The world’s Indigenous leaders at an annual UN summit, have warned that the west’s climate strategy is risking the exploitation of Indigenous territories, resources, and people.
As hundreds of Indigenous chiefs, presidents, chairmen, and delegates gathered at the 22nd United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, new and emerging threats about the transition to a greener economy, including mineral mining, were at the forefront of debate.
The forum’s chairman, Dario Mejía Montalvo, told delegates on Monday, “It is common to hear the expression to ‘leave no one behind’. But perhaps those who are leading are not on the right path” — a powerful statement that hits at the heart of the issue. The process of ‘greening’ the world, while essential, is not without its consequences. Indigenous communities are often the ones who bear the brunt of the consequences, while the rest of the world benefits.
Mining for minerals such as nickel, lithium, cobalt, and copper are vital to support products like electric car batteries, however they are also the source of many conflicts in tribal communities. As countries scramble to uphold pledges to keep global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by 2030, big business and government are latching on to environmentally-driven projects such as mineral needs or wind power that are usurping the rights of Indigenous peoples — from the American south-west to the Arctic and the Serengeti in Africa.
Brian Mason, chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian reservation in Nevada, recently said that the 70 or so lithium mining applications targeting Paiute lands have come without free, prior, and informed consent — what is considered the cornerstone of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He describes the lithium extraction efforts as being on a “fast track” to supply the Biden administration’s net-zero strategy to create a domestic supply of EVs. “It’s kinda just being rammed down our throats,” he said. “At the cost of Indigenous peoples once again.”
Edward Parokwa, executive director of the Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organization (Pingo’s Forum), said a mass migration of thousands of Maasai has ensued, due to violent displacement from their Tanzania homelands to make way for a luxury game reserve. A UAE-based company is believed to be behind the big game hunting operation. “And it’s happening in the name of conservation,” Parokwa said, accusing the Tanzanian government of trying to deflect global criticism for the project, particularly ahead of Cop28 UN climate talks slated for later this year in Dubai.
Indigenous peoples are caught in the middle of a climate conundrum. Gunn-Britt Retter of the Saami Council, an organisation representing the Sami peoples of Finland, Russia, Norway, and Sweden, said she had been raising awareness about what she calls the “green colonialism” driving harmful sustainability projects on Sami and Indigenous lands. The most recent example has been the Fosen onshore wind farm that was built despite a supreme court ruling in Norway in defence of Sami reindeer herding grounds.
“They look to us to carry the heaviest burden, and it’s a disproportionate part of the burden,” she said. “We need to reduce CO2 emissions globally, and we need to seek alternative energy sources. But we also need to protect the Indigenous cultures because we are the guardians of nature, which is part of the solution.”
Unfortunately, too often Indigenous peoples lack voting power, putting them on an unequal footing. Mejía Montalvo belongs to the Zenú peoples, whose livelihoods and communities are threatened by the unchecked expansion of extractive industries, often with government support. Indigenous peoples’ rights are not only enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but are also critical to the successful mitigation of climate change.
While the world continues to grapple with the climate crisis, Indigenous peoples have long been at the forefront of environmental protection and conservation efforts. Their traditional knowledge and practices have sustained ecosystems and biodiversity for generations. Yet, they are also disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental degradation.
As the global community moves forward in developing climate policies and solutions, it is imperative that Indigenous peoples’ rights are respected and incorporated into decision-making processes. This includes giving them a meaningful role in shaping climate policies and solutions, as well as ensuring their free, prior, and informed consent is obtained before any actions are taken that affect their lands and territories.
Only by doing so can we truly ensure a just and sustainable future for all.