s search for more nickel to expand production of Tesla electric cars, Indigenous communities from the Russian Arctic joined together with dozens of other organizations to send an open letter to Musk urging Tesla not to purchase from Nornickel until they demonstrate a real commitment to consultation with affected Indigenous Peoples. (Nornickel, Russia’s largest supplier of nickel and the most egregious polluter in the Arctic, was responsible for the Arctic’s largest oil spill when 20,000 tons of diesel fuel fouled local rivers and lakes.) Tesla has now approved a new Indigenous rights policy that must be followed by its suppliers.


Indigenous leaders from Russia point to the importance of working with companies in the supply chain when their own government fails to uphold Indigenous rights. Dmitry Berezhkov, an Indigenous rights activist and editor of Indigenous-Russia.com says, “We consider environmental well being as a part of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The number of ways to defend Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Russia is being reduced day by day as the State, together with industrial companies, tries to impose more control on people’s lives. That’s why we are trying to be inventive and find new ways to defend our rights.”