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EU Core Values in Conflict: Climate change mitigation process vs Indigenous People’s rights

I’ve chosen a situation involving a conflict between climate change, the European green transition, and Indigenous Peoples in the High North. I’ve noticed that the EU’s efforts to address climate change, while important for human rights, more and more often clash with one of its core values: respecting Indigenous self-determination and indigenous human rights.

Climate change and environmental damage harm human rights, including the right to life, health, clean water, food, housing, and a good standard of living. The EU acknowledges that the most vulnerable people are hit hardest and has made climate change a central focus in its policies both internally and externally.

In response to concerns, the EU has become even more ambitious in its efforts to combat climate change, especially due to current geopolitical events. This includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions, heavily using renewable energy, and aiming for climate neutrality, net zero EU. However, these efforts bring the EU into conflict with Indigenous communities living in the High North, who rely on the land for their way of life.

The conflict

The conflict arises because of the EU’s green transition. Many Nordic countries implemented renewable power plants in the High North, which may disrupt the traditional livelihoods and cultures of these Indigenous communities and threaten their right to self-determination.1 The EU aims to adapt European society to climate change but risks harming the land that Indigenous communities have historically protected, even though their knowledge is crucial for global climate adaptation. The Arctic, where these Indigenous Peoples live, is experiencing the most significant temperature rise due to climate change, posing serious threats to their health, livelihoods, and culture. They face a “double burden” – the challenge of climate change and its mitigation measures, while their valuable knowledge and practices are often overlooked in climate efforts.2

Although the EU upholds human and Indigenous rights, including self-determination and protection of traditional lands and cultures, European energy companies and states continue to initiate renewable energy projects in the High North for economic gain. This legitimizes the threat to Indigenous ways of life. Until human and Indigenous (collective) rights are respected, the EU’s commitment to achieving a fair energy transition, one of its most important moral and practical goals, the willingness to achieve a just energy transition is constantly failing and, thus will remain unfulfilled. The aim, therefore, is both to survive on the planet and to preserve the indigenous culture and way of life.

Resolution: proposed asset for a potential co-living

By navigating and prioritizing a resolution I would propose the following asset mainly focusing on just energy transition by the EU with the Indigenous Peoples.

Just Energy Transition is a key concept for Long-term Sustainability (LTS). In my concept, the LTS in the High North would prioritize not only environmental sustainability but also the preservation of indigenous cultures and ways of life. To imply this method, one of the most important actions is to engage affected indigenous communities living on the land in consultation and dialogues.

On the other hand, initiating open and meaningful consultations with the impacted communities is just not enough. Respecting their right to self-determination, in fact, needs the states indeed involve them in decision-making processes related to green transition projects on their territories. Their voices matter more than we can imagine it.

Furthermore, it also should not be enough to provide them with a seat at the decision-making table, they also must be involved in the implementation process. „Seeking Common Ground” would mean that the energy companies should provide experts who would be identifying areas of potential compromise or shared interests with the indigenous communities throughout the implementation process. Exploring opportunities for collaboration between the EU’s green transition goals and the aspirations of indigenous communities, such as involving them in renewable energy projects or providing them with economic benefits should be a crucial aspect of both creating and applying green energy plans.3

As past experiences have shown already, potential problems could occur inherently due to extended time of implementation and potential betraying of legal frameworks. We should not neglect the past experiences of European energy companies betraying international morals and legal frameworks, therefore legal regulation is emerging as the third most crucial action to be implemented. In many cases, however, the freedom of energy companies’ economic activities conflicts with indigenous human rights. As the free market implicates it, the states have no authority to regulate their companies to do what they implement on the ground. This dilemma reminds us of a more well-known legal problem which comes into play in the case of the Amazon rainforest.4

The question is how the EU should strengthen its muscles to regulate the Nordic states’ companies betraying indigenous rights. It is always a good idea to use legal precedents as references. The EU has already been forced to impose existing rights and respond to demands from communities for title to their forests and resources, alongside new technologies to help them monitor and report incursions on their lands, including the environmental impacts but also their social and cultural consequences on indigenous communities.

In addition, Indigenous experts should be seen in national climate action groups to help guide the team in their decision-making process.

