Demand for minerals sparks fear of mining abuses on Indigenous peoples’ lands

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In western Arizona, Ivan Bender, a Hualapai tribal member, points to an area, bordering Hualapai land, where an Australian mining company is exploring for lithium – a key metal in electric vehicle batteries. (Julia Simon/NPR)

WIKIEUP, Ariz. — In the desert hills of western Arizona, Ivan Bender drives his ATV to inspect holes in the ground. The holes are near the property of the Hualapai tribe, and an Australian mining company drilled them in recent years as it explores for lithium, a key metal in many electric vehicle batteries.

Bender, a Hualapai tribal member, is the property’s caretaker, and he says he had no input when the company came on Hualapai land to access the spots where they drilled the holes.

“The company just jumped in here and started going to work. I didn’t understand what was going on,” Bender says, “It was like, where do we stand here?”

RELATED: An Alaska Native tribal council greenlit a gold mine. Some tribal members aren’t happy.

Demand for lithium and other metals like cobalt, copper and nickel is soaring as the world increases manufacturing of green energy components like batteries and solar panels. But research finds more than half of these mineral projects are on or near the lands of Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and around the world.

From water pollution to human rights abuses, mining has historically come with huge costs to native groups, says Galina Angarova of the Buryat Peoples in Siberia, who heads the Securing Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in the Green Economy coalition. New mining, even when it’s meant to address climate change, threatens to repeat mistakes of the past, she says.

“The question is, is the green transition going to be the same old thing?” she asks, “Or are we going to do it the right way?”

Mining on Indigenous lands often comes with problems

Bender’s ranch is home to Ha’Kamwe’, the turquoise blue hot springs on Hualapai tribal land. Bender scoops some algae out of the water at the springs, “This water is important, this water right here.”

The Hualapai consider this water healing and sacred. “There’s one of our elders, the way she described it is, ‘You’re on holy land, you’re on holy ground,'” he says.

But Bender says not long after the Australian mining company, Arizona Lithium, started drilling exploration holes, the springs’ waters went down. Arizona Lithium declined to directly answer NPR’s questions. But through a partner, it sent a statement saying local tribes “have a strong cultural affiliation with these areas” and “Arizona Lithium is proceeding to engage with these communities on their concerns and questions about the project.”

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Ivan Bender scoops the algae at Ha’Kamwe’ the sacred hot springs on the property of the Hualapai tribe. Bender says when a mining company began drilling exploration holes nearby it affected the water. (Julia Simon/NPR)

Arizona is one of many places in the world where mining companies are proposing mines on or near native lands. John Owen, professor at University of Queensland, says his research found 54% of energy transition minerals projects are on or near lands of Indigenous peoples. An analysis in the U.S. found more than 75% of lithium, copper and nickel reserves and resources are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

Angarova says mines on or near native lands often leave a big footprint, with roads, ports, and other infrastructure causing air pollution, water loss, biodiversity loss, and destruction of cultural sites. Mining can also increase rates of sexual violence, murders, and disappearances for Indigenous women.

“I’ve been to these places. I have seen it. And now you have a whole host of issues,” she says, “Because mining never comes alone.”

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A nickel mine in an indigenous municipality in northeastern Guatemala. Mines on native lands can have a big footprint, sometimes leading to water pollution, air pollution, biodiversity loss, and other problems. (Photo by CARLOS ALONZO/AFP via Getty Images)

Native peoples aren’t all against mining and the green transition, says Kate Finn, executive director of First Peoples Worldwide at University of Colorado Boulder, and member of Osage Nation. But she says Indigenous groups are trying to get equitable decision-making power. “The real key to me,” she says, “is looking at how we facilitate Indigenous participation and Indigenous consent.”

There’s a possible solution

Finn says there’s a solution for the lack of Indigenous input on where, how, and if mining happens. It involves mining companies complying with “Free, Prior and Informed Consent“, which was outlined in a 2007 United Nations declaration.

It means before mining or exploration begins, Indigenous groups should be participating, without coercion or manipulation, and with access to full information.

Consent is “not a one-time thing” says Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, “It’s about a relationship that goes on for a period of time.”

Fabiana Peek is director of community engagement for mining exploration company KoBold Metals. Her company is engaging with Indigenous communities in Canada, Australia and Namibia before they start exploring – not after, which, she says, has been the industry standard.

“The mining industry does not have the best rep,” Peek says, “It’s gonna sound really obvious, but really it’s about starting engaging with communities very early.”

It’s still mostly uncommon for mining companies to meet minimum standards of Indigenous consent, Angarova says. Even in Canada, where the government legislated a need for consent from Indigenous peoples, Dave Porter, a member of the Kaska Nation and chief executive of BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council, says some mining companies aren’t obtaining it prior to exploration.

That’s why Angarova and her coalition have another target: car companies.

In recent years Angarova, Finn, and other Indigenous leaders have focused on getting Indigenous consent codified with automakers and their supply chains. Because of the growth of electric vehicles, “automakers are quickly becoming the fastest users of these minerals,” Finn says.

Focusing on raising standards for automakers makes sense from a consumer-perspective, too, Boulanger says. “You know the name of the people who made your phone or the brand of the car you have,” she says. “We tend not to know the names of mining companies.”

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An Indigenous woman participates in a march against a copper mining contract in Panama. Indigenous groups around the world are seeing increased mining for nickel, lithium, copper and cobalt on or near their lands. (Photo by ROBERTO CISNEROS/AFP via Getty Images)

Angarova says that Tesla approved a policy that expects their suppliers to respect Indigenous Peoples’ right to “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”. And car companies’ higher standards are having a trickle-down effect for the mining industry. Peek says as they produce these metals, “we’re going to be part of that due diligence process for car companies.”

Indigenous groups find global solidarity

Now Indigenous groups that face increased mining for energy transition metals are coming together. Bender of the Hualapai tribe traveled from Arizona to Nevada to meet with tribes opposing a mine on the largest known lithium deposit in the U.S.

“I stayed a week up at Thacker Pass. I talked with them. I mingled with them,” Bender says, “I sat in ceremony with them.”

These conversations about mining between Indigenous groups are critical at this juncture in the transition away from fossil fuels, Angarova says. “We’re still defining what ‘just’ means in just transition,” she says.

The stakes are high if mining goes wrong, says Philip Wisely, public services director for the Hualapai tribe. As the planet heats, the drought continues, and some residents leave Arizona, many tribal members – with deep connections to the land – won’t leave.

“Everybody else will leave,” Wisely says, “The tribe will stay. And have to live with whatever’s left over.”

Support for this reporting came from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

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