The success of the global energy transition to renewables will depend on rapidly increasing production of limited reserves of critical minerals, the majority of which are in indigenous territories. This second in a series addresses the global energy transition as an opportunity to interrupt continuing injustices, to examine and revise a global ethic of development in favor of human and earth-centric values.
The legacy of hardrock mining on native lands in the US is littered with environmental damage, racial and cultural abuse, the abrogation of treaties, the robbery of benefits derived from those mines and multiple legal and ethical quandaries and failures. Just as an example:
A recent $1 billion USD settlement from Tronox awarded to the Navajo Nation has been estimated sufficient to address remedial action of only ∼10% of the 3.6 billion kg of uranium mine waste on Navajo Nation alone. The 520 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo represent less than 12% of the more than 4000 abandoned uranium mines in the Western USA, and an even smaller fraction of the more than 161,000 abandoned hard rock mines in the Western USA. These numbers provide a perspective on the scope of the problem being faced by tribal communities.
Tribal lands are now assumed have great technical potential for renewable energy installations, which might provide material benefits of a green economy to native communities provided the necessary contractual relationships can be crafted carefully.
What also lies on tribal lands is a substantial portion of the critical mineral reserves necessary to build those renewable energy installations. The International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) has claimed that 54% of unexploited global mineral reserves needed for a new energy economy intersect with indigenous land.
The US federal identification and approach to what it assumes will be the eventual exploitation of these opportunities is not philosophically or materially different from how government and industry have regarded native communities and indigenous rights in the past. In 2007, the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was passed with 144 signatories (most notably not including the US, Canada and Australia). Yet in the US, less so in Canada, native sovereignty rarely warrants more than lip service when it comes to the extraction of mineral reserves. The negotiation process in which both industry and states blame each other for not conforming to public ethics, corporate social responsibilities or even law, and the stark contradictions between industry PR and company policies are a familiar scenario assuming the uninterrupted continuity of mineral development, usually ending in the abrogation of native treaties and rights in service of private gain and ‘public good.’
In the US, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has devoted considerable resources to develop policies of engagement and inclusion with Native American communities to facilitate renewable energy development. But coming to agreement about extracting those minerals is a much more complicated proposition than building a solar PV site because it raises familiar long-term issues such as ongoing health effects from decades of toxic dumping bearing on native environmental and community health. The NREL and the DOE do provide technical guidance on the topics of business and mineral development, economic sustainability, energy development mapping, obtaining grants and marketing assistance for mineral projects. In other words, the federal government appears to be doing everything possible to facilitate mining projects on native land and to enhance the benefits to tribal owners. But the legacy of federal oversight, treaty violations, land appropriation and the consequences of a history of mining on native land has been and continues to be deeply damaging.
Along with fossil fuel development, hardrock mining on native land is the face of coloniality, the extractive economy, cultural abuse, environmental destruction, and the ongoing ethic of disposable human and more than human lives for the sake of Progress. Mining is the leading edge of destruction at the heart of modernity, much of it for essential minerals and industrial components. An increasing amount of mining is for the more technical components of modern life (and warfare) we enjoy and have come to regard as indispensable.
The global energy transition is only going to accelerate this process if the existing conflicts are not addressed or revised. Mining may be regarded as an ongoing and intensifying quandary. The Western Colonial Project still manages, at least in the US, to justify its practices based on laws written 150 years ago. In the American Southwest, damages to clean water and soil, primarily from uranium mining, have not been fully addressed. Native health claims due to long-term toxic exposure have been denied due to onerous requirements for documentation, adding to the generational trauma of mining.
There have been numerous recent land claims adjudicated between private entities and native groups. Those claims can take a decade to work their way through the courts. But in the final analysis, such as in the case of the Resolute Copper Mine on Apache land in Arizona (est. 20 million tons), even a 10-year legal battle cannot stand in the way of mineral development deemed critical to the renewable energy transition or to the economy.
The original land swap from tribal hands to Rio Tinto, the global mining giant trying to bring the Resolute Mine to commercial operation, was made in 2014 during the second Obama administration. Legal challenges claiming the land was of religious and cultural import to the Apache nation worked their way through the courts until 2022, when an Appeals Court confirmed the lower court decision to approve the land swap. As is common in contentious disputes that boil down to technicalities, the Court chose narrow rationalizations to rule in Rio Tinto’s favor, confirming that in most cases, particularly those dealing with land disputes with Native-American nations, the law bends toward federal interests over tribal interests. Stinging dissents do not count. And, as in many cases, the Court throws the issue back to Congress to resolve further disputes. No mention of water scarcity made its way into the Resolute Mine ruling despite its location in one of the most water-stressed parts of the nation.
Joe Biden’s pre-election support of critical mineral mining continued after his election in the form of Executive Order 14017 calling for a review of the strategic significance of critical mineral supply chains. The report was released in June 2021. Copper was not included in that analysis because copper is not considered a critical mineral by the USGS. There is no compelling reason for Biden to counter this ruling overriding tribal concerns about the Resolute Mine.
