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Returning to Circular Economies Rooted in Indigenous Values

A trusted Elder once told me: “Pay attention to intention. There are many big, shiny, and new things, but most of them are just reinventions of the same old.” The “same old” is the centuries-old mindset and intention to extract and exploit. It can come in shiny packages, but the core of it has remained the same— extractive. In many Indigenous cultures, we are taught from childhood to take only what you need, leave some behind so it can regenerate itself, and to think seven generations ahead. We pass on traditional stories that encapsulate this wisdom and teach the basic principles of living in harmony with nature, self, and others to our youth. In many Indigenous worldviews, regeneration, sharing, and giving back are at the core of harmonious and true sustainable living.


Photo by Oregon State University.

Today, Indigenous Peoples are facing a new wave of extractivism: the “gold rush” for transition minerals such as copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, iron, and others. Transition minerals bring a promise of a perfect solution to combat climate change and reduce CO2 emissions, and of a future not dependent on fossil fuels. However, this future comes at its own cost, as it will require a higher demand for minerals, and therefore an increase in mining—and Indigenous Peoples’ livelihoods, lands, and territories globally are directly threatened by this. In the United States, the vast majority of mineral reserves are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

According to the International Energy Agency, getting to net zero carbon emissions by 2040 will require a six-fold increase in mineral input by 2040. Some key minerals such as lithium could see growth rates of demand over 40 times the current level, with demand for nickel and cobalt growing more than 20-fold. In February 2021, the price of lithium hit an all-time high of $50,000 per tonne, up from $10,000 just one year prior. According to a World Economic Forum study, by 2040, when most vehicles are predicted to be electric, the materials used to produce them could account for 60 percent of their total lifetime emissions, as opposed to 18 percent in 2020.

Are we going to do business as usual by building a green future for the privileged West? Will extraction remain at the center of the transition? We must center Indigenous Peoples’ and human rights as well as true, regenerative practices as we transition to the new green economy. Healthy and sustainable economies should mirror healthy ecological systems. Healthy ecosystems are interconnected and resilient to change; they are interdependent and regenerate each other, rather than depleting and weakening the system. The global economies that currently dominate rely upon externalities, or invisibilized costs that do not get accounted for in budgets and which often take the form of rights violations and environmental destruction. Their costs are more complex to quantify but are, in fact, measurable, with devastating effects on millions of people and our entire planet.

Indigenous rights and environmental destruction are externalities of the mineral mining required to uphold certain aspects of the green energy economy. Green energy technologies, as exemplified by electric cars and solar panels, are replacing one extractive practice with another. They might change the form of pollution or location of land theft, but they do not eliminate them, thus perpetuating the current system that is destroying this planet. The oil drilling that fuels conventional vehicles devastates ecosystems and cultures. As it stands, the mineral mining required for electric vehicle batteries does not look much different.

In October 2021, Q’eqchi’ communities on Lake Izabal, Guatemala, rose up in a peaceful protest against a nickel mine, which, over many years, has contaminated their water. In the Russian Arctic, the world’s largest nickel producer, Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), spilled 21,000 tons of diesel into the Ambarnaya River in May 2020, decimating the fishing grounds of the Dolgan, Nenet, Nganasan, Evenk, and Enet Indigenous communities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that hosts more than 70 percent of the total cobalt global reserves, human rights groups have been reporting on human rights abuses including child labor and unsafe working conditions. In the United States, Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) are protesting the Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, citing the harm it would cause to their ancestral burial sites, water resources, and local wildlife. And the cases are mounting.

The concerns about green energy technologies go beyond the rights and environmental violations that occur in the production phase. They extend to the millions of tons of battery waste that will result if recycling cannot keep up. Some project up to 11 million tons of such waste just from electric vehicle batteries by 2030. Not only does this waste require storage on land, it also contains toxic chemicals that can contaminate surroundings and is extremely flammable. For renewable energies to provide a serious alternative to our current energy production and consumption cycles, they need to be grounded in a truly alternative set of principles and practices. Alternatives must consider all of the costs: climate, environmental, human rights, and biodiversity loss—not just the emissions that occur upon use of the product.

imgPhoto by Mrs. Gemstone.  

Circular economies take into account every aspect of the product life cycle, from production through what happens to the elements of the product after its lifespan has ended. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation identifies three key principles: eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials, and regenerating nature. When it comes to electric vehicle batteries, there are possibilities on the horizon. Under ideal conditions, recycled batteries could provide 50-60 percent or even greater of certain mineral materials by 2040.

Recycling many of these materials is already possible, although, as the Institute for Sustainable Futures’ and Earthworks’ recent report notes, many of the elements are currently recycled into other products or face other challenges to recycling at scale, and thus are not yet capable of replacing further mineral extraction for the same products. Recycling is essential to minimize future mining. However, there will be a delay until the battery cycle can become entirely circular, and it remains to be seen if this is even possible. Thus, companies mining in the meantime must be held accountable to national and international Indigenous rights, human rights, environmental protection, and other standards to ensure that Indigenous communities and ecosystems do not suffer even greater abuses as newer technologies expand. If these rights and protections are not ensured, renewable energies merely serve to shift the location of contamination, emissions, and health, cultural, and ecological impacts, rather than diminishing these impacts.

Reducing demand for energy and increasing energy efficiency are also critical. In the U.S., where rates of public transit use in some cities were as low as five percent pre-Covid, this will require massive infrastructure and policy shifts along with fundamental changes in values and practices. It will require addressing the root causes embedded in the extractive economic systems and pursuit of permanent growth within the limits of the planetary boundaries. The concepts of wealth accumulation and GDP have simply outlived themselves. It is time to imagine a new world based on millennia-old Indigenous values of regeneration, reciprocity, and respect for each other and Mother Earth.

To ensure human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights are at the center of the transition to a green economy, in March 2022, a delegation of Cultural Survival’s staff and partners traveled to Brussels to meet with Members of the European Parliament to advocate for the inclusion of references to Indigenous Peoples, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Free, Prior and Informed Consent in the new European Union battery regulation. We are excited to report that references to Indigenous Peoples and the Declaration made the final draft of the battery regulation. More advocacy efforts are needed before the final vote in summer 2022.

Photo by Yoppy. 

Indigenous Peoples have sustained diverse and complex societies with circular economies over millennia without defaulting to the sort of replacement extractivism that some of today’s renewable energy options entail. A meaningful, intentional, and truly Just Transition will require a set of solutions including improving existing standards, reforming old mining laws, mandating circular economy practices, setting standards and meeting targets for minerals’ reuse and recycling, reducing demand and accepting de-growth as a concept and a pathway, and most importantly, centering human rights and the right to the Free, Prior and Informed Consent in all decision-making. To go forward also means to go back to our original values and practices. Regeneration, recycling, reciprocity, and sustainability are not new, and we must center those who have always lived this approach. The choices we make today as individuals and as a collective will inform the future we will have tomorrow and for seven generations ahead.


Top photo: Forest in Siberia. Photo by Cultural Survival. 

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