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Five considerations for a just transition for Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities

To ensure justice in transitioning away from fossil fuels, ethnic minority groups and Indigenous Peoples need to be involved in the decision-making and benefit-sharing, with the implications of the transition on them acknowledged and addressed.

Guangaje, Ecuador: After the blessing of a water spring, a mother with a child returns home

Guangaje, Ecuador: After the blessing of a water spring, a mother with a child returns home. Photo: Azzedine Rouichi / Unsplash.

As the world transitions away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, justice for Indigenous Peoples in this process needs to be emphasized, not last since a just transition is a requirement in the Paris Agreement. To ensure justice, ethnic minority groups and Indigenous Peoples need to be involved in the decision-making and benefit-sharing, with the implications of the transition on them acknowledged and addressed. That is easier said than done, but researchers at SEI continue their efforts to engage Indigenous and ethnic minority groups in a respectful, nuanced, and inclusive way.

SEI’s Nella Canales and Laura Del Duca are currently researching the impacts of green transitions in indigenous populations as part of the Equitable Resource Rights and Governance team at SEI Headquarters. As part of this effort, they’ve gathered five researchers from across SEI to share their experiences and reflections on how to achieve a just transition for Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities.

1. Climate change may not be the primary concern for Indigenous communities

Climate change could be seen as a future issue among communities navigating life disadvantaged by deeply entrenched structural inequality. Just transition efforts could potentially be perceived as greenwashing if the needs of Indigenous Peoples for basic development are not meaningfully fulfilled. A transition is just if the rationale for the transition is shared by those who are affected from the extraction of materials needed for the transition to occur.

Working with colleagues from SEI Asia and Latin America, Albert Salamanca’s experience working on community climate resilience in critical mineral supply chains has shown that Indigenous Peoples in remote but minerally rich regions are not part of decision making regarding the desired renewable energy transition to address the deepening climate crisis yet suffer from the increasing demands of critical minerals essential for the transition to happen. An important concern for them are the impacts of ongoing mining and the sharing of the benefits derived from the extraction of mineral resources in their lands. In Salar de Atacama, where mining for lithium is ongoing, Indigenous Peoples consider climate change a future issue and one that can only be discussed after the environmental and social impacts of lithium mining are addressed and their basic development needs are fulfilled. In Sumbawa, Indonesia, communities shared a desire for the copper mining company to do more for their welfare as they know this is possible but current mining company is not doing enough. This means that insisting on on a green transition driven by climate change considerations will be interpreted as greenwashing.

2. Connecting to a global Indigenous discourse is key

Indigenous peoples across the globe often face similar challenges when asserting their rights to self-determination, environmental conservation, and cultural survival. As colonial narratives and extractivist practices are challenged, connecting local issues to a larger indigenous discourse can be a useful tool in (re)claiming indigenous rights.

SEI York Research Associate Bobby Farnan’s research in Myanmar is an example of how crucial this connection was for the Indigenous Karen people in establishing the Salween Peace Park as an Indigenous Community Conserved Area (ICCA) – a protected area registered with the UN Environment Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Salween River basin in southeast Myanmar is a biodiverse heritage area vital to the Karens’ livelihoods. Decades of rapacious resource extraction, forced displacement, and war risked its biodiversity and the Karen communities self-determination. The status of ICCA has allowed the Karen people to retain and protect their territories, including their biodiverse heritage from dispossession. The park is now an Indigenous-run wildlife sanctuary and community forest. Instrumental in its establishment was the framing of the traditional Karen practice of “kaw” – their governance system for a shared territory – as a “traditional knowledge practice and relationship to land”, protected under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – the primary international legal instrument in this area.

3. Indigenous Peoples are not homogenous

Although challenges may be shared, impacts from the green transition may be felt differently between and within Indigenous groups.

It is important not to forget that Indigenous peoples are different within themselves, with impacts of green transitions therefore differing. For instance, impacts may differ due to the exposure to the transition such as whether someone lives close or far from the infrastructure or whether livelihoods are directly affected or not, or due to different social variables that characterize different sub-groups, such as gender, sex, age or social class. SEI Latin America Research Assistant José Antonio Vega Araújo highlights that even in a small region such as La Guajira, in Colombia, impacts from and perceptions of developments of wind energy and transmission infrastructure can differ among the Wayúu indigenous groups inhabiting the peninsula.

