As the gears kick in for the world to shift to clean energy, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re going to need more of the minerals—like lithium, cobalt, and nickel—that help power our cars and form the backbone of our solar panels. And the mining industry is quickly catching on to how profitable this transition could be for them: lithium prices alone have climbed an incredible 123% this year. But mining those minerals could put some of the world’s most vulnerable people at risk—the same people who have the biggest role to play in helping protect our most important natural resources.
A new study finds that more than half of the world’s resource base for crucial energy transition materials is located on or near land where Indigenous people live. The analysis, published in Nature Sustainability, is a key example of how resource extraction could interfere with Indigenous and peasant populations and exacerbate the challenges already faced by these people, whose work on their lands is a vital tool to helping to combat climate change.
Indigenous people have an incredibly important influence on at-risk lands around the world and are leaders in fighting climate change. Some analyses show that the world’s Indigenous people have some kind of control of 30% of the world’s land—much of it in undeveloped, remote areas. And a wealth of growing research has linked Indigenous land control to positive climate outcomes: Indigenous communities, the UN has estimated, help to maintain 80% of the biodiversity left on the planet, and their practices in protecting these lands are a key part of safeguarding some of the world’s most valuable carbon sinks and natural resources.
Unfortunately, excess industrialization—including mining—in regions where Indigenous people live has already done untold damage to their lives and taken away control of their land. Mining for materials like gold and copper in the Amazon, for instance, has contributed to large-scale deforestation, polluted local water and food supplies, and led to increased conflict between Indigenous populations and prospectors and the military. A report from Global Witness released in October found that three people per week—most of them Indigenous—have been killed since 2011 while trying to protect their land, with extractive industries responsible for a quarter of the deaths surveyed; mining was the industry directly linked to the most killings.
For the study, the authors looked specifically at the patterns that form around extraction of the stuff we’ll need for the energy transition, compiling a list of some 30 minerals and materials that will be used in energy transition products like EV batteries and solar panels. They created a dataset of more than 5,000 current or planned extraction projects and compared their locations to land where Indigenous and/or peasant peoples live or exert some form of control.
The analysis shows that of the 5,097 current and future mining projects surveyed, 54% of those projects were on land on or near Indigenous populations. Nearly 30% of those projects, meanwhile, are on land that Indigenous people directly manage and conserve. Lithium is far and away the material with the most potential reserves on Indigenous lands: a whopping 85% of the current and planned lithium extraction projects, the analysis finds, are located on or near land managed or inhabited by Indigenous people.
There are many issues involved with the mining industry at large—including child labor and destruction of valuable natural resources—that have started to bubble to the surface as the world accelerates into the energy transition. There have already been several conflicts between Indigenous populations and miners of clean energy materials. These tough issues are often waved away by some greentech boosters and climate hawks as a necessary cost of doing business in the age of climate change.
There’s no doubt that we’re going to need to tap into the world’s mineral resources to power the move away from fossil fuels and help stave off the worst impacts of climate change. But work like this emphasizes the need to move slowly and carefully, in order to not industrialize large swathes of land and further marginalize Indigenous peoples. The authors of the paper told Earther that they hope their work helps policymakers explicitly incorporate Indigenous rights and land management into conversations around the energy transition.
“Until these local considerations and pressures are better characterized, current climate solutions risk increasing the rate of industrialization, thereby exacerbating the originating problem,” the paper states. “...Extracting more [energy transition materials] to advance the energy transition will extend the global mining land footprint presenting significant threats to social and environmental sustainability.”