Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020: Celebrating Energy Democracy

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Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse emissions, yet they’re among the first to face the direct consequences of the climate crisis. Essential to enhancing the resilience of global ecosystems, indigenous people have traditional and local knowledge to interpret and react to the impacts of the climate crisis in ways that are quite different than western approaches. On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020, let’s look to some of the activism and cleantech solutions that native peoples around the world are drawing upon to mitigate the climate crisis.

Indigenous Peoples' Day 2020
Image retrieved from UN

Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020: The Quest For Energy Democracy

Even with their close relationship to the environment and its resources, indigenous peoples are experiencing political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination, and unemployment due to the climate crisis, according to the UN. The UN says that the threat of the climate crisis to indigenous peoples’ very existence, combined with various legal and institutional barriers, presents issues of human rights violations and inequality.

Yet replacing fossil fuel-based infrastructure with renewables is much more than a technological swap. Transformative social changes through energy democracy focus on harnessing progressive social change by embracing a vision of more distributed, locally-based energy systems with a regionally appropriate mix of different renewable sources that have the potential to satisfy 100% of that society’s energy needs.

Of course, advancing the vision of energy democracy requires prioritizing local and community-controlled renewables and reconceptualizing a publicly owned energy infrastructure. In light of often inefficient energy infrastructure, high energy costs, and a lack of funding for new energy projects — compounded by COVID-19 challenges — indigenous peoples are turning to renewable energy to help their tribes achieve energy and economic independence.

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Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020 — Celebrating Clean Energy Initiatives In Canada

Indigenous peoples have been reclaiming their space in the Canadian economy for several years. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) celebrates indigenous participation in renewables, drawing upon 4 key aspects to meaningful indigenous participation in infrastructure or energy projects, called the “4 directions of sustainability.”

  • Community buy-in: Energy projects benefit from accessing the traditional knowledge holders and elders in indigenous communities and their valuable contributions to sustainable development endeavors.
  • Community procurement: The Canadian federal government made a commitment to increase its indigenous procurement spending to a 5% target, and achieving this target can put more than a billion dollars into the indigenous economy.
  • Business acumen development: Learning by doing is key in business, and building practical knowledge and management experience provides a pathway to economic reconciliation. Indigenous communities and businesses have often been locked out of the Canadian economy, and only in the last 20 or 30 years has rebuilding business acumen in a modern context been a primary indigenous focus.
  • Community investment: Equity, when communities share in the ownership of a business, means the communities are more engaged and involved in business ventures.

The CCAB argues that it’s imperative to develop new infrastructure and energy projects while looking broader and deeper into the Indigenous community for leaders, entrepreneurs, and knowledge keepers. Thinking outside the box, they continue, can help to discover the potential such partnerships can provide.

Also, Canada’s Pembina Institute, which has worked for over 25 years with rural, remote, and indigenous communities to promote the adoption of clean and renewable energy and support the transition to a low-carbon economy, says that advancing the clean energy transition in remote indigenous communities must rest on a strong foundation of several foundational principals.

  • Technical advancements: Advancing proven and robust technologies so they properly function and can be maintained in the difficult climate and harsh conditions of remote communities
  • Human capacity: Empowering local people with the skills, training, mentorship, and networks necessary to champion projects;
  • Economics: Better economics and viable business cases that draw private investment into clean energy projects, shifting the focus away from government funding and complicated financial subsidies
  • Policy regimes and regulatory environment: Proactive government climate and energy policies and a supporting regulatory environment that support indigenous-led projects and stewardship
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CleanTechnica‘s Examination of Indigenous Activism & CleanTech

At CleanTechnica, we don’t spend just one day a year illuminating indigenous peoples’ activism around renewables and cleantech. We recognize that, in addition to environmental benefits, the renewable energy revolution can transform the lives of native peoples by redistributing jobs, wealth, health, and political power more equitably. We celebrate and support our indigenous partners in the quest for ecojustice.

Last November, I wrote about how, as the framework for a green energy economy becomes more and more mainstream, indigenous and local communities are positioning themselves to initiate culturally appropriate energy solutions that promote assert their rights, attract investment, and model symbiotic relationships with nature.

In February, Steve Hanley introduced us to the Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia, one tribe of which has refused to sign agreements with the developers of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. The proposed pipeline is scheduled to cross 22,000 square kilometers of  “traditional territory,” and the people who live there refused to be bound by a court order that allowed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to clear them from the path of the pipeline.

In June, our co-collaborator, the NRDC, outlined how — contrary to its mission and mandate — the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule that limits states’ and Indigenous tribes’ authority to protect the water within their own borders from federally authorized destructive projects such as oil and gas pipelines, hydropower dams, and wetland fills.

Tina Casey described in July more about the ongoing Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline battle and its “knockdown blow at the hands of the US Supreme Court.” The developer, TC Energy was told to halt work until it completed the environmental review that it “probably should have done in the first place.” The Keystone XL pipeline, which infringes on water systems and sacred lands, “as currently routed violates the treaties, federal law, and tribal law,” notes Native American Rights Fund staff attorney, Matthew Campbell.

Also in July, Johnna Crider wrote about how Bolivia’s lithium is being ransacked from the indigenous people, as, for the natives in Potosí, lithium is the new silver. In the article, Crider calls upon consumers to demand that their products be made with supplies that do not infringe upon the human rights of the people where those materials are sourced. When consumers make demands, she argues, corporations listen and do what it takes to meet that demand.

In August, I wrote about how a network of independent experts, activists, leaders, and organizations of Russian indigenous peoples called on Tesla CEO Elon Musk to boycott a Russian mining company until it meets specific ecologically-sound conditions. The letter to Musk acknowledged that Nornickel is an international leader in nickel production but is “also a global leader in environmental pollution.”

That’s just a sampling of the articles we’ve investigated and written here at CleanTechnica in support of our indigenous allies in the fight for environmental rights, renewable energy, and cleantech innovation.

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Final Thoughts About Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020

By explicitly acknowledging and connecting how energy systems impact political, economic, institutional, and cultural aspects of society, energy democracy reframes energy system change as an opportunity to redistribute political and economic power. Unlike many other societal issues, energy democracy provides a broad social, political, and cultural framework to connect social justice, energy, and the climate crisis.

If you want to keep up with news about indigenous peoples’ strives for sustainable energy, check out this curation.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1307 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna