Indigenous lands feel cruel bite of green energy transition 

Comment: Mining companies have been offered a path to sustainability but few are taking it – Indigenous people need to be at the table demanding change

Indigenous lands feel cruel bite of green energy transition 

Members of Indigenous organizations in the province of Cotopaxi protest against mining in their territories, in Latacunga, Ecuador, March 27, 2024. (Photo: REUTERS/Karen Toro)


Rukka Sombolinggi, a Torajan Indigenous woman from Sulawesi, Indonesia, is the first female Secretary General of AMAN, the world’s largest Indigenous peoples organization. 

Gathered in NYC in mid-April, 87 Indigenous leaders from 35 countries met to hammer out a set of demands to address a common scourge: the green energy transition that has our peoples under siege.  

Worldwide, we are experiencing land-grabs and a rising tide of criminalization and attacks for speaking out against miningand renewable energy projects that violate our rights with impacts that are being documented by UN and other experts. Their research confirms what we know firsthand.    

And yet political and economic actors continue to ignore the evidence, pushing us aside in their rush to build a system to replace fossil fuels, while guided by the same values that are destroying the natural world.  

Ironically, we released this declaration amid the UN’s sustainability week – renewable energy was on the agenda. We were not.  

Q&A: What you need to know about clean energy and critical minerals supply chains

Indigenous peoples are not opposed to pivoting away from oil and gas, nor are we opposed to investing in renewable energy systems as an alternative.  

But we must have a say. More thanhalf the mines that are expected to produce metals and minerals to serve renewable technologies are on or near the territories of Indigenous peoples and peasant communities.  

Resource extraction causing triple crisis  

In the words of the UN’s Global Resource Outlook 2024, released in March with little fanfare by the UN Environment Programme: “the current model of natural resource extraction…is driving an unprecedented triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”. 

Mining companies have been offered a path to sustainability. Few have started down that path.  

And they won’t unless global and national decision-makers take advantage of this key moment in history to demand change. Indigenous leaders need to be at the table too.

As donors dither, Indigenous funds seek to decolonise green finance

We are not willing to have our territories become the deserts that mining companies create, leaking toxins into our rivers and soils and poisoning our sources of water and food, and by extension our children. 

The playing field for Indigenous peoples is massively unjust. The authors of the Global Resources Outlook cite evidence of national governments that favor companies’ interests “by removing the judicial protection of Indigenous communities, expropriating land…or even using armed forces to protect mining facilities”.  

Why should this matter to people on the other side of the planet? 

Proven to outperform the public and private sectors, Indigenous peoples conserve some of the world’s most biodiverse regions. Negotiators at global climate events do cite our outsize conservation role, but treaty language allows our governments to decide when and whether to recognize or enforce our rights.  

Companies are advised to “engage” with our communities – not so they can avoid harming us, but to prevent costly conflicts that arise in response to outdated and destructive practices. 

These “externalities” that chase us from our ancestral homes and damage our health and the ecosystems we treasure are revealed only when they become “material”, of concern to investors and relevant to risk analysts. 

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Our resistance is costly and material. Failure to properly obtain our consent before sending in the bulldozers can bring a project to a halt, with a price tag as high as $20 million a week. And communities are learning to use the tools of the commercial legal system to defend themselves. 

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School report that, over time, shareholders benefit most when companies heed the demands of their most influential stakeholders. Indigenous peoples are the stakeholders to please.  

Our communities disrupt supply chains, but when our rights are respected, we can also be the best indicators of a company’s intention to avoid harm to people and planet. 

Call for ban on mining in ‘no-go’ zones 

In the declaration we released in New York earlier this month, we called for laws to reduce the consumption of energy worldwide, and we laid out a path for ensuring that the green transition is a just one. 

We urged our governments to recognize and protect our rights as a priority; to end the killings, the violence and the criminalization of our peoples; and to require corporations to secure our free, prior and informed consent, and avoid harming our lands and resources. 

A growing body of evidence suggests that Indigenous peoples rooted to their ancestral lands can draw on traditional knowledge, stretching back over generations, to help nature evolve and adapt to the changing climate. We understand the sustainable use of wild species and hold in our gardens genetic resources that can protect crops of immeasurable economic and nutritional value. 

Current practices for extracting metals and minerals put our peoples at risk and endanger climate, biodiversity, water, global health and food security. Researchers warned earlier this year that the unprecedented scale of demand for “green” minerals will lay waste to more and more land and drive greater numbers of Indigenous and other local peoples from our homes. 

Q&A: What you need to know about critical minerals

So our declaration also calls on governments to impose a ban on the expansion of mining in “no-go” zones – those sites that our peoples identify as sacred and vital as sources of food and clean water. Indigenous communities, rooted in place by time and tradition, can help stop the green transition from destroying biomes that serve all humanity. 

The UN Secretary-General launches a panel on critical minerals today that seems to recognize the importance of avoiding harm to affected communities and the environment.  

This is a step in the right direction, but Indigenous peoples and our leaders – and recognition and enforcement of our rights – must be at the centre of every proposal for mining and renewable energy that affect us and our territories. This is the only way to keep climate “response measures”, made possible by the Paris Agreement, from harming solutions that exist already. 

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