Why indigenous peoples are key to ensuring EV revolution doesn’t run out of road

8 minute read

A demonstrator takes part in a protest by indigenous people against Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro and against PL 191, a bill that will allow mining in indigenous territories if approved in congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, April 13, 2022. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

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  • Energy transition causing concern in communities whose territories contain “green” minerals such as such as lithium, copper, cobalt and nickel
  • Ecuador passes landmark ruling that extractive companies must obtain free, prior and informed consent from indigenous groups
  • In Canada, Ontario’s Ring of Fire proposal becoming a test case on whether affected communities have the right to say no

May 31 - Something has happened on Canadian roads in the last few years. They’ve become quieter. As more people purchase hybrid or electrically powered vehicles, the rev of combustion engines is giving way to the hush of lower-carbon alternatives.

About one in 20 new cars on Canadian roads last year was battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric or powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And this trend is set to continue. Canada will ban the sale of new fuel-powered cars and light-duty trucks from 2035, one of many countries to enact such a ruling. So it seems things are set to get even quieter on Canadian roads.

But it’s a different story for the traditional communities who are on the front line of the global boom in demand for minerals such as lithium, copper, cobalt and nickel – critical components in keeping Canadians, and the rest of the world, supplied with electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels and other technologies needed for the energy transition.

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In many parts of the world, the green transition is leading to rising decibels of concern from communities whose territories are home to a significant proportion of “green” minerals. In the United States, for example, a recent report by MSCI found that among energy transition metals, 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt are located within 35 miles of native American reservations.

In Peru, protests by local communities against copper mine Las Bambas, which supplies 2% of global copper, has meant more than 400 days of closures due to blockades, since the mine opened in 2016. Recently, it announced it would suspend operations entirely, citing safety concerns related to the protests.

In Brazil, two pending bills by Jair Bolsonaro’s government would open up indigenous territory to industrial mining companies, resulting in the destruction of 16 million hectares of Amazon rainforest, an area larger than England, according to a report by Amazon Watch.

There are currently 225 active applications from companies such as Vale and Anglo American, who have a significant stake in the minerals needed for EV batteries.

The Kofan people of Sinangoe in Ecuadorian Amazon protest over headwaters of the Aguarico River. Handout/Amazon Frontlines

Meanwhile, in Ecuador, a ruling that is being hailed as precedent-setting was passed by the country’s Constitutional Court in February: mining and extractive companies need to obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from indigenous groups, as well as consult with them, if mining activity affects any of their lands. The country will reportedly open four new mines by 2025, among them the Cascabel, which could become the sixth-largest copper mine in the world.

And these battles are set to multiply. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the production of the minerals required for the green transition will need to quadruple over the next two decades to achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. The World Bank even goes so far as to say that the production of these minerals could increase 500 times by 2050, to meet growing demand.

At the heart of many of the struggles between mining companies and indigenous groups is the issue of consent, or lack thereof. While some countries, such as Ecuador, are pioneering legislation that is ruling clearly in favour of indigenous communities in terms of their right to FPIC, elsewhere, there is some catching up to do.

Canada, for example, has recently signed into law the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s Act (UNDRIP), under which FPIC is a key principle. But in most cases, it has yet to be meaningfully incorporated into mining projects in the country.

As well as differing opinions as to what FPIC actually means for various stakeholders, there is a question around who is responsible for implementing it. The federal government in Ottawa doesn’t have jurisdiction to pass laws about resource management. This lies instead with the provinces, says Dayna N Scott, research chair in environmental law and justice in the green economy at York University in Toronto.

An indigenous canoe in the proposed Ring of Fire area in Ontario, Canada, which is rich in mineral deposits. Handout/Dayna F Scott

Scott is an expert on the Ring of Fire, a proposed development located 540km north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. The area, which spans about 5,000 sq kms and is rich in mineral deposits, has been described by Ontario’s premier Doug Ford as key to developing the province’s electric vehicle industry.

