Korean firms asked to consult with indigenous peoples prior to searching for renewable energy resources

Indigenous communities in Nevada, the United States, march to raise awareness about how a proposed lithium mine at Peehee Mu'huh, also known as Thacker Pass, will impact their ancestral burial grounds, water resources and wildlife. Courtesy of Cultural Survival

SIRGE Coalition voices concerns about indigenous rights being violated by carbon neutralization projects worldwide

By Ko Dong-hwan

A coalition of indigenous peoples around the world has expressed concerns about Korean companies operating globally charging forward with renewable energy initiatives, warning that the processes involved might violate their basic rights to sustaining their lives and protecting their cultural heritage.

The message came from
Secure Indigenous People's Rights in a Green Economy, or the SIRGE Coalition, a coalition of groups of advocates for indigenous peoples and clean energy transition worldwide, including Cultural Survival, First Peoples Worldwide, Batani Foundation, Earthworks and the Society for Threatened Peoples. The public announcement came in commemoration of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9.

“South Korean industry is a leader in the global electric vehicle supply chain,” said Agnes Portalewska, who represents Cultural Survival, an indigenous-led NGO based in Massachusetts, the U.S. “South Korean companies like LG Energy Solution, Samsung SDI and SK Innovation control a large part of the global battery market.”

Portalewska said that the global coalition was concerned about Korean firms that plan to expand their EV battery production this year, as such efforts will require minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper as essential materials. Process of unearthing them could threaten indigenous peoples' lives by destroying local environments and ecologies.

“The Korean companies' commitment to and implementation of indigenous rights such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) will be critical to ensuring a just energy transition that does not repeat the mistakes of the past and harm indigenous peoples around the world,” said the representative of the group that has been advocating for indigenous people's rights, cultures and political resilience since 1972.

FPIC is a right recognized in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) allowing indigenous peoples to give or withhold consent to a project that may affect them or their territory.

Indigenous peoples' food security and cultures are now under threat due to mineral mining and land development projects by raw material mining firms worldwide, according to SIRGE. Lithium Americas, an American mining firm now operating in Argentina and Nevada, is now developing a mine on Peehee Mu'huh, better known as Thacker Pass, a lithium reserve at the edge of McDermitt Caldera in Nevada, which is sacred to the Shoshone and Paiute indigenous peoples.

In this photo from November 2018, excavators unearth lithium at the Pilgangoora Lithium-Tantalum Project in Pilbara, Western Australia. Courtesy of POSCO

Members of the indigenous Q'eqchi' community in Guatemala peacefully blockaded the Fenix nickel mine to protest the mine operator's lack of discussion with them regarding their FPIC concerning the mine. The indigenous community said the mine development has polluted their traditional fishing grounds in Lake Izabal.

In Russia, indigenous communities in the country's northern Taimyr Peninsula suffered food insecurity after a fuel spill incident in 2020 by a subsidiary of Nornickel ― a Russian mining firm that SIRGE says supplies some 20 percent of the world's Class 1 nickel needed for electric vehicle batteries ― polluted local waterways. SIRGE said that despite pressure from companies in the supply chain, Nornickel has so far failed to respond to requests from indigenous communities for adequate compensation and restoration of the fragile Arctic environment.

Indigenous territories contain significant concentrations of untapped heavy metal reserves around the world, according to SIRGE. In the United States, a study by Morgan Stanley Capital International estimated that 97 percent of nickel, 89 percent of copper, 79 percent of lithium, and 68 percent of cobalt reserves and resources are located within less than 60 kilometers of Native American reserves.

The coalition also cited a 2020 study that found that mining activities potentially influence 50 million square kilometers of the earth's land surface, with 8 percent coinciding with protected areas, 7 percent overlapping with key biodiversity areas, and 16 percent in the remaining wilderness.

“Healthy and sustainable economies should mirror healthy ecological systems,” said Galina Angarova, the executive director of Cultural Survival. “Healthy ecosystems are interconnected and resilient to change; they are interdependent and regenerate each other, rather than depleting and weakening the system.”

A meaningful “just transition” ― a transition from fossil fuel-based to renewable resources without harming the pre-existing environmental conditions, human life and culture, or excluding certain groups from participation ― requires a set of solutions, according to Angarova, who is from the Buryat indigenous community. “It should improve the existing standards, reform old mining laws, mandate circular economy practices, set standards and meet targets for minerals' reuse and recycling, reduce demand and accept de-growth as a concept and a pathway, and most importantly, center human rights and the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent in all decision-making.”

The Ford Mustang Mach-E electric car is equipped with LG Energy Solution's batteries. Courtesy of Ford

Pavel Sulyandziga from the Udege indigenous community, who is also the president of the Batani Foundation, said that although the green economy is what the countries are striving for right now, if we don't create the human rights prerequisites and conditions for the green economy, it can become a “tragedy for Indigenous peoples on whose lands the natural resources will be extracted.”

Kate Finn, from the Osage indigenous community, who is the executive director of First Peoples Worldwide, said that partnership with indigenous peoples is integral to climate-resilient development.

“We must ensure that the harms to communities and environments driven by the fossil fuel economy are not replicated in the critical mineral development necessary to transition to low-carbon, clean energy projects,” said Finn. “SIRGE provides pathways to concrete actions necessary to protect indigenous peoples' rights and reduce material loss for companies in the rising demand for renewable energy resources. To witness the coalition activate so comprehensively is to witness the strength and vitality of indigenous peoples and indigenous solutions.”

Tabea Willi, a campaign manager for the Arctic campaign at the Society for Threatened Peoples, based in Switzerland, said that SIRGE is an indigenous-led alliance there to ensure that the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry are not repeated in the transition to a green economy.

SIRGE, with the UNDRIP, protects indigenous peoples' rights to their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories as well as their rights to determine their own priorities regarding their lands, territories and resources. The coalition said that indigenous leadership is essential, as indigenous peoples conserve about 80 percent of the planet's remaining biodiversity.

“We call for full implementation of the UNDRIP, including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent, in all endeavors related to the extraction, mining, production, consumption, sale and recycling of transition and rare earth minerals around the world,” said Portalewska.

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