In SEI US Senior Scientist Laura Forni’s research on water planning in Tupiza (Bolivia), the perspectives of the Oploca community were crucial to include as they spent the most time collecting water, compared to other communities in the area. It was especially important to include the voices of women, since they would usually be the ones in the Oploca community taking on the task of collecting water. However, in this context, it is difficult for women to participate in research surveys, since in addition to water collection, they are also in charge of farming and household duties, among others. Due to these responsibilities, water planning impacts them differently than the Oploca men or women from other Indigenous peoples in the area. Meaningfully including Indigenous voices in decision making requires considering the full variety of lived experiences. Research questions need to be based on these, rather than imposed from outside. Critically, these diverse experiences need to be contextualized within local power structures.

4. Avoiding being knowledge extractors when engaging with Indigenous populations

Extractivism happens when knowledge and practices of Indigenous populations are extracted in one place and used in a different context without recognition of its origin. Indigenous Peoples are regularly approached by researchers, and the research process often concentrates on extracting knowledge while dismissing concerns and burdening local communities without providing any value to them. Understandably, this can generate fatigue, reluctance and even distrust in researchers and perpetuates asymmetrical power relations. Beyond the need to follow ethical principles, it is important to build sustainable, lasting and trust-based relationships that lead to avoid being knowledge extractors for research purposes. That can be done through intermediaries already familiar to the community or by strengthening local capacities.

Vega Araújo’s work shows how to meaningfully include Indigenous and marginalized communities in any planning and decision making that would affect them at an early stage. La Guajira, a region where Indigenous Wayúu represent half of the population, was chosen by the Government of Colombia to spearhead the energy transition in the country based on its world-class wind resource. As clean energy developments started pouring in, the Wayúu are going through bilateral negotiations between private enterprises and local communities where power imbalance is apparent: the local Indigenous communities often do not speak Spanish while companies bring their own experts and the negotiations lack any kind of mediation or arbitrage. In this case, identifying and strengthening the role of intermediaries in the public sector has the potential to balance power dynamics for fair and just negotiations. After all, renewable energy technologies are not just or unjust per se and must be accompanied by the appropriate institutional and regulatory frameworks to ensure that local communities can reap the benefits of the energy transition.

In the previously mentioned example of Tupiza water planning, the inclusion of the Oploca women in the research was made possible through partnering up with women leaders from local associations and local consultants that indigenous communities were already familiar with, which helped to build trust and continue collaborating in the project. We can make sure that the connections between natural resources and Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods are taken into account when making decisions by fostering a sense of trust and cooperation within the project.

5. Including Indigenous peoples’ concerns can seem out of scope for environmental policymakers

Including Indigenous peoples and ethnic minority groups can challenge public officials and consultants and be perceived as out of the scope in environmental transitions. Good practice guidelines in the field are not always available, however, this does not exempt from including relevant groups in decision-making.

The Roma population in Bosnia and Herzegovina – an ethnic minority group – are socially excluded and tend to be more exposed and vulnerable to certain environmental issues and hazards because of discrimination. They tend to live in informal settlements in areas that are environmentally degraded, polluted, or prone to floods and landslides.

SEI Research Fellow Claudia Strambo’s work as part of BiH ESAP 2030+ project team  was on including the voices and concerns of the Roma people in developing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s environmental strategy and action plan, was challenging. Some experts and stakeholders in the project felt that social inclusion, despite being strongly interconnected with climate, fell outside of their mandate of environmental protection. Other stakeholders felt that they lacked the tools and capacity necessary to implement equality, social equity, and poverty measures in the strategy and it was unclear who should be tasked with their implementation.

These are valid concerns given the lack of framework or good practice examples including marginalized groups in environmental strategies. However, this does not exempt public officials from the responsibility to include marginalized communities in strategic planning. To get stakeholders on board, the project team worked with key actors within the Romani community, as well as organizations and institutions working on minorities’ rights, highlighting the need for and the value of contributions that disadvantaged groups can provide in developing a new environmental strategy, successfully including some Roma concerns in the new strategy.

Indigenous peoples and Ethnic groups

Indigenous peoples have a distinct identity and their own social, economic and political systems, languages, cultures and beliefs. Generally, they have a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories. Indigenous people often enjoy particular individual and collective rights under international law.

Ethnic groups also share a common identity and have common ethnicity, religion or languages. An ethnic group is a minority when they are fewer in number than the rest of the population. Usually, minorities are non-dominant in comparison with majorities in the economic and political spheres of their country.

Written by

Albert Salamanca
Albert Salamanca

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Asia

Bobby Farnan

Research Associate

SEI York

Claudia Strambo
Claudia Strambo

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

José Vega Araújo

Research Associate

SEI Latin America

Laura Forni

Water Program Director


Nella Canales
Nella Canales

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Laura Del Duca
Laura Del Duca

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

Silvija Marcinkevičiūtė
Silvija Marcinkevičiūtė

Communications and Impact Officer


SEI Headquarters


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