This blog is part of a series called Unlocking the Potential of Indigenous Knowledge in Mining Regions. The series focusses on Indigenous-led solutions to meet mineral demands and tackle climate change.
Across the globe, over half the projects extracting minerals necessary for the green transition are located on or near Indigenous land. In the US, 97% of nickel, 87% of copper, and 79% of lithium is found within 35 miles of Native American reservations.
If the world is to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050, the supply of minerals will need to increase substantially. By 2030, the demand for copper is projected to grow threefold, and the demand for lithium is expected to increase nearly tenfold.
A blessing or a curse?
For many Indigenous communities who have already experienced the environmental, social, and cultural damage caused by mining on their lands, these new projects represent a threat rather than an opportunity, despite their crucial role in the green transition.
Two recent case studies of the OECD Mining Regions and Cities Initiative highlight the challenges and opportunities faced by Indigenous communities in areas characterised by extraction.
The Pilbara, Australia is the world’s largest iron ore supplier, home to one of the largest lithium deposits globally and has a First Nations population of 12.1%, compared with 3.8% nationally. The First Nations population of the Pilbara faces major wellbeing challenges. Outcomes across education, employment, income, and health are all considerably worse for First Nations vs non-First Nations people.
Note: “Experiencing disadvantage” is a composite measure comprised of different metrics within each outcome. Education attainment involves level of schooling completed, educational participation, and levels of non-school qualifications. Health is long term health conditions and disability.
Source: Data derived from Australian Census 2021
Antofagasta, Chile is home to the world’s largest copper mine and is the second largest lithium supplier globally with an Indigenous population of 10%, representing 18.5% of the rural population and 8.2% of the urban. Indigenous communities in Antofagasta face a 14.5% income poverty rate compared with non-Indigenous communities at 8%.
At the same time, Indigenous culture is under threat across the globe, with the extinction of one Indigenous language every fortnight. To address the complex challenges of tackling climate change, meeting mineral demands, and ensuring prosperity for Indigenous communities, a new approach is needed that values and invests in Indigenous knowledge.
Old practices for new challenges
Circular economy practices such as recycling, reusing, and repurposing are not new to Indigenous communities who have maintained complex eco-systems for millennia. The whole-of-system approach adopted by Indigenous Peoples can provide important insights that can drive a circular economy approach in the mining industry. It does so by recognising the interconnectedness of all elements within an ecosystem and ensuring that resource extraction respects the environment and the cultural and spiritual significance of the land.
Michael Woodley, a respected member of the Yindjibarndi community in Western Australia shares his people’s deep connection to the land and environment they have conserved for many generations.
“Before occupation, the Yindjibarndi people have managed and sustained our Ngurra (land) for centuries. The land and the people are held as one, a living organ that cannot be broken or replaced. Ngurra is the Ngarda and Ngarda is the Ngurra (we are the land, and the land is us). There is no other society that can repair the damage of climate change than that of First Nations.”
Mining a rich seam
But how do governments and industry centre Indigenous knowledge for circular economy practices in mining? This requires local, holistic, and creative solutions that invest in Indigenous knowledge restoration, and ensure communities have a seat at the decision-making table.
For instance, the Three Fires Group, a company representing several First Nations in Ontario, Canada is supplying Electra Battery Materials Corp with “black mass” (the residual compound from shredding expired lithium batteries) to reduce the amount of lithium needing to be mined.
At the Amrun mine in Queensland, Australia, Rio Tinto has been working with Wik-Waya landowners in developing a group to look after their land and work on rehabilitation strategies across the full mine life cycle.
This new approach can enable Indigenous communities to innovate circular economy solutions for the mining industry, increasing its growth potential as well as environmental credentials. Yet to do so will require a change in perspectives, shifting from placating to entrusting Indigenous Peoples to help rebalance the earth, one eco-system at a time.