Even though we do have a legal and ethical Framework for ensuring that all actions and projects adhere to international laws and agreements, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which outlines the rights of indigenous peoples, indigenous communities often struggle in courts because in many countries the legal system does not recognize land rights without paper titles, something many groups lack.5 For instance, in Greenland, it is forbidden to own land.6

However, in 2021 the Norwegian Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision in favour of Saami reindeer herders against wind energy developer Fosen Vind, the Norwegian government failed to act on its responsibility to safeguard Indigenous Peoples’ rights and ensure a just energy transition.7 It could havedeveloped a reliable legal precedent like the deforestation of wildfires, however, the company did not stop its practices.8

By referring to this experience if conflicts persist, the state has little space to navigate as regulated energy companies do their business. Currently, the energy companies interested in the European decarbonisation process do not seem to be well-prepared to adapt or even modify their green transition projects to minimize negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples’ lives. This is something that we should be more aware of as well as consider alternative locations or technologies that are more culturally sensitive. This leads to the conclusion that transparency in decision-making processes and accountability for the outcomes, including negative externalities of green transition projects are severe issues of the European Green Deal.

In addition to raising awareness, providing more platforms for the regional councils and international cooperation are also crucial for seeking collective solutions and collaborating accordingly with neighbouring countries and international organizations to address shared challenges in the High North.

Summary

The selected case regards a conflict related to climate change and European green transition and Indigenous Peoples in the High North. The climate change adaptation and mitigation process, which is connected to human rights, and freedom of energy companies of the EU conflicts more and more often with one of the most important core values of the EU, the respect for Indigenous self-determination that is also connected to human rights.

Resolving conflicts between core EU values, such as climate change mitigation and respect for indigenous rights, requires a balanced and respectful approach in all possible levels of analysis.

It should involve as many dialogues, consultations, commitments, but most importantly compromises as possible to find solutions that align with both sets of values of the EU. The promising news of the conflict is that safeguarding the rights and cultures of indigenous peoples, and the preservation of their land equals less sabotage in the progress of meeting climate change and biodiversity goals of the EU. Whereas the failure of scaling the support up for environmental defenders will green-light further endangering the last humans who live in harmony with the natural world and unleashing on the rest of us an apocalyptic future.9

Therefore, the EU should remain on the frontline with its climate targets to enhance adaptation and adherence to international legal frameworks in addressing such complex issues, no matter whether the problem occurs within or outside of the EU, itself. The European Court of Human Rights should remain or even more empowered to provide all kinds of legal shelter assistance for those Indigenous Peoples who often see their cases dismissed on technical grounds, as the national courts frequently reject claims based on the legal concept of standing, saying Indigenous communities have failed to demonstrate that they have been affected by climate change.10

References:

1 UNEP, 2023. URL: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/climate-crisis-alters-their-lands-indigenous-peoples-turn-courts

2 Fjellheim, 2022. URL: https://debatesindigenas.org/ENG/ns/191-green-colonialism-wind-energy-climate-justice-sapmi.html

3 UNEP, 2023. URL: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/climate-crisis-alters-their-lands-indigenous-peoples-turn-courts

4 NPR, 2019. URL: https://www.npr.org/2019/08/23/753639869/macron-urges-g7-members-to-put-amazon-fires-at-top-of-agenda

5 UNEP, 2023. URL: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/climate-crisis-alters-their-lands-indigenous-peoples-turn-courts

6 City Journal, 2019. URL: https://www.city-journal.org/article/learning-from-greenland

7 According to the Sami people, the wind energy plant interrupted an ancestral migration route and access to one of Jillen Njaarke’s winter pastures. The license to construct the project was issued by the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy on the condition that the wind energy company would reach an agreement with Jillen Njaarke concerning mitigation measures that would safeguard the migration route, however, no agreement had been reached before the start of the construction in 2020. URL: https://www.domstol.no/en/supremecourt/rulings/2021/supreme-court-civil-cases/hr-2021-1975-s/

8 Fjellheim, 2022. URL: https://debatesindigenas.org/ENG/ns/191-green-colonialism-wind-energy-climate-justice-sapmi.html

9 Climate Focus, 2022. URL: https://climatefocus.com/publications/sink-or-swim-how-indigenous-and-community-lands-can make-or-break-nationally-determined/

10 Ibid