“We’re seeing indigenous rights questions and issues really coming to the fore in the Ring of Fire,” says Scott, as well as questions about the preservation of the area's peatlands, or “breathing lands”, as they’re known by the indigenous peoples of the region.

“But nothing about the way the situation is playing out is giving me confidence that Canada is going to meet the high standards (that are necessary) with respect to protecting the peatlands or indigenous rights,” she says.

Environment and indigenous groups have warned that mining exploration and development would take place “in the middle of the world’s second largest peatland complex in northern latitudes”, and have significant health impacts on the First Nations communities of Matawa and Mushkegowuk, who are living near the proposed mines.

Currently, a federal regional assessment of the Ring of Fire development is "in progress", according to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada's website. The assessment would evaluate impacts on animal populations, surface and groundwater, and cultural and socio-economic impacts on indigenous groups. But what’s missing, according to some of those affected, is an indigenous governing body that would participate in decision-making.

In January, four of the affected communities responded to the draft agreement to conduct an assessment, stating that it was “narrow in geographic activity and scope and wrongly excludes us indigenous peoples from all but token roles”.

Scott believes that neither the province of Ontario, nor the federal government is “unequivocally committing” to the standard of free, prior and informed consent.

“Both the government and the courts have been saying that indigenous peoples don’t have a veto over resource projects,” Scott continues. “But that is not indigenous people’s interpretation of what the FPIC standard is.” Such an interpretation would include longer-term questions about their vision for their lands, for example, and also, simply, that they have the right to say no.

An electric car charging station is in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

But could what’s playing out in Ecuador – where, by law, indigenous groups now do have the right to oppose projects – have an influence in Canada and elsewhere around the world?

Kate Horner is the acting executive director at Amazon Frontlines, which works to help indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest to defend their rights to land, life and cultural survival. “FPIC is something that has been recognised in international law for a long time. (But) we are in the early stages of really starting to develop the national jurisprudence that will breathe life into this critical legal tool for indigenous peoples,” she says.

In other words, countries like Canada seem to be stuck in a hamster wheel of not knowing how to implement it, and which arm of government is responsible for doing so. In Ecuador, where the highest court has ruled that FPIC must be adhered to, both by government and business, things are rather more clear-cut. And there could be a ripple effect.

The victory in February, she says, “represents a massive power shift, certainly in the context of Ecuador, but more importantly, it signals growing momentum around the world to recognise this particular right.” With 50% of the world's lands, and more than 80% of biodiversity, managed by indigenous groups, Horner says, “there's a growing recognition that stewardship of their lands and resources is both an effective and necessary climate strategy”.

But what happens if permission is not granted? If indigenous groups say “no” to projects to mine the minerals needed to run EVs or manufacture renewable technologies.

It’s a question posed by Mark Podlasly, a member of British Columbia’s Nlaka’pamux Nation and the director of economic policy at the First Nations Major Projects Coalition in Canada. The organisation works with First Nations communities to realise the economic benefits of proposed infrastructure projects – anything from hydroelectric dams to mines, pipelines or transportation links – that might cross their lands.

“The mission of the coalition is to ensure that there is a culturally appropriate voice at the table in terms of the economics,” he says, which generally means developing an equity position. They also negotiate to ensure environmental considerations are taken at the planning, impact and operation stages of a project. In effect, they help communities say “yes”, but under fair and equitable terms. If a community has agreed to a share of equity, they consider consent, in effect, to have been given.

“We are pro smart development,” explains Podlasly. “That means it has to be aligned with First Nations values and aspirations. In the past that has not happened. (Developments) were simply imposed on us.”

Podlasly uses the past tense but for the communities near the proposed Ring of Fire development, and those currently fighting for land rights across South America, the imposition appears to continue, energy transition or none.

Indeed, without a habitable, self-regulating climate – a liveable planet – an electric car is not much use.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Sarah LaBrecque is a freelance writer who splits her time between Ottawa, Canada, and Hertfordshire. She writes about sustainable business and ethical living for publications such as the Guardian, Positive News, and for a range of B2B clients.