Putting rights first in the green transition

Last week, environmental defenders from Ecuador, Portugal, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, and Sweden came together in the European Parliament to speak about the environmental injustices being done to their communities and to call on the EU to put rights first in the green transition. With the EU’s plans for critical raw materials due to be published in mid-March and the Parliament in the process of defining their position on the new law on corporate due diligence, the stakes have never been higher, writes Ruby Silk.

We need to decarbonise, there is no doubt about that, but while the EU scrambles to find raw materials for the green transition – whether this is for electric cars, the military, digital devices or renewable energy infrastructure – a disproportionate burden is being put on communities, both in the Global South and in Europe. Some communities have little to benefit from such a transition – yet everything to lose. 

The EU’s green transition needs more minerals and metals than what we have, so how can the destruction of nature be worth the cost? How green is the green transition? These are questions we must ask before writing legislation,”

probes Danila Andragoya, Red de Jovenes del Choco Andino Ecuador.

Although the push to create a more sustainable economy in Europe seeks to promote green alternatives for its citizens, including energy sources, not all citizens are included in this vision. In Europe, we have our share of environmental injustice and our share of environmental defenders mobilising against a model that leaves their communities behind and threatens to harm their environments.

The Portuguese government has actively been trying to sell mineral deposits to the highest bidder, promoting the ecological benefits of lithium mining. Projects were given the status of ‘national interest’ but all description of these projects were in English…the environmental impact assessments were hyped up in the media but left communities in the dark”,

explains Catarina Scarrott, Associação Unidos em Defesa de Covas do Barroso.

The draft legislation for the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act indicates that the Commission may prioritise the acceleration of the exploration and extraction of raw materials on European territory, and in some cases be ready to circumvent nature protection laws to do so. Scarrott appeals to the European Parliament:

The European Parliament needs to consider the consequences of getting the green transition wrong. My message to the EU is: don’t rush, and protect human rights and democracy above all. If you want to get out of the hole, stop digging.” 

During the event, co-organised with CATAPA and CIDSE, environmental defenders, among them several representatives of indigenous groups, asked that the EU do a better job of ensuring corporations and national governments respect the rights of their communities and consult them before any projects are planned on their land or territories. In doing so, the defenders build on the concept of the Right to Say No — a legal framework that can support communities’ participation in decisions about mining projects related to the land or territory they live on and depend on. 

The Right to Say No, can also be the right to say ‘yes’, it can be the right to say ‘maybe’ or the right to say ‘yes, but’,”

says Galina Angarova, Member of the Siberian Buryat Peoples, and Director of Cultural Survival.

This reflected the view shared among participants that the Right to Say No is a starting point to discussions, allowing both parties to enter the conversation on an equal footing. 

The Right to Say No gives me the right to say yes, then we can be at the table in equal terms, that is why it is a question of democracy,” says Matti Blind Berg, President of the National Confederation of the Swedish Sámi herders.

Outside of the indigenous right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) there is currently no real Right to Say No. The EEB and CATAPA have put together a legal toolbox for communities affected by mining in the EU, to help communities to assert the Right to Say No, even while it is not something we can yet legally claim. This toolbox can be usefully supported by Yes to Life, No to Mining (YLMN)’s guide for communities affected by mining on how to interact with European institutions and processes.

The environmental defenders were joined by UN Special Rapporteur for the protection of environmental defenders, Michel Forst, as well as MEPs Manon Aubry (the Left), Marie Toussaint (Greens) and Soraya Rodríguez Ramos (Renew), who reiterated the need for stronger protection for environmental defenders, human rights and the environment against corporations and, in particular, extractive industries. 

The room was united in calling for a stronger due diligence law than the one that is currently on the negotiation table; a due diligence law that truly holds companies and their subsidiaries accountable for violations of human rights and environmental harms. Such violations are often intrinsically connected, and a comprehensive law is needed to address them effectively.

Opposition voices argue that due diligence is an administrative burden on corporations, but what is an administrative burden compared to the rights of people?,

says Manon Aubrey, MEP from the Left.

Questions remain. We do need materials for the energy transition, but are we doing enough to find alternatives for materials extraction? Are we also doing enough to avoid these injustices on the ground? And who stands to win and lose when everything becomes electrified?