The global imperative for rapid decarbonisation depends on both a radical ramp-up of green technologies – solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and batteries – and access to significant volumes of the transition minerals required to develop and deploy them. New deposits of copper, lithium and nickel, among others, must be identified and mined at speed if the world is to realise its ambitious – and critical – goal of net zero emissions by mid-century.
Central to this objective and the rush to find these minerals, however, should be respect for the human rights of the communities and traditional owners of the land from which mining companies and their investors seek to benefit, and on which the clean energy transition depends. This must in the first instance include legitimate consultation with and consent from these groups. Where community rights are disregarded, the consequences can be significant for residents, investors, and for the prospect of ensuring the clean energy transition itself can be sustained. The growing need for transition minerals is also driving a broader mining debate, as environmental and human rights groups and interested citizens focus on addressing the climate crisis, and what the transition to clean energy may mean for frontline communities and the rest of the world.
This briefing, drawn from desk research, community interviews and field visits, uses qualitative data to highlight emerging cases of concerning corporate behaviour during the early exploration and licensing phases of transition mining projects – where consultation and obtaining consent matter most. We provide three recent case studies that demonstrate the community harm, hardening opposition to mining projects, and delays or suspensions that can occur when there is no social licence to operate. These examples, from Serbia, Spain and the USA, capture a moment in the movement towards a just transition. If these emerging cases become trends, they will threaten global progress on mitigating the worst effects of the climate crisis. Identified within these cases are allegations of a lack of access to information, insufficient consultation, disregard of Free Prior and Informed Consent (PFIC) practices, and growing concerns around the potential environmental damage of these projects.
These examples are drawn from projects in relatively strong governance zones such as Europe and North America, where regulatory frameworks should, and often do, facilitate more responsible behaviour towards communities and workers. However, as these regions have sought to prioritise the localisation of transition mineral development, it is becoming clearer that good practice and respect for human rights is not a given, even in these jurisdictions. The resulting community resistance to mining projects where rights and procedures such as robust consultation have been ignored can mean substantial losses for companies, investors, and states, and lead to conflict and division in communities. This need not be the case. Emerging examples in the renewable energy sector demonstrate that models built on community consent and co-ownership and co-benefit can deliver long-term revenue streams and a true shared prosperity. Similar models should be explored in the context of transition mineral extraction if the energy transition is to be a just and sustainable one.
As the pace and scale of the energy transition accelerates, and demand for minerals likewise increases, scrutiny of these mining projects is likely to intensify — including from their earliest exploration phases. A responsible, human rights-centred approach to transition mineral extraction, built on the foundation of community consultation and consent, can create value and mitigate risk for investors and communities alike. Communities like those included in this briefing will increasingly demand this of the corporations seeking entrance to their land. Conflict may be avoided by the implementation of several fundamental approaches:
- Strong human rights policies and practices, embedded in corporate culture and reflected in engagement with communities.
- Respect for communities’ free, prior and informed consent, backed by unambiguous commitments.
- Commitment to effective and transparent due diligence with the active involvement of communities and workers.
- Access to remedy when harm occurs.
- Where consent has been given freely by a community, co-ownership and co-benefits models should be prioritised.
Transition mineral exploration is expanding rapidly across the globe as the need for renewable energy technologies increases. These minerals are essential for a successful energy transition to net zero – from wind turbines and solar panels to electric vehicles and battery storage. The factors driving the expansion in mineral exploration also include a geopolitical dimension, as governments, particularly in the Global North, seek to control their own supply chains and localise production in the context of regional conflicts, ideological differences, and post-pandemic apprehension about consistent supply. This has resulted in greater exploration and licensing for these critical minerals in areas of Europe and North America.
Why is transition mining expanding?
Increasing geopolitical tensions, resilience and sustainability ambitions feed a growing sector amid competition for a new generation of strategic resources
Progress towards net zero carbon emissions has elevated transition minerals to materials of strategic and economic importance. Competition for control of extraction and processing is increasingly acute between the largest and most advanced economies. Increasing geopolitical tensions have added an extra layer of complexity to the race to secure supply of these minerals. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, transition minerals became the focus of many companies and investors as their prices surged. The price of copper, which is used up to five times more in renewable energy systems than in traditional power generation, more than doubled to $100,000 per tonne on the London Metal Exchange (LME) in early March 2022 resulting in the LME halting nickel trading for one day. At the same time, zinc, which is mainly used in wind energy, but contributes to other renewable technologies, was also close to a record high. Russia is the world's third biggest producer of nickel, after Indonesia and the Philippines, and the largest producer of high-grade nickel, a key component in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles. Western companies seeking alternative supplies of nickel amid an array of sanctions against Russia mean there is little respite for a market where demand for this mineral already exceeds supply.
Global media highlighted the risks these circumstances pose to the achievement of net zero targets, saying the current situation “threatens to hold up the manufacturing of electric vehicles and, by extension, the ability of European countries to hit their targets for the transition to net zero”. It will also likely accelerate the race to both access and control transition minerals, adding urgency to already intense competition, straining production capacities of existing areas of extraction and significantly increasing investment into new exploration sites. Fear of fuel shortages and surging energy prices have allowed fossil fuel companies to reaffirm their centrality with governments, with potentially serious impacts on the climate crisis.
At the same time, however, there is growing understanding the current global political climate has the potential to accelerate the move away from fossil fuels, driving forward renewables and further increasing demand for transition minerals. Localisation of supply — ensuring key components of the supply chain are closer to home — has been seen as a “crucial part of reducing European companies’ dependence on Asia and other foreign players”, evident through the establishment of the EU’s Raw Materials Alliance. The rationale is also emerging as a priority in the USA. But while geopolitical tensions and desires for energy independence have unquestionably driven this shift, localisation is also frequently presented by the Global North as crucial for creating more sustainable, ethical and responsible mineral supply chains. Better governance and the enforcement of smart and robust regulation in developed economies significantly reduces human rights abuses of both workers and communities. Equally, local government and national law can support communities’ rights to consultation and consent. Models of co-ownership and co-benefit in the renewable energy sector in Canada, and emerging in Australia, provide a blueprint companies could follow in reimagining how the transition mineral sector supports a just transition. The opportunity for these new models in extractive industries is the subject of emerging research and an important opportunity for the sector.
However, investors, companies and governments cannot assume on-shoring or near-shoring production will necessarily guarantee production in a responsible and rights-centred way. Vigilance and due diligence throughout the lifecycle of a proposed mine is still critical. These case studies demonstrate that abusive practices in the extractive sector persist even in strong governance zones. When mining companies fail to consult adequately and obtain consent, community concerns can be disregarded and this can lead to abuse, project suspension and financial losses.
Trouble in the global north's backyard
The existence in North America and Europe of strong regulatory frameworks, established environmental protections, clear licensing processes and required compensation, and relatively high levels of trust in governance bodies, should be apparent in strong and legitimate community consultations during the licensing and exploration phases of mining projects. But there are plenty of indications suggesting this is not what is happening, ultimately compromising the speed and scale of successful investment in these examples. As some analysts point out: “While existing [mining] projects [in Europe] rarely experience disputes; new projects, and sometimes even expansion projects, are encountering opposition more frequently.” While physical confrontations and attacks on critics are rare and protests infrequently violent, our research shows communities experience pressures and tactics of division when they resist or question mining projects.
The cases below demonstrate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous community rights can be ignored in European and North American contexts, particularly in the early phases of a mining life cycle like exploration. In the increasingly febrile atmosphere around transition mineral extraction, companies, investors and governments cannot assume good practice and respect for human rights. Instead, increased vigilance is required by investors and governments to ensure human rights due diligence and access to justice are strengthened as pressures grow to cut corners to gain control of resources, expedite extraction and maximise returns.
Serbia's mining history dates back centuries. Recently the government started promoting “sustainable, green mining” as the future of the Serbian economy, positioning itself as a suitable provider of lithium and other critical minerals to the EU. In 2017, Rio Tinto and the Government of Serbia signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the proposed Jadar lithium project. This project captured global attention in 2021 when massive protests rattled Belgrade, as locally affected groups, environmentalists and concerned citizens took to the streets. This led the Serbian government to annul the licence for the US$2.4 billion project in January 2022, after Rio Tinto had already sunk some US$450 million on feasibility studies and other expenses. The day of the announcement saw shares of the UK/Australian dual listed company drop more than 4%.
However, disagreement with this project started many years before in the communities of the fertile valley of Jadar and the forested Radevina – the designated centre of planned works. Widespread community opposition to a mining operation must be a red flag for any company seeking to conduct its business in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), which mandate robust due diligence at the earliest stages and throughout the project. Fulfilling this requirement means extensive consultation in pursuit of the consent of the communities in which the company desires to operate. Not only were locals concerned about the potential harm of the Jadar lithium project – about which they had struggled to obtain information – Rio Tinto’s presence, even post-annulment, still loomed large over the community. Residents fear the company is playing a waiting game, and that the project will be reinstated. Indeed, for its part, Rio Tinto has said in response to the cancellation of its licence, “We are disappointed by this announcement and are committed to exploring all options and are reviewing the legal basis of the decision and the implications for our activities and people in Serbia.” The community, however, are determined not to let the project come back.
“...who wants to live like that?...I mean it’s water, it’s not like some unnecessary luxury thing. You don’t want to think and calculate how much water you need for your basic needs.”
— Marija, local activist and member of the Zascitimo Jadar I Radevino movement
Marija, of the Zascitimo Jadar I Radevino movement, which opposes the mine and mining in the area more broadly, has spent the past few years alerting her local community and citizens from nearby villages to the potentially devastating environmental and human cost of an impending lithium boom. The mine and tailings waste facility are within her home municipality of Radevina and nearby Jadar, near the Drina River and about two hours from the country’s capital, Belgrade. “[It] started in November 2019, because on a [nearby] land [to my family’s property], there are two research drills - and [the company] lied to the owners of that land, and said they are doing research about water, and people allowed it - because they didn’t know. And [then] my father called me - and he started talking about some tailing waste area…And to be honest, I thought he went mad…[But] he said: “You have to come and see”…And then I saw those research drills - and then we started.” Their land, which has been in their family for 13 generations, would sit directly next to Rio Tinto’s proposed tailings dam. They are concerned not just with the location of the tailings dam, which would see approximately 300 hectares of old forest destroyed, but its possible impact on water access. When Marija and her father raised this with Rio Tinto representatives, they report being told, “well, once a week, you will tell us your needs and we will bring you water.” In an interview with the Resource Centre, Marija said, “...who wants to live like that?...I mean it’s water, it’s not like some unnecessary luxury thing. You don’t want to think and calculate how much water you need for your basic needs.”
Water access is not the only concern to trouble locals. If constructed, the project would lie near two protected natural areas and within a flood-prone water basin, full of underground freshwater. Marijana, a local activist, and Aleksandra, of EarthThrive, took the Resource Centre to see where the exploratory drilling had taken place: “In 2014, there were severe floods in this area, water was 4.5 metres high…[The company] is saying they are going to [alter] the course of the Jadar river and that they will reinforce the embankments. But they are not planning to do this along the whole river, just this part of it...This is not a solution. The underground waters would nonetheless rise, and it would all be flooded…”
“You can offer me a Porsche and it is my right to decide if I take it or not, and my right to say no. And you might think that I am stupid but it is still my right to say no…these people refuse to realise you can’t eat cars… and you don’t eat lithium.”
— Marija, local activist and member of the Zascitimo Jadar I Radevino movement
People in the affected area also question the economic argument for the mine in comparison to the significant agricultural value of the land. Aleksandra and Dejan, a local community activist, explained: “The usual agricultural yield in Serbia is three times per year. Here it's five. This is a very fertile land.” Zlatko, a local farmer and activist, adds, pointing to the large field where the mine would be: “All these villages that you see around here, they all have plots here… Those that have 10 hectares of land don't need to be working in a factory or in a mine. We can produce everything ourselves and sell the surplus. Ten hectares of land means 35-40 tons of soya beans. Last year, a ton would go for 620-630, so in a year one could make €20,000. One can easily cultivate ten acres…In five days, I can get all the work done, and this gives me 350 days to rest [laughter]. And [it means] I am my own boss, no one can order me, I have my own position, my own opinion, no one can shut my mouth and blackmail me!” Those in the community not directly linked to farming also felt this way about the destruction of such fertile soil. As Marija put it “You can offer me a Porsche and it is my right to decide if I take it or not, and my right to say no. And you might think that I am stupid but it is still my right to say no…these people refuse to realise you can’t eat cars… and you don’t eat lithium.”
"[Rio Tinto] give very little, as well as confusing and wrong information. People got tired of waiting for the EIA to be done, or to get accurate information, and stopped going to the meetings."
— Aleksandra, EarthThrive
Rio Tinto has been present in the Jadar area for almost two decades. Many residents nevertheless reported communications with local people on the impacts of the mine and other key information have not been forthcoming. This was apparently confirmed at the national level when Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated the company “absolutely didn’t provide enough information” to affected locals or to the authorities when the project was annulled.
Some residents noted key details only reached the public when the government published a draft of the new Spatial Plan designating the area for mineral exploration in November 2019. Some reported the community was pushed into consenting to the mine without receiving enough timely information about its potential negative impacts. Aleksandra said: “People, before seeing the map [Spatial Plan], didn't really understand what the land was going to be used for…Last time I was at the meeting in 2019, it was just four people plus me. There are 20,000 locals affected by this [Spatial] Plan, but only four of them were there. In the meeting, Rio was saying they don't know the full impact and that they were in the process of doing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In 2022, four years later, they were still doing the same thing. So, they give very little, as well as confusing and wrong information. People got tired of waiting for the EIA to be done, or to get accurate information, and stopped going to the meetings". The community also described several tactics used by the company and by the government to influence some locals’ perceptions and – potentially – their choices. This included descriptions of how locals were approached individually while working in the fields and aggressively encouraged to sell or lease their lands for exploration. Marija told a story in which a Rio Tinto employee approached her while she was in her car with her young son, who got “very upset because I had to explain to him for days, that nobody wants to arrest me and that I am not doing anything illegal”.
“There are things that can't be sold. I want to be able to walk around with my head held high. I am sixth generation living here. I can't sell it; this can't be paid. My ancestors’ bones are in our lands."
- Zlatko, local farmer and activist
While some community members have sold their lands already, others were clear this does not equal full community consent. As Zlatko said: “150 people, those who sold their lands, can't decide the destiny of thousands of others around here.” He added: “There are things that can't be sold. I want to be able to walk around with my head held high. I am sixth generation living here. I can't sell it; this can't be paid. My ancestors’ bones are in our lands.” This sentiment is literal – in this part of Serbia, an ancient tradition of burying family members not in public graveyards, but in one’s own back yard, lives on, making it extremely difficult for locals to part with their lands.
With the Jadar project annulled on paper, there is a sense within the community that the residents’ dedicated resistance against a major mining company has at last been acknowledged. As Marija said: “…literally everyone called us crazy - our friends and family — and they were like, ‘There is no way you can do anything about it. To stop such a project, such a company, our government is lobbying for it’…and now here we are…and if someone told us two and a half years ago, we wouldn’t believe this.”
However, residents still express concern about the mine project possibly restarting, as well as the role of transition minerals mining in the country more generally. Zlatko said: “[Rio] has the support of all the institutions and the state. I have an uncle in Australia, we speak often, and he told me a while ago that their system is such that [mining companies] enter institutions, the government, and then they do what they want. And that's what they are now doing here too.” Zlatko concludes that from his point of view, “the main goal is a permanent ban. There is an initiative now, and we are collecting signatures: the proposal for a bill on the permanent ban on the exploration of minerals, which may contain lithium and boron, in the whole territory of Serbia, will be sent to the new government.”
"And we are perceived as not civilised enough or not human enough, [as though] we are not supposed to have the right to decide what we want and don’t want…like we don’t know what is good for us and someone else has to come and tell us.”
— Marija, local activist and member of the Zascitimo Jadar I Radevino movement
This concern ties into a wider feeling of frustration that the EU and the rest of Europe are split — and that the EU is driving the green revolution but sacrificing those outside to achieve it. “Germany wants lithium from here…I have a feeling that for the rest of the EU or US…we are regarded like an open market where they come and take what they want. And they will crush everything while doing so…And we are perceived as not civilised enough or not human enough, [as though] we are not supposed to have the right to decide what we want and don’t want…like we don’t know what is good for us and someone else has to come and tell us,” said Marija. She describes with worry how there are at least 30-40 other planned mines in Serbia, and she queries how many exploration licences might be obtained by smaller companies which fly under the radar. When asked about the future of the Jadar mine, Marija said: “The government, if it stays in [power]...will try to push it.”
Aleksandar Vucic, the incumbent President, was re-elected in April 2022.
Companies have previously described Galicia, one of the four big mining regions in Spain, as a “mining-friendly jurisdiction”, but the experiences and testimonies of locals reveal this idea is highly contested. Mina de Touro, of Cobre San Rafael (a subsidiary of Atalaya Mining Plc and Explotaciones Gallegas, its partner in Galicia) started as an open-cast copper mine in 1974, which resulted in the disposal of heavy metals into the Ulla River system and the Arousa estuary.
The mine was abandoned without proper rehabilitation in 1987. Cyprus-headquartered Atalaya Mining is now planning to re-open and expand the old copper mine, but its plans have been met with significant resistance – which, according to local civil society, the company has downplayed. Addressing Atalaya’s Annual General Meeting in 2018, Luis Gallardo, from community organisation movement Plataforma Mina Touro O Pino No, said: “Atalaya is saying that it has the Galician Government’s support and the support of the local communities. This is utterly false…The social opposition to the project is massive. Just two weeks ago…there was a huge demonstration against the mine. It was one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Santiago de Compostela, with tens of thousands of people marching through the streets protesting.”
In March 2021, the Regional Ministry of the Environment announced a negative environmental impact assessment for the previous project. In August of the same year, the multinational and its Galician partner announced they were nevertheless concluding a new project design that would allegedly resolve the concerns surfaced during the EIA process. Atalaya Mining said at that point: “The company continues to be confident that its approach to Proyecto Touro is in line with international best practice and has been engaging in recent months with local and regional stakeholders ahead of the public consultation period…that will commence once the Environmental Impact Evaluation is submitted for the new project.” Then, in early 2022, the companies turned to public TV channels to promote their claimed "environmental restoration" of the waters of the Touro mine. This led to a complaint by neighbourhood groups that the public broadcaster was being used to promote mining interests, while “protests and complaints of the thousands of families affected by the extractive project were being silenced". In March 2022, the council of the public broadcaster seconded the communities’ complaint and demanded the resignation of the general director "for this new and unacceptable episode of information manipulation".
Copper is not the only transition mineral causing concern in the region. Since 2018, several municipalities in the provinces of Ourense and Pontevedra have been resisting the proposed Alberta lithium mine’s entry into operation. If approved, there are concerns the project could become a source of water contamination from heavy metals. The holder of the exploration permit "Alberta 1" is Recursos Minerales de Galicia S.L., a subsidiary of the SAMCA group, headquartered in Spain. It is alleged the authorities, rather than being transparent and letting relevant groups participate in decision-making, have dispensed with environmental impact assessment procedures and denied environmental and rural organisations, such as Ecoloxistas en Acción, acknowledged status as interested parties. These concerns were echoed in the European Parliament when parliamentarians raised questions to the European Commission, suggesting the failure to carry out an environmental impact assessment procedure for such mining activity could constitute an infringement of relevant EU Directives regarding environmental impact assessments. They also indicated the barring of environmental groups from the consultation procedure could be in breach of the Aarhus Convention and the EU Directive on public access to environmental information, among others.
Local civil society recently appeared as co-defendant in a court case brought by the company against the Xunta, the regional government of Galicia. Ecoloxistas en Acción made the case that the project was flawed from the outset because of its lack of environmental impact assessment. "It is insane that, in the 21st century, the Xunta intends to authorise mines ignoring the environmental process and the problems associated with radioactive contamination and heavy metals," said Ecoloxistas en Acción. However, the organisation warns the mining company maybe finalising documentation of a new project in the same area.
In the US, Indigenous peoples have reported they are increasingly threatened by the expansion in mining for transition minerals. The majority of untapped transition minerals in the country — 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt — are within 55 kilometres of Indigenous American reservations. Mining is not specifically prohibited on Indigenous American tribal lands, which are instead considered to be “held in trust by the USA on behalf of a particular Native American tribe or tribal federation”.
In the first days of his administration, President Joe Biden issued an executive order promising all federal agencies would prioritise robust consultation with tribes. He also committed to applying environmental justice principles in all federal agencies. Despite this, Canadian company Lithium Americas received final permits in February 2022 for the Thacker Pass lithium project in Nevada — a proposed open-pit mine – allegedly without consultation or consent from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Indigenous communities and other potentially affected populations. If developed, the mine will be the largest lithium mine in the US.
"Fighting climate change cannot be used as yet another excuse to destroy native land. We cannot protect the environment by destroying it.”
— Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (the People of Red Mountain)
Lithium America’s plan for the mitigation of harms from mining to Indigenous peoples’ cultural sites was also allegedly developed without consultation, which support groups insisted violated the rights of local Indigenous peoples. However, in September 2021, a US federal court ruled they did not prove the US Government failed to properly consult Indigenous groups during the permitting process. As Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (the People of Red Mountain), who would be affected by the Thacker Pass project, said: “We understand that all of us must be committed to fighting climate change. Fighting climate change, however, cannot be used as yet another excuse to destroy native land. We cannot protect the environment by destroying it.”
Meet People of Red Mountain ⛰ Myron explains in our language (Northern Paiute) why it’s important. pic.twitter.com/FGizd5pC4O— Protect Peehee Mu’huh (@PeeheeMuhuh) October 6, 2021
Similarly, Arizona Lithium, previously known as Hawkstone Mining, has been exploring close to Hualapai Indigenous land in Arizona’s Big Sandy River Valley. Arizona Lithium wants to establish an open-pit lithium mine on the land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The tribe’s lawyers found the BLM published the required draft environmental impact assessment, but didn’t “properly analyse the impacts of the drilling project on cultural resources and threatened species”. They said the BLM failed to consult with the Tribe before issuing the assessment. The BLM responded that it did not need to, as it was not directly on Tribal land. It is however extremely close. When exploration is happening on or near Indigenous lands, best practice guidance on free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) and collective land rights should be followed. Companies should develop and publish detailed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on FPIC, respect FPIC protocols when they are developed by communities, and demonstrate how their processes respond to these protocols. It is alleged this did not happen for the Hualapai tribe in the context of Arizona Lithium’s contemplated mine next door.
Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat our planet and its people have faced. Transition minerals are an essential component of the urgent transition to zero carbon economies. Shortening supply chains can be an important step towards securing supply and sustainability. But assumptions localisation of supply of transition minerals and their production in Europe and North America will guarantee respect for human rights and a sustainable, ethical provision of these materials are misguided. The lived experiences of communities and the financial and reputational risk for companies bear this out.
A more responsible and sustainable mining industry is urgently needed to underpin a fast and fair transition to renewable energy. This will only be achieved if companies invest and gain the necessary social licence to operate, grounded in human rights principles and due diligence. Meaningful, effective and safe engagement must begin at the exploration stage and be sustained throughout the full project cycle, including exit. Responsible development of transition mineral projects needs to contribute to and accelerate human development and protect community and workers’ rights. This can only happen if corporate and investor due diligence regarding human rights and environmental risks includes robust and effective participation of key stakeholders, including communities, to identify, monitor and mitigate risks that would undermine a fast and fair transition. It also requires community voices to be heard and considered, and the prioritisation of recycling and reuse of existing minerals to ease the demand for new minerals, including through incentivising and strengthening the circular economy. Ultimately, such processes will benefit people and planet, frontline communities, and wider society — and responsible businesses and investors.