With the move away from fossil fuels and towards green energy technologies comes a growing dependence on the critical minerals needed for those technologies. Nickel, lithium, cobalt and copper are just some of the minerals for which demand is set to rapidly increase in the next two decades – even up to fortyfold for some. This means more mining – and that can target indigenous territories, which have significant reserves of these transitional minerals.

Visit Energy Monitor's new Critical Mineral Tracker: Track production data and forecasts for lithium, cobalt nickel and copper, plus reserves, visualised against demand.

In the US, for instance, 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt reserves and resources are within 35 miles (56km) of indigenous reservations, according to analysis from finance company MSCI. Increased mining in these territories threatens indigenous rights, land and the environment. Between 2010 and 2020, 276 human rights violations were recorded against mining companies, shows analysis from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Additionally, the NGO recorded 555 attacks against human rights defenders – of which a fifth were against indigenous peoples.

Lesley Muñoz Rivera is a Colla activist from the community of Copiapó in Chile and a board member of the Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos (or Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats, OPSAL). In February, Rivera was one of three indigenous leaders who met with EU parliamentarians in Brussels to bring attention to the impacts of the extractive industries – including critical minerals mining – on indigenous peoples’ rights and to discuss a new proposed Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.

The Copiapó community is defending its land against projects extracting gold, boron, silver, copper and – increasingly – lithium. In Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, salt flats are mined for lithium, with the mineral most commonly extracted by evaporating salt brines. This is also the most water-intensive extraction method. As a result, the salt flats dry up and local communities are forced to relocate due to the lack of water.

The Punta Negra salt flat is pointed to as an example of how mining can destroy the environment in a report by US non-profit the Natural Resources Defense Council. Residents filed a lawsuit against the operator of a copper mine, saying that 27 years of intensive water extraction and the resulting depletion of water resources threatened flora and fauna and their culture and traditions. As part of the court settlement, the company, Minera Escondida, a company co-owned by Anglo-Australian mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto, now has to try and save the salt flat, working with local indigenous communities and environmentalists.

Lesley Muñoz Rivera spoke with Energy Monitor about how the energy transition cannot be considered ‘green’ and ‘just’ if one part of the world keeps colonising another, disregarding indigenous and local communities, violating human rights, and destroying the local environment and biodiversity in the process.

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There is a lot of interest in critical minerals for the energy transition. How much of a threat do you perceive lithium mining to be, especially compared with the mining of non-transitional minerals such as silver, and fossil fuels like oil and gas?

All three extractive industries pose a threat to the environment and ecosystems. In silver mining, large amounts of water are used for extraction. Oil and gas are a threat due to the possible contamination of water during extraction. In lithium mining at the salt flats in Chile, large amounts of water or brine are extracted, to be dried in the sun and processed until lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide is obtained.

How does lithium mining affect the people, land and environment of your community?

The Colla Indigenous community of the Copiapó community is mainly at risk from the extraction of water from the Salar de Maricunga salt flat. The approved form of extraction is the one that has been used in Chile since 1980, which is based on drying large amounts of water in the sun to obtain lithium carbonate. This affects the lives of the animals that live in or make their way through the Salar, such as flamingos, as well as animals that drink the water of the salt flat or surrounding water, such as the Guanaco.

The community uses water of which we do not know whether it is connected to the water of the salt flat. Projects were approved without carrying out studies to find this out. If it is connected, the community may not be able to continue its cultivation, livestock and even keep living in the area. Without water, there is no life. Our culture would disappear.

Several mining companies are eyeing areas around you and other communities close to the Maricunga Salt Flats for lithium extraction. Have you stopped any projects that could endanger your community?

So far, we have not been able to stop the Salar Blanco project, which is the threat we are currently focused on since it was approved by the state. At the same time, other companies are carrying out explorations that cannot be halted either, since legislation states that our participation in [decisions in] these instances is not appropriate.

In Chile, the law does not automatically include consultation from [local] communities. It can be requested, but it is very difficult to make that happen. I believe we should be consulted throughout the entire process, be it exploration or the extraction itself, since we are the ones with territorial knowledge.

Do you think the risks of critical minerals mining to you and other communities, as well as potentially irreparable damage to nature and the environment, mean terms like “clean energy” and “just transition” are used incorrectly at present?

The terms “clean energy” and “just transition” are being used for greenwashing. Daily, I see advertisements from companies that extract lithium from salt flats but talk about “clean energy” and “sustainable mining”, when what they are really doing is exhausting the water resources of indigenous peoples in those territories.

At the end of February, you met with EU parliamentarians to bring attention to the impacts of extractive industries and critical minerals mining. How could legislation like the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive help protect indigenous peoples’ rights, land and environment?

This type of legislation would raise the standard that companies should meet when wanting to source resources from a territory. It would promote the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples, their right to land, and [new] emphasis would be placed on talking about a clean environment that is suitable for living.

Did you feel listened to when visiting Brussels?

Even though the parliamentarians listened to us, the probability of our opinions, as indigenous peoples who defend their lands, being taken into consideration in decision-making is very low. These false energy transition solutions continue to promote consumption in the Global North – especially Europe – while exploiting the Global South – specifically Latin America and Africa. This is the opposite of buen vivir [good living], respect for nature and rights for nature that we as indigenous peoples propose.

Although we may get space to give our opinion, it is not a starting point for decision-making. Other interests are put first. The energy transition must be accompanied by public and private policies that aim to reduce the consumption of cars and electric batteries. The Global South and other places where minerals such as nickel and lithium are extracted cannot be sacrificed for the part of the global population with the greatest demand for these goods.

The [energy] transition must be accompanied by a change in logic: stop consuming, extracting, drying out and destroying and focus instead on respect for the rights of nature, indigenous peoples and good living.

You attended COP27 too. How can indigenous peoples and other potentially affected communities become more involved in such negotiations?

If indigenous peoples are the main ones affected, damaged and violated by climate change, why is it that we do not get a say and why are we not included in decision-making? Why do they continue to decide what will happen in our territories, without us as the main actor?

First, the peoples of the seven regions [indigenous peoples from Africa; the Arctic; Asia; Central and South America, and the Caribbean; eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia; North America; and the Pacific] need to have a seat at the table with the states that participate in COP negotiations. We are an important actor in the negotiations and our voice should be worth as much as that of a state.

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Second, we must support indigenous communities with resources to help them reach the COP and participate in the discussions. As indigenous peoples, we find ourselves on a plane of inequality against states and companies. When a company (or state) arrives in a territory, they have all the legal and scientific knowledge needed to support what they say. For us, it is very difficult to counter that, since the community does not have enough resources to employ lawyers, geologists, biologists, hydrogeologists and anthropologists – among others. It’s important that communities have access to the resources needed to cover these types of expenses.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that communities have the right to free, prior and informed consent. In practice, these rights still get violated or disregarded. Should there be more international standards or legal frameworks to protect communities’ rights when it comes to critical minerals mining and if so, what would this look like?

The international legislation on free, prior and informed consent has some critical points about the way consent is addressed. For example, it remains to be said that consent also implies saying no [in the first place]. For this reason, there should be a clause which considers this.

The legislation should also consider adding inspections and [the possibility of] sanctions against states and companies, and a jurisprudential body specifically dedicated to indigenous issues. It is already known that [some] states are violating the rights of indigenous peoples and are allowing transnational private companies to violate these rights.

Do you feel that governments, policymakers and companies prioritise lithium mining, or critical minerals mining and the energy transition in general, over the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment and biodiversity?

Totally. Chile is currently creating a national lithium policy that contemplates extraction from salt flats through public-private partnerships. The problem is that indigenous communities in those territories are not being considered in or consulted on this policy. They [the government and companies] only talk about exploiting.

What should a transition away from fossil fuels look like?

First, the solutions that are proposed should not create more problems. For example, replacing [fossil] fuel cars with electric cars just promotes the extraction of water from salt flats. Because this dries up water in the area, the industry will then turn to desalinated seawater. This process does not just cause local droughts, it also affects the health of the ocean, flora and fauna, and it violates the rights of indigenous peoples because it affects our ways of life.

Read more from this author: Isabeau van Halm

We must explore other solutions. For instance, promoting the use of public transport, environmental education and recycling. We need to stop making products that have a short, limited lifespan. Instead, we should focus on smaller-scale consumption models and different production models.

We need to understand that we do not live on cars. We live on air, water and food.

How do we ensure that the mining of critical minerals does not replicate or continue past abuses? Do you think responsible or clean mining of transition minerals would be possible and what would that look like?

I do not believe in clean extraction. All mining leaves residues and affects the environment in some way.

There can be a reduction in the damage, a reduction in waste and a reduction in environmental impact. This requires investments. States and companies that intend to exploit a territory must know how to reduce their impact before they start.

Additionally, there must be a system of international sanctions for companies that violate the rights of indigenous peoples, [or] that cause environmental damage. These same companies must repair the damage they have caused.

Standards on respect for human rights, indigenous peoples, the environment and the rights of nature must be raised.