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


There's growing demand for minerals like lithium and cobalt as the world ramps up manufacturing of electric vehicles and solar panels. It's estimated more than half of these minerals are on or near lands of Indigenous peoples, including in Arizona. That's where NPR's Julia Simon begins our story.


JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Ivan Bender takes a net and removes algae from a bright turquoise hot spring in the Arizona desert.

IVAN BENDER: It's a ongoing kind of thing here, this algae.

SIMON: The springs are called Ha'Kamwe'. And for the Hualapai tribe, the waters in this land are sacred and healing. Bender is a Hualapai tribal member and caretaker of the springs in Wikieup.

BENDER: This is important right here. It's where the - Wikieup generation to come, and this is their water.

SIMON: But, he says, mining activity threatens this water.

There is a seat belt. OK, great.

Bender took me out on his ATV through the desert...

BENDER: Okey-dokey.

SIMON: ...To a spot with holes in the dusty earth. In recent years, mining operations have drilled these exploration holes for lithium, a key mineral in climate solutions like electric vehicle batteries. Bender says it impacted the spring water.

BENDER: When they drilled that, that's what happened to our water.

SIMON: It went down.

BENDER: It went down. This is where it all started at.

SIMON: Experts say growing demand for energy transition metals will have huge impacts on Indigenous groups around the world. Research finds more than half of projects for these minerals are on or near Indigenous people's lands. The mining company with activity near the springs, Arizona Lithium, declined to directly talk to NPR. It sent a statement through a partner, saying local tribes, quote, "have strong cultural affiliation with these areas, and it's proceeding to engage with these communities on their concerns." But mines have a big footprint. And Galina Angarova knows this well. She's a member of the Ekhirit nation of the Buryat peoples in Siberia.

GALINA ANGAROVA: Air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, loss of biodiversity, loss of water.

SIMON: She says mines on Native lands have often led to more sexual violence and missing and murdered Indigenous women.

ANGAROVA: I've been to those places. I have seen it. And now, you have a whole host of issues because mining never comes alone.

SIMON: A core issue for Indigenous groups is the lack of input for where and how the mining happens and if it happens at all. There is a possible solution - something called free prior and informed consent.

KATE FINN: So it is the touchstone document.

SIMON: This is Kate Finn. She leads First Peoples Worldwide at University of Colorado Boulder and is a member of Osage Nation. Finn says this right to consent helps ensure Native groups get a say at all steps in the mining process.

FINN: If businesses want to truly respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, this is the map to do so.

SIMON: But in the U.S. and most of the world, it's not mandatory. That's why Angarova and Finn are working to get electric vehicle makers to codify Indigenous people's rights in their supply chains. Here's Finn.

FINN: Because automakers are quickly becoming the fastest users of these minerals.

SIMON: Indigenous leaders say they've had success. Angarova says Tesla approved a policy that expects their suppliers to respect Indigenous people's rights. The mining industry says higher standards for car companies has had a trickle-down effect. Fabiana Peek directs community engagement for mining exploration company KoBold Metals. She says, as they produce these metals...

FABIANA PEEK: We're going to be part of that due diligence process for car companies.

SIMON: Peek says KoBold engages Native communities in Canada, Australia and Namibia before they start exploring, not after, which she says has been the industry standard. But Angarova says most mining companies have a long way to go in their relationship with Indigenous communities. She says the transition to a greener economy could change that.

ANGAROVA: To me, the question is, is the green transition going to be the same old thing that is presented in a new package, or are we going to do it the right way?

SIMON: For Bender of the Hualapai tribe, the Australian mining company hasn't been doing things the right way. He's waiting to see what they do next.

Julia Simon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.