This story is published as part of the Global Indigenous Affairs Desk, an Indigenous-led collaboration between Grist, High Country News, ICT, Mongabay, Native News Online, and APTN.

For years, Maureen Penjueli, who is Indigenous Rotuman from Fiji, has watched her home country survive devastating cyclones and flooding caused by unusually heavy rainfall. She watched as the coastal village of Vunidogoloa was forced to relocate inland to escape rising seas, and as the long-time head of the nongovernmental advocacy group Pacific Network on Globalization, Penjueli knows climate change will mean more extreme weather events for her Pacific island home. 

Still, Penjueli is skeptical when she hears “clean energy” touted as a solution to the climate crisis. She thinks of the clear blue waters surrounding Fiji and how companies are eager to scrape the seafloor for potato-shaped nodules rich with minerals that could be used to build electric cars in wealthy countries, and she worries her people will face consequences from any deep-sea mining pollution.

“It’s super critical that people understand that the transition is anything but just, and anything but equitable,” said Penjueli. 

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That’s why this month, Penjueli flew from Suva, Fiji, to New York City to meet with fellow Indigenous activists ahead of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, or UNPFII, the largest annual global gathering of Indigenous peoples. Officially, this year’s forum is focused on self-determination for Indigenous youth, but climate change looms large: On opening day, the outgoing UNPFII chair shared a new report on the green transition, raising another alarm about the risks Indigenous peoples and their lands face not only from climate change, but also the projects intended to counteract global warming.

“The current green economy model is a problem rather than a solution for many Indigenous Peoples,” the report said. “The concept of a transition to a green economy maintains the same extractive logic that causes States and the private sector to overlook the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples in pursuit of national interests.” 

In Guatemala, a court recently found that a nickel mine is violating Native land rights; in Norway and the U.S., Indigenous peoples have weathered ongoing fights with green energy developers; and Indigenous Igorot from the Philippines are worried about displacement from nickel mining.

“We actually support the transition away from fossil fuels to green energy and we need to do it fast,” said Joan Carling, who is Igorot from the Philippines and serves as executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Indigenous Peoples Rights International. ‘“But if we do it fast by ignoring and violating the rights of Indigenous peoples, we will not be able to address the climate crisis effectively.”

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More than half of the world’s minerals that could serve as alternative energy sources and help countries stop burning fossil fuels — known as transition minerals — are located on or near lands and territories managed by Indigenous peoples, according to a 2023 study in Nature Sustainability. These include lithium, cobalt, nickel, uranium, and many other critical minerals that would require extractive mining with myriad environmental impacts. 

Those impacts are why Carling helped organize the Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Just Transition, the two-day gathering that Penjueli attended just prior to the forum. After a weekend of discussions, the group came up with a statement urging state governments, investors and corporations, and energy utilities and regulators to respect Indigenous rights.

They called for a ban on deep-sea mining, as well as any mining at sacred sites and reminded government officials that Indigenous peoples have the right to consent to projects on their land freely and before projects get underway, and that they also have the right to say no. Lack of consent has long been a problem with development and many see the green energy industry continuing the same trend of not doing enough to inform Indigenous communities about upcoming projects, and prioritizing profits over human rights. 

The group’s statement was part of a broader message repeated throughout the auditoriums, conference rooms, and hallways of the United Nations this last week: The “green economy” isn’t working for Indigenous peoples. “Clean energy” isn’t actually clean. And the world’s shift to a mineral-based energy economy is coming at the expense of Indigenous peoples and their lands. It’s a message that’s been shared many times before but is gaining urgency as the energy transition accelerates, fueled by billions in funding from China, the U.S., United Kingdom, and European Union.

In the U.N.-commissioned report on the greening economy, experts called for compensation for Indigenous peoples’ communities who are affected by pollution and environmental destruction from green energy operations. They said long-term economic planning should take place when mining begins in case the operations affect other industries that Native peoples rely on — for example, if pollution from deep-sea mining harms fisheries, an economic driver in many Pacific island countries. Experts also called for sharing project revenues after obtaining consent.

“If an Indigenous Peoples’ community chooses to engage in benefit-sharing, any such agreement should be based on future annual revenues so that the community receives half or more than half of the percentage of total revenues for the duration of the project,” the report said. 

They emphasized the need for direct funding for Indigenous peoples who are managing lands and territories that are home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and urged state governments and corporations to see Native peoples as partners and not obstacles to the transition away from fossil fuels.

The report’s authors also criticized how the terminology surrounding the movement away from fossil fuels obfuscates the problems of the transition. “The term ‘just economy’ is no more than a slogan from the perspective of most Indigenous Peoples,” the report said. 

Darío Mejia Montalvo, outgoing chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that such terminology hides Indigenous peoples’ lack of involvement in these changes. 

“Indigenous peoples do not believe that many of the measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change that have been suggested will ultimately solve climate change, because the final result of these policies ultimately ends up harming Indigenous peoples,” he said. 

That’s what Penjueli fears. She worries about the lack of knowledge about the environmental effects of removing minerals from the ocean floor and wonders what would happen if something goes wrong: Where would Fiji come up with the money for an environmental cleanup and restitution? And what would happen to the fish that her people rely on to eat?

She says it doesn’t make sense for the world to switch from a strategy of bottomless consumption through burning fossil fuels to a similar consumption model based on mineral mining. Already, reports describe the waste of critical minerals: Even as more mines are dug and more lands cleared, millions of metric tons of copper and aluminum are being discarded every year in landfills instead of being repurposed for renewable energy development. The European Council, which sets political priorities in the European Union, has set a nonbinding goal that by 2030, a quarter of “critical raw materials” consumed should be recycled materials, but experts say more could be done to repurpose these valuable minerals. 

But what’s most frustrating to Penjueli is the idea that her people must sacrifice to save the world. It reminds her of how other Pacific peoples were told to sacrifice for world peace, when global powers tested nuclear weapons. 

“It’s super problematic that we supposedly have to carry the burden of this transition,” she said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Penjeuli.

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