In other recent mining developments:
- Biden banned oil drilling on Navajo land in New Mexico (against the wishes of the tribe), siding with the Pueblo tribe which opposed new drilling.
- After the Trump administration fast-tracked the permits for the Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada with little consultation with local native tribes, Biden sided with courts who overrode those tribal concerns.
- In 2022, the same court sided with tribal concerns regarding the Rosemont Mine in Arizona.
- Will $13B in funding from the 2022 Infrastructure law directed to tribal communities for clean water, internet, roads, bridges, dams and waste disposal facilities become negotiating leverage for future mineral rights?
These scenarios pitting indigenous interests against what most of the world now regards as an imperative to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels are going to be repeated over the next decades in scores, if not hundreds of locations worldwide. The process will become one that recapitulates disaster capitalism, which takes advantage of crises to capture and further degrade the commons. The key sticking points driving resistance to mineral extraction on protected or tribal lands continue to orient around waste disposal, toxic release into local water supplies, cultural and religious sites, and long-term negative impacts on tribal health. For many indigenous communities, waving money at them holds no sway.
Looking more closely at this issue, what we see is a mostly token attempts at engagement with native communities. In 2005, for example, Congress authorized federal agencies to give contract preference to tribal owned energy suppliers. As of 2019, the GAO says no federal agency has done so. Federal interactions with tribes don’t offer much real consideration for an outcome that doesn’t assume the continuity of the prevailing development model—regardless of how poorly it has performed in the past. The urgency of the global energy transition is beyond question. Yet there doesn’t appear to include much systemic examination of the rationales behind that urgency other than the need to shrink the anthropogenic carbon footprint while sustaining Business as Usual. The inertia of the system guarantees we will make all the same mistakes of the past. We are flirting with unpredictable systemic complexities and imagining we will foresee and manage all possible consequences.
The legal system that adjudicates claims on indigenous mineral wealth is itself part of the engine of modernity, predicated on the clever rationalizations to deny indigenous knowledge and culture, assuming the continuity of the practices which have fulfilled the dreams of the North while justifying the abuse and destruction of indigenous worlds. The imperative to forestall energy collapse justifies what to native communities look like familiar measures of re-colonization. Indeed, the transactional nature of state interactions with indigenous communities becomes another form of extraction.
What is left unaddressed is the ethic of development itself and of re-colonizing native communities to subsidize and resuscitate a faltering (if not failing) model of human presence on the planet. If tribal leaders were fully consulted, they might fundamentally interrogate the mythologies of modernity itself, the presumptions of exceptionalism, progress, growth, security, control, and continuity that characterize the current model of development.
The Gesturing Toward Decolonial Futures Collective reflected indigenous perspectives in a 2020 article titled Preparing for the End of the World As We Know It in which they question the principle of human centrality that drives the modern project. Humans continue to hold themselves separate from the planetary metabolism. Some indigenous voices even question whether humans will, or even should, survive at all if we continue our current course.
Davi Kopenawa, of the Yanomami people, in the book “The Falling Sky”, warns us that white people’s immaturity and greed puts every being on the planet at risk (including white people themselves). Ninawa Huni Kui, at the forefront of the fight against carbon trading in the Amazon, asks us to remember that the forest is not a resource, a commodity or property, nor is the earth an extension of ourselves. We are an extension of the metabolism of the earth, as a living planet.
Yandaarra activist Aunty Shaa Smith emphasizes that humans cannot own the land because the land owns us. She issues an urgent call for rebuilding relations that starts with the acknowledgement of humanity’s brokenness and grief, as opposed to humanity’s greatness. She suggests that it is necessary to shed our arrogance and approach what we have done with humility, because the land needs us to cry for it, before we can genuinely care for it.
The question is whether will we continue “perpetuating the familiar set of entitlements, financial models, hierarchies of rights and benefits that have brought us to this moment? Will we repeat the same dynamics of appropriation, violence, and unsustainability as we have in the past?” Or will we demand a more equitable pathway to collective well-being that includes everyone as well as the earth itself? How could we enact indigenous principles of relationality grounded in respect, reciprocity, trust and consent? What would it mean to integrate these perspectives into actual sustainability?
It would mean universalizing what until now has been a wholly inadequate, if not completely missing, sense of reverence and gratitude for what the earth provides. It would mean expanding the ongoing rituals of restoring the body of earth. Such an ethic might become a transformative practice by which we grasp the magnitude of the crimes we have committed for the sake of the benefits derived from extractive economies. It would mean rethinking in a more serious, creative, and deliberative way how to turn the consequences of mining into an expanding circular economy, reducing the human footprint in ways never imagined. Mostly, it would mean shedding the outlook and practices of a throwaway world. There’s no such thing as ‘away’ in the first place.
Mining is already part of the poly-crisis, the Great Unraveling, the center of the conversation, debate, or struggle, whichever it turns out to be, at the intersection of our fossil fueled past and our so-called clean future. Indigenous communities everywhere will increasingly, visibly, loudly, and painfully, be at the forefront of that conversation, where the terms of that future will be weighed. Illuminate all of it! Their struggle is our